IESE, the graduate school of business of the University of Navarra, recently released a ranking of the “smart cities” of the world. This is a yearly ritual for the Opus Dei-founded school, which has a solid reputation as one of the best graduate schools of business in Europe.
There was some predictability to the “Smartest Ten” list drawn up by IESE, in Pamplona, Spain. American and European cities dominated. What list would take off New York, or San Francisco—or Chicago and Boston, for that matter—from the roll call of smart cities? London’s place is a given: it was No.1 last year; it placed second this year. Paris seems to have locked third place.
The only Asian country on top of that list is Seoul. Sydney, also in the top 10, would not consider itself an Asian city. The notable absence was Tokyo, now ranked 12th. It used to be very high on that list. Singapore was relatively high in the list, too.
Where was Metro Manila? It was given a kulelat status—145th out of 181 cities surveyed. In contrast, the Vietnamese city named after Uncle Ho—Ho Chi Minh—was in the middle of the list, with Canton and Shenzhen.
Why was Metro Manila among the kulelats? It was viewed as failing the 10 distinct benchmarks used by the IESE study: economy, technology, human capital, social cohesion, international outreach, environment, mobility and transportation, urban planning, public management, and governance. While some foreigners revel in the chaos of Metro Manila, the serious students on what makes a city “smart” were not impressed.
The list just validated the earlier report that the Philippines ranked low in the general area of “competitiveness.” One cannot be “smart” by being laid-back, complacent, indolent and incurious.
On top of the benchmarks was “economy.” Why MM was ranked low, we do not know. MM, according to data, accounts for more than 30 percent of the country’s GDP. The rest just account for the more than 60 percent. Was that not impressive enough, given MM’s disproportionate share of the country’s total GDP? And given the Aquino government’s boast of impressive GDP growth? Why were the IESE people not impressed?
The failure of MM’s economy to impress, despite its outsize role in the country’s economy, may be related to the next two criteria—technology and human capital.
The output of Metro Manila may not be impressive enough to those looking for elements of smartness. There are no serious technology hubs, no world-class innovation facilities, no venture capitalists that exist to fund the would-be Twitters, Ubers or Airbnbs. We have small-scale versions of all that, but they are not even impressive from an Asian context. The IESE people found nothing that could change the world with the kind of technology and innovation work being done in MM.
Our technology workers are BPO workers, doing routine voice and tech support work. And the elite technology workers are in security, firewall, network engineering and some programming. If we go down below the work chain, we will find service industry workers, from fast-food crew to restaurant staff, who mostly serve the BPO staffers.
Growth is driven by consumer spending, mostly the OFW income that is being spent in Metro Manila, and the BPO income. With the human capital engaged in dreary, boring, underpaid jobs, those looking for elements of smartness will not really be impressed. No Sundar, no Satya will emerge from the human-capital pool.
The government allocates very little for research and development. The top research university in the country has the physical space required to host and nurture great technology hubs. But it does not have the funding. It does host squatter colonies.
The P1.4 trillion PPP spending does not even allocate a peso for technology hubs.
We can’t even talk about “environment.” Look at the Pasig River, the grand old river that is dying if not yet dead, with almost zero BOD. Look at the air pollution index. Our air pollution trackers conk out after some use due to the gravity of the air pollution. Just look at Manila Bay after days of rain. You can easily net 10 tons of garbage along the seawall alone. Look at the blight and overall grimness of the urban slums.
Transportation and mobility is our Waterloo. Waze, the traffic-monitoring app, just ranked Metro Manila traffic as the worst in the world. The endless gridlock has been exacting a grievous economic and psychological toll on the nation. Yet, traffic management is about neglecting the urban rail system and discriminating against the de facto mode of mass transport—buses. Private vehicles, which each carries one-and-a-half passengers on the average, are king. What kind of transport policy holds cars sacrosanct except in our stupid, and science- and math-ignoring country?
Governance? MM’s grand cities are governed by ex-felons, comedians, and sons and daughters of dynastic families.
Urban planning? The so-called “urban planners,” who bloviate on primetime TV, are mostly poseurs.