Asia’s smart cities: Are they doing it right?

Fri, 2015-07-24 06:00 -- Doug Peeples

In the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City in Tianjin, China, Itron deployed one network that runs three meters -- water, electricity and gas.

While India's goal of 100 smart cities typically comes to mind first when one thinks of Asian smart city initiatives, the country is not alone in its efforts. Seoul, South Korea's capital city is regarded by many as the "smartest" and best-connected city in the world, according to an Eco-Business article. Singapore is frequently mentioned in the same breath.

And China has aggressive strategies in place to build smart cities across the country. Council Lead Partners IBM, Microsoft, andCisco and Associate Partner Siemens have been working with Chinese companies on national information security as well as technologies and solutions to support the growth of smart cities there. Council Lead Partner Itron, meanwhile, completed installation of smart water, heat and gas meters and communication modules as well as its fixed network for Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City in Tianjin, China.

The need is certainly real
One of the primary drivers for smart city upgrades throughout the world has been an influx of people from rural and outlying areas which is expected to continue for at least 10 more years. Cities, with their finite resources and budgets, have no choice but to come up with innovative solutions to provide livable environments, sound economies and enough services to accommodate the growth.

Also, as the Eco-Business article notes, cities in Asia and Africa will be responsible for 90% of the world's population growth until 2050. Navigant Research expects investments in smart city information and communications technology (ICT) will reach $63.4 billion in the Asia Pacific region between 2014 and 2023.

McKinsey & Company director Jonathan Woetzel underscored the need. "Rolling out smart cities is a pressing need across Asia. Leaders in developing Asia must cope with urbanization on an unprecedented scale, while those in developed Asia wrestle with aging infrastructure."

Focusing on the "right" things
"At the moment, almost every city of scale is deploying smart technologies in transport, resources management and services, from Busan to Shanghai, Tokyo to Manila," Woetzel was quoted as saying.

And while technology is certainly a major part of what makes smart cities work, some experts in the field question "smart" technology as a universal fix-all. "I don't want to live in a place where computers run my life. You're installing a whole bunch of computers which will do a whole variety of things but you're forgetting that cities are for people. And it's people who make cities," Asit Biswas said in the Eco-Business piece. He founded the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico and also is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy in Singapore.

Biswas also is among those who question the focus of India's smart cities program. "We are talking about  600 million people who do not have 24-hour access to electricity. And how about those people who don't have sanitation? Those are the facts of life in India. In those cases, the word 'smart' does not mean very much."

However, the consensus among many in the industry is that a truly sustainable, livable smart city is possible for both developed and developing cities, and that differences in needs can be accommodated with the right operating and business models – and a healthy respect for leveraging technology where and when it helps rather than hinders.

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Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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