Is Your City Smart Enough?

“This city is dying,” says my Singaporean classmate. It’s in 2005 and we’re walking along La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Cuba. We’re a peculiar sight to see – two Asians lost in the swarm of a predominantly Caucasian city and that’s including the Europeans schlepping the cobblestone streets of World Heritage Site Havana.

I was quite offended when he said “the city is dying.” It was my first time in Cuba and considering, for example, the proximity of the Philippines’ and Cuba’s culture and history, I feel at home in Havana less the ideological persuasion (although I like their healthcare system).

I can’t blame my classmate, though. He grew up in India and was surrounded by poverty all his life. When he migrated to Singapore, there he experienced opulence. Economic opportunities abound in his newfound home add to that the modernity Singapore offers.

Each time I look back at that long and arduous, but memorable, walk, I can’t help but remember what he said. To this day his statement led me to ask an extension of that thought: How do cities die? How do cities thrive?

These questions posit that cities are living organisms. To look at cities this way opens avenues to understand not only the physical make-up of cities, i.e., buildings, infrastructures, etc., but also the people that comprise them.

It’s projected that world population will grow from 6.9 billion to 8.3 billion people in the next 20 years. This is even more strenuous for modern cities to accommodate this explosion because urban population will grow even faster, from 3.5 billion to 5 billion.

This is a very important historical footnote because more people will be migrating from rural areas to urban centers. The social, economic, environmental and engineering challenges of this transformation will largely define the 21st century. That means more resources will be sapped as the number of people rises. It also means more pollution – such as carbon emissions and waste – considering the increase in human activity that will likely take place.

Cities are responsible for between 60 percent and 80 percent of the world’s energy use and about the same percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. According to a recent report from Pike Research, cities need to be smart. Pike Research defines a smart city as a city that integrates technology into a strategic approach to make it more sustainable. It is a city that looks after the well-being of its citizens and with economic development as its primary goal.

“Information and communications – particularly ubiquitous broadband Internet access – are vital elements in any definition of the smart city,” says senior analyst Eric Woods. “But a city only becomes smart if it can make use of these capabilities to deliver real-time services based on the capture of information.”

The report examines smart city developments around the world. This includes an assessment of the market opportunity for smart city technologies in the decade ahead. The study analyzes the impact of the smart city on key technology markets including smart utilities, smart transport, smart buildings, and smart government.

It forecasts the size and growth of the market for smart city technologies through 2020 and the growth in each of the key smart city industry sectors and the main regional markets. The report also looks at the strategies of key players in the smart city market including IT companies, telecommunications companies, utilities, infrastructure providers, and real estate developers.

A smart city, in other words, invests in human and social capital together with traditional and modern infrastructures. It relies heavily on information and communication technology infrastructure to promote sustainable economic development through wise use of natural resources and participatory governance.

However, a smart urban design differs widely between regions. What applies to ancient inner European cities may not work with urban and suburban areas in the United States or the rapidly densely populated China. There is no single technology that could define a city to be smart, but there are key components that can be highlighted to say that a city has a smart vision. The components include ubiquitous broadband, smart meters for electricity and water use, intelligent transport systems and extensive monitoring and sensor technologies.

Cities are the focus for new approaches to energy efficiency, building design, transportation, waste management, and energy use. Huge investments will be required to implement these approaches. Pike Research forecasts that investment in smart city technology infrastructure will total $108 billion during the years from 2010 to 2020. By the end of that period, the cleantech market intelligence firm anticipates that annual spending will reach nearly $16 billion.

I met my Singaporean friend again a few years ago, but this time it’s in the Philippines. I brought him to the SM Mall of Asia to hang out. After some time squeezing ourselves out of the mall, I took him towards the Manila Bay to witness the famous Manila Bay sunset. He said, “The water is polluted. It stinks.” There goes the sunset. Oh well.