Unique Cultures Demand Diverse Smart Cities

Becoming a smart city is now a global race. Every connected city or city-state in the Asia Pacific region is looking to become the next smart city. From Hong Kong, which launched a new blueprint late last year, to Singapore, which is looking to turn its entire island state into a Smart Nation, smart cities are becoming very important showpieces.

Technology advancements are the underlying catalysts. From advancements in AI and analytics to the ubiquity of mobile broadband and proliferation of smarter devices, these are offering innovators new ways to re-imagine city life and governance. But are we endangering ourselves by focusing too much on technology, and not much on the human side of the smart city equation?

It is one of the many questions that Waltraut Ritter, Founder and Principal at Knowledge Dialogues, asked at a panel discussion with smart city luminaries during the recent Connected City Conference in Hong Kong. She queried participants on the importance of balancing IT innovation with social engineering, and why smart city success is about innovation as much as culture.

Is It Innovation that People Want?

Taylor Man, CTO at NTT Com Asia highlighted how smart city innovations need input from all parties involved. He noted that NTT Laboratories, which has “20,000 scientists, mainly from Pure Science” developed an innovative vest for construction workers and bus drivers to wear. The vests connect with a city-wide network to monitor the health vitals of the wearers.

Man noted that the innovative vests were not a hit with the bus drivers. The reason: comfort. They were uncomfortable, especially during hot summers, he explained.

For Ritter, it was a problem that social engineers could solve. But often, many firms do not employ enough of them. “Social science would have told you the bus drivers had a problem [with the vests]. So, there are a lot of questions that we need to ask. The problem is who is asking the questions? We need space in our society to think about the questions and question the questions,” she said.

Are We Still Stuck in Traditional City Design Thinking?

Many smart cities still adhere to traditional notions of city management and development—they are simply using technology to solve current solutions. Participants called for smart city administrators to forgo traditional notions and use technology to rethink city development.

One way to address this is to accept that cities are viewed differently and used differently across the world. Understanding the unique cultural differences and identity is essential for overall success.

For example, Jukka Viitanen, CEO & Founding Partner at Resolute HQ Inc, who was involved in the Urban Mill initiative, explained how the Finnish effort enabled the government to create a Nordic Smart City model.

Urban Mill is a physical space, a community and a service rolled into one. Situated in the Espoo Innovation Garden, Finland, it aims to solve significant questions about urban life with digitally-enabled service concepts from a Finnish perspective. "We wanted to create a new Nordic model to develop future cities. Urban Mill was a product of this process," Viitanen said.

Even re-imagining zoning and space allocation can help smart cities to grow in new ways.  Monika Sturm, Principal Key Expert at Siemens AG, showed how a simple approach to reduce car parking space allowed them to create a smart city that lured innovators and developers to participate and live in Vienna, Austria.

"We reduced the parking space, which makes [the environment] greener and offers more space for bicycles and children to play. It attracted a lot of young people and entrepreneurs to move there," Sturm said. She added that making the environment more enjoyable is "not just about technology."

How Are You Enforcing Open Data Sharing?

Data is the lifeblood of all smart cities. However, opening the data repositories for all is not straightforward.

First, you need to overcome regulations. Viitanen noted that many smart city projects are touching on various regulated services. Having a close partnership with the regulators and the government is critical. "After all, digitalization cannot happen without data," he said.

However, firms might view data differently. While governments and citizens want openness, profit-minded businesses will look at how to improve their bottom lines. "In our experience, the government side will have an open data policy, but the business is not interested in open data. So, we then face a challenge on how to integrate the data," Sturm said.

One way to address this is to ensure that all parties adhere to an open data policy from the start, which is continually enforced. "For example, our Transportation Minister highlighted regulations for anyone involved in transportation to use APIs. So there are ways for regulators to have an impact [on open data sharing]," Viitanen said.

In Singapore, regulators like the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) are launching sandbox initiatives to allow new startups to operate pilots without worrying about regulatory requirements. “Once [the project] is successful, they can get VCs to help,” Paul Kent, Director, Economics & Regulation at KPMG Singapore said.

Man added that firms could also contribute by sharing feedback and lessons from their open data projects. "I am a big fan of open data. One way to [enable open data sharing] is to ensure that whoever uses the data should provide feedback so that others can use it across different industries. In this way, more firms and people can benefit," he said.

However, some participants cautioned over the free use of data. “I do not think that the speed of implementing smart cities is a problem. After all, people in Hong Kong adopt new technologies fast. But we need to do it properly. So the government needs to look at the issues [related to open data] carefully,” Rosana Wong, Executive Director at Yau Lee Group added.