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The dream of a smart city

  • Published at 11:13 am December 1st, 2017
The dream of a smart city

The latest “smart city” buzzword has created some chaos in my mind. I’m struggling due to the lack of right definitions of smartness that are going around.

To me, being able to live intelligently and sustainably, keeping both present and future resources is the sign of smartness. And when we think of building a city smartly, a host of aspects pops up in our minds.

Human movement, utility, health, hygiene, sanitation, and businesses are a few pivotal aspects that we may think of while building a smart city.

Then comes the thought of digitally connected, internet-based, and sensor-swarmed smart cities which are likely to turn our lives upside-down in a short while.

For us in Bangladesh, the journey from analogue to digital as a way of life, I believe, is likely to be more complicated, as it’s evident that we haven’t been, unlike thousands across the world, analogue-smart since the beginning of our cities.

I asked a few colleagues of mine as to what pops up in their minds when they think of a smart city.

In two seconds, they came up with the concepts of traffic-free, clean, and digitally accessible cities. They also cited examples of Singaporean and Malaysian cities.

So, it’s quite evident that our requirement is still pretty basic and analogue.

It may have been way easier for those who had already shown an amazing form of smartness prior to building their cities, to transform their cities from analogue to tech-driven cities.

Wishful thinking?

I would humbly like to thank the organisers of the Smart City week for initiating the campaign. The first of its kind in the country, this was meant for raising awareness among regular people as well as policy-makers regarding developing cities smartly and living smartly.

During the launching ceremony, noted engineer Prof Jamilur Reza Choudhury said that Dhaka remained an unplanned city despite having some notable urbanisation and transportation plans, thanks to poor implementation of the plans.

This is when we can’t help but feel sad about ourselves. Government and private organisations, including the municipalities, have showcased their ideas on city planning, transport, low-cost housing, green building, waste management, urban poverty reduction, water for all, public toilets, pollution control, disaster management, ICT, and public space.

Dhaka remained an unplanned city despite having some notable urbanisation and transportation plans, thanks to poor implementation

Among these, ICT is a comparatively newer aspect, but we have been trying to improve all the rest for the last 46 years.

After successfully proving ourselves unsuccessful in traditional ways of running our affairs in cities, we’re now hopping on the digital bandwagon. Infrastructure, as well as the city-dwellers’ mindsets, could be the biggest challenges while we try to transform our cities.

Take Dhaka, for example. How do you digitalise its chaotic mechanism into a tech-driven serenity? Yes, some aspects are possible to implement right now; transport and online services can also be implemented in this chaos.

However, would it be possible to deploy billions of sensors across Dhaka and control and monitor all accumulated data from a single grid? Let’s say we can, but who would stop the roadside dumping of waste? Who would stop grabbing the rivers, canals, and many such things? Imagine a chauffeur-less car in Dhaka, where no one bothers to abide by traffic rules.

Learning from others

Let’s go to Singapore, Barcelona, and Milton Keynes for example. They have been revolutionising the aspects of smart living. They have brought together data from a sensor network that stretches across the city and feeds the collected data into an open data pool, as well as into dynamic digital models of the cities.

Some 98% of Singapore’s government services are accessible online, and citizen-centric mobile health, municipal, and transport apps have also rolled out. Sensors and smart applications in public housing provide residents with feedback that help them reduce their energy and water consumption and drive down costs.

One of their key projects is the introduction of wireless sensors at parking places -- to ease city traffic by showing car drivers available parking spaces.

They have also introduced many e-government services which improve access to public services. At numerous locations (shopping centres, libraries, etc), the city maintains digital kiosks which ensure a city-wide presence of municipal authorities. Citizens can undertake most administrative procedures at these kiosks as well as online.

The South Korean district of Songdo in Seoul, on 1,500 acres of land and equipped with wi-fi and sensor networks, has become home to international business and a futuristic city experiment at the same time.

Smart work centres with teleconferencing systems enable a third of government employees to work closer to their homes.

Now, like Songdo, we also had an opportunity when we planned to develop Purbachal and other districts outside the capital city. What extent of smartness have we shown while acquiring the land to build various infrastructure? Had we not employed the same system of thought when we built our major, older cities?

Analogue mistakes

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea, the US, India, UAE, UK, China, and Azerbaijan have started building their cities for the future in new spaces. As they do so, they are seen to keep all kinds of digitally driven provisions in mind, so that the people who’d be living in those cities would live a complete digital-smart life.

On the other hand, since they have shown a nice form of analogue-smartness in their old cities and towns, their attempts to transform them into sensor-swarmed ones are much easier.

We, the builders of traditionally unsmart cities, seem to be rushing into a digital-smartness. This journey of ours may backfire; we may find ourselves in a much more chaotic entanglement while we try to inject digital aspects into an analogue anarchy.

We have to find a way to rise from our analogue slumber in order to pave the way for a digital future. And I, again, thank the organisers of Smart City week who have clearly showcased some ways to weed out the analogue mistakes.

Ekram Kabir is a story-teller and a columnist.

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