25 October 2016
The government has unveiled plans to develop a smart city in Kowloon East. Photo: GovHK
The government has unveiled plans to develop a smart city in Kowloon East. Photo: GovHK

Smart cities should be people-oriented

Smart city is finding its way into public discourse. Simply put, smart city refers to making good use of advanced information technology architecture to address urban issues and enhance the quality of life in a community.

It may manifest itself in more efficient and responsive public services, a more tech-savvy citizenry and a cleaner environment, among other things.

In his policy address in January, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying unveiled plans to develop a smart city in Kowloon East.

The pilot project will revolve around three principles.

The first is data technology, and this includes such measures as providing free WiFi in public spaces and constructing interactive information platforms for communication and data sharing.

Second is reducing carbon footprint. The feasibility of an environment-friendly linkage system connecting Kai Tak and Kwun Tong will be explored, a district cooling system developed and green buildings promoted.

Last but not least, smart traffic lights will be installed and the pedestrian environment improved, with a view to facilitating walkability and mobility.

Drawing from overseas experience and academic discussions, two points are worth noting.

First, those measures alone, while worthy of support, may not hold together as a high-minded master plan proportional to the immense potential of a smart city and the expectations of the public. Smart technologies can go further in many areas.

One important example is the application of Internet of Things (IoT) in healthcare.

As academics point out, IoT does not only allow hospitals to track the location of patients, medical staff and equipment, but also provides more efficient routes for drug delivery in case of emergency.

In its “Smart Seoul 2015” plan, South Korea aimed at implementing U-Healthcare, or Ubiquitous Healthcare, enabling medical personnel to conduct remote check-ups and consultation for patients staying at home.

These tele-health technologies benefit the disabled and elderly and deserve serious exploration by the government.

Another example is the integration and sharing of information, which is also hinted in the pilot scheme.

Sometimes, the public’s lack of understanding and support of some policies is attributable to data asymmetry between the government and the citizens, where the former retains access to much more information and data.

If the administration shares more data where appropriate, citizens will not only better grasp the rationale behind the policies, but also have the potential to contribute more to the policy-making process with their own local knowledge.

This is especially true in town planning and collection of instant traffic conditions. By actively integrating informed responses from the public, government services would better meet society’s needs, and the citizens will develop a stronger sense of belonging to the community.

Second, under this discussion of civic participation in public services lies another more fundamental question of how smart city can provide value to the citizens.

Renowned sociologist Richard Sennett believes that, as with other new tools, we need to explore and learn the best way to use a smart city.

Looking at the city as a complex organism, Sennett believes in the value of the dissonances, from which people can spot business opportunities and accumulate richer and multifaceted life experiences.

Yet these “learning processes” could be inhibited if a city relies too much on smart technology.

As Sennett illustrates, Masdar, a city in the United Arab Emirates, might be such a case, where handheld devices are fed with various kinds of information from the Central Command Center and users are simply passive recipients of information, leaving no room for active information exploration and social interaction.

People are, in Sennett’s words, “choosing menu options rather than creating the menu”.

Sennett classified Masdar as a closed system, where people are encouraged to follow prescriptions and defer to the benevolent all-encompassing algorithms.

So instead of empowering people and opening up new possibilities, the smart city could become stifling and stupefying in this case.

In open systems, technology does not prescribe, but coordinates. Unlike its rigid and stagnating counterpart, an open smart city actively absorbs public opinions and keeps evolving all along.

The city is shaped and reshaped by ordinary citizens. This is manifested by, among others, its emphasis on pedestrian experience and, in a broader sense, fostering social relations with the aid of smart technology.

How the smart city in Kowloon East will operate and be rated by the public is yet to be observed.

Nevertheless, following Sennett’s argument, the administration’s emphasis on improving “pedestrian environment” still deserves recognition.

This shows that the government has steered clear of the trap of a technology-oriented mindset and taken public perspectives into account in order to build a more convenient and vibrant city.

If the government presses ahead with this people-oriented approach and takes bolder strides in applying smart technologies in different areas, the pilot scheme certainly faces bright prospects.

Ben Lee is the author of this article.

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