A smarter city? Try a bottom-up approach, says panel

For the future of sustainable cities such as Singapore, governments and businesses need to catch up with innovation and involve citizens.
Channel NewsAsia 24 Dec 15;

SINGAPORE: Tomorrow’s smart city may not be one replete with driverless Google cars or The Jetsons’ robot toothbrushes or Back To The Future hoverboards.

Instead, it is simply one that will be able to sustainably provide basic reliable energy, clean water supply and basic sanitation, said Mr Martin Powell, Global Head of Urban Development at Siemens, during a live recording of Channel NewsAsia’s Perspectives panel discussion around The Future Of Cities on Nov 23.

But as cities grow in population, increase connectivity and expand urban spaces, they face greater challenges in providing those basic needs. The panel revealed that financial volatility, ageing populations, traffic congestion, pollution and a dwindling population workforce are just some of the challenges that countries like Singapore will face as they enter the next lap.

These are issues the island state is currently seeking to address with the assembly of its Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) as it tackles serious challenges facing its next lap of growth.

And two points crucial to addressing issues facing future cities are policymaking embracing innovation, and policymaking involving citizens and communities, said panellists.

Joining Mr Powell on the panel were Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, Chair of Town Planning at Newcastle University in the (UK); Ynse de Boer, Managing Director for Strategy and Sustainability at Accenture; and Mr Peter Edwards, Centre Director at the Singapore-ETH Centre.


Panellists lamented that policymaking is still lagging behind innovative ideas that could play a part in mitigating the environmental and physical impact of population growth in cities.

“I think the pace of tech innovation is running far ahead of policy innovation,” said Mr Edwards, referring to how cities and businesses and not ready to implement many innovations, technological or otherwise. And instead, countries have a knee-jerk reaction to innovative inventions or ideas.

Agreeing, Mr De Boer said: “I would argue that technology is not the impediment of growth anymore. It is about the innovation that needs to happen at the same time of governance, in terms of business models and so on. Everything that is required to get something to work.”

Mr De Boer said while his company’s survey with 1,000 CEOs revealed that there is strong optimism among leaders that technology can address many of these issues, sustainable commercial business models are still not in sync with policymaking or addressing issues in a viable way.

“It’s not that technology innovation is lagging behind but it’s more about the business model of innovation that is lagging behind,” Mr De Boer argued.

“You need sustainable business models and commercial models to be able to get these new technologies that are being innovated, and to get them ready (to address many of these issues).”


Mr Peter Edwards (left) suggesting a bottom-up approach to urban planning with Mr Ynse De Boer (right). (Photo: Samantha Yap)

And to get everything that is required for things to work, the panel said that policymakers should do more to involve stakeholders such as businesses, innovators, communities and more importantly, citizens.

“The more we rely on digital technology, the more it is imperative that the public is part of this conversation,” said Prof Jones.

“We need to rethink what we need to do for the future of cities in a much more coordinated, synoptic way, where we identify innovation in those opportunities. We should look at bringing the different sectors and issues together to look for spaces of opportunities.”

And while Singapore’s CFE is currently underway to mine ideas and suggestions from businesses and communities, Mr Edwards said the country should develop its “bottom-up” approach to policymaking further.

Said Mr Edwards: “The thing which I appreciate most in Singapore is an interest in innovation. Good ideas that would make cities more liveable, more sustainable, and what I appreciate is that government agencies are interested in these ideas and they want to find out what’s new. If they think it’s good, then they will put it into practise.

“Perhaps where Singapore has to develop compared with some other countries is also listening to what citizens want, what different interest groups want, and taking a more bottom-up approach to their planning. I think that’s something they’ve very conscious about and considering now.”

Mr Edwards stressed that in a digital age and with technology, there should be no excuse why governments can’t involve citizens on a mass scale. And this collaborative approach, according to Mr Powell and Prof Jones, will open up fun and interesting opportunities in various spaces of development. Mr Powell added that this nation-wide discussion shouldn’t exclude the humanities sector, and should set up platforms to “foster creativity to get citizens involved”.

Added Prof Jones: “Cities need to be innovative and creative in addressing their prospects in the future, and to consider all sorts of scenarios based on their unique circumstances and their own assets.

Governments need to initiate city wide conversations that allow different groups of people to come together to interact with researchers and businesses about the future.

“The public can co-design some of these systems. So we can think about crowdsourcing as a way of getting people involved.”

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