Smart City: Know thyself!

Winnie Tang DP
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Dr. Winnie Tang

Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Architecture, University of Hong Kong

Dr Winnie Tang, Harbour Times columnist.
Dr Winnie Tang, Harbour Times columnist.

IDC, the research institute pointed out that by 2022, the Asia-Pacific region will be the global leader in developing smart city environments, with spending accounting for more than 40% of the world’s expenditure, reaching above US$60 billion (more than HK$500 billion). South East Asian governments are ready to spend on smart cities – and Hong Kong may have solid experience to share about how they can prioritise their budgets. It begins with knowing your assets, then generating data that can be used for smart planning. If Hong Kong keeps the data flowing, it can continue to lead in implementation of smart city solutions and sell them to those that follow across Asia.

Who wants a dumb city? No one

The concept of smart cities is an enduring, inspiring framework for thinking about city planning. Accordingly, it is not surprising that all of the Asian developing countries participating in the Smart City Workshop of the Asian Productivity Organization (APO) held in Seoul, South Korea earlier showed their eagerness to develop smart city solutions for their various urban problems. However, different circumstances suggest different priorities.

Countries like the Philippines and Indonesia are very rich in natural resources but also face common issues like ageing, severe traffic congestion and air pollution amid the emergence of urban development. How can they proceed when it comes to smart city development? What should be done in the very beginning to ensure the success of smart city implementation?

One common theme for all considering smart city solutions, is to attack problems at their source. Otherwise these will only be grand ideas lacking practical impact. One professor from The Philippines at the APO meetings felt that his country was at risk. Specifically, the development of a gigantic Manila plan, according to him, seemed to have lost its focus.

Manila’s Green City Plan

The Metro Manila Greenprint 2030 was launched in 2012, linking 16 cities in the broader metropolitan area  of Manila, accounting for 33% of the national output. The plan spans 20 years of planning and involves aid from the World Bank, Australia, and Japan. According to the Chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Mr. Francis N. Tolentino, the plan has several goals:

  • Build the capital into an “economic powerhouse in East Asia”
  • Create a comfortable, affordable and safe living, academic and leisure environment that allows the public to live and work in peace;
  • Create quality jobs that enable talents to apply their skills – for example, they target to increase positions in the IT and outsourcing  industry to 6.3 million by 2020, 2.5 times of that in 2012;
  • Deliver convenient transportation and reduced environmental pollution
  • Develop a sound and reliable infrastructure to cope with the challenges of natural disaster and climate change;
  • Integrate all areas of Metro Manila as a unified metropolis for both the poor and the rich, encouraging people to work together in constructing the metropolis.

However, after seven years’ effort, many old problems still remain. There are slums in the capital.. There lack a science, technology and innovation culture. This arises from a lack of government committed resources in these areas. A talent shortage and insufficient related infrastructure has also contributed to the lack of development in the urban ecosystem.

Find out what you really have

It is entirely likely that key steps in the planning process were skipped. To enable good planning, in my opinion, countries and cities should first assess their strengths, that is those natural resources both undersea and on land. Developed countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have widely made use of the geographic information system (GIS) to thoroughly investigate their natural assets at home so that they know how to leverage on their own strengths. ASEAN could follow that example.

In general, ASEAN countries have a tremendous need to develop smart cities. Singapore and South Korea are ambitiously working to grasp this golden business opportunity. Compared with them, Hong Kong actually has solid experience to share and export.

Hong Kong has experience to share

First, if cities must know their assets, GIS could be part of the solution. The Hong Kong government introduced advanced GIS for decision-making some 20 years ago, earlier than many cities in the Asia-Pacific region.

Recently, I am delighted to know that Common Operational Picture (COP) has been introduced by the Geotechnical Engineering Office in the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD). The COP collects and integrates emergency information such as landslide reports from various departments and sources. All this data will be displayed on a platform for determining response actions. ASEAN countries with frequent natural disasters have a great need for this kind of service.

The City Dashboard, using open data from different government departments to present issues of public interest with maps, icons, charts, and real-time images is another good practice that emerging cities would need. The Dashboard showcasing in the recent ICT Expo listed the real-time average traffic speed in several major districts and three cross harbour tunnels, as well as parking availability, temperature and rainfall of various districts in Hong Kong. In future, the content of the Dashboard will be enriched to include arrival information from Citybus and New World First Bus, facilitating better planning for travel.

GIS information for planning, landslide information for disaster planning, response and recovery, and traffic date are just three examples among many where Hong Kong could share its expertise to capitalise on the smart city spending boom sweeping Asia.

However,  Hong Kong will need to keep improving to keep ahead of regional competitors like Seoul and Singapore. The Hong Kong government should speed up improving the spatial data infrastructure by provision of more public data as soon as possible, it will certainly support us in exporting our advanced experience to the neighbouring countries.

If the Hong Kong government can accelerate the implementation of a better developed spatial data infrastructure, it could support us in exporting our advanced experience.

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