The city of Yinchaun, an autonomous region in northwest China, last week hosted and sponsored the second annual Smart City event, attracting representatives from 105 foreign cities, 65 Chinese cities and nearly 900 total delegates.
While the discussion in 2015 focused on what defines a smart city and the required network infrastructure, the debate this year turned largely away from the technology to the ‘soft’ issues, such as humanising smart cities and meeting the needs of smart citizens.
Most of the speakers at the two-day conference outlined their ambitious visions of the future in great detail, but only a few city representatives shared tangible results.
Zohar Sharon, chief knowledge officer for Tel Aviv, said that from the age of 13, city residents are issued DigiTel smart cards (there is also an app) that enable them to receive personalised information by email about municipal services as well as updates based on their personal interest. For example, he said alerts about roadworks are sent to residents in affected neighbourhoods and parents are reminded about school registration deadlines.
He noted that it’s important to start internally with government-to-government initiatives before sharing with citizens. “And it’s not enough to have open data – you have to be transparent. We are moving from reactive to proactive to intelligently active.”
In Boston, where a significant number of people didn’t pay their parking tickets or were late and faced penalties, the city worked with a startup to develop TicketZen that allows people to pay the tickets from their smartphones. Within three months, five other startups built even better solutions, said Nigel Jacob, co-chair of Boston mayor’s office of new urban mechanics.
Another Boston example, a natural extension of reporting a pothole via an app, was for road crews to reply to the person filing the report with a photo of the team at the site with the work completed.
“The idea is to create more dialogue with citizens, who tend to think of government as a faceless bureaucracy. This shows there are actual people that fix these things,” he said. “It’s also about enabling the public to do things themselves.”
Jacob asked the question on many people’s minds: is local government really up to the task of transforming a city into a smart city? He acknowledged that his team has to work to hand off projects to the relevant departmental agencies and has to remain hands-on, acting in the role of a product manager.
Meanwhile in the city of Dubai, 100 of its 600 air-conditioned bus shelters are now ‘smart kiosks’, where people can top up their transit cards and pay telecoms bills and other government bills while waiting for a train or bus.
Exploring the key necessary ingredients for a smart city, Jordi Puignero, secretary for ICT governance for Catalunya, said there are no smart cities without connected citizens, while Projjal Dutta, from New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, unsurprisingly insisted you can’t have a smart city without a smart public transportation system.
Everyone was in agreement that open data is a fundamental ingredient.
Jong-Sung Hwang, from South Korea’s National information Society Agency and who helped design the country’s U-city (ubiquitous) plan in 2004, admitted that the push wasn’t that successful because it started too early and focused on sensors.
He said a sensor-base approach is too expensive and wasn’t developed enough at that time. When he started on the Smart Seoul project, he moved to a data-based approach, with a priority on making the best use of existing data.
Another common theme was how to solve “urban diseases” such as traffic congestion, pollution and crime.
Rob Meikle, CIO of the city of Toronto, referred to a McKinsey report that predicts that one-third of the 600 largest cities today won’t be in the top 600 by 2025. This he said means cities have to continue to reinvent themselves and having a smart city strategy will be vital.
Perhaps one day Yinchaun will join that ranking. It is touted as a model smart city in China, with such features as an integrated smart traffic system built by ZTE and streamlined municipal services from 26 different bureaus delivered from a colossal city hall structure that is capable of monitoring each interaction between city staff and citizens.
Yinchaun, about 1,000km west of Beijing and nearly surrounded by desert, is a city of about two million with an infrastructure built for two to three times that. Over the past five years, the city has seen tremendous investment from the central government as part of its “One Belt, One Road” development plan along the Silk Road.
Despite its sophisticated smart traffic control, with sensors on the roads and in vehicles and cameras at every intersection, traffic police can still be found waving their arms from the middle of six-lane streets. Seems old habits die slowly.
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