PERHAPS stung by the low ranking—the better term is kulelat—that Metro Manila gets from the yearly survey of smart cities done by the prestigious Opus Dei-run business school based in Navarra, Spain, the public discussions in print media now include, thanks be to God, the strategies needed to build smart cities.
Those with a sliver of concern for their city are embarrassed by this fact. Why is Singapore, a neighbor, always there on top while Metro Manila can’t land a place among the Top 100? Manila is almost as ancient as the mummies and was once a proud and historic city in the Asian continent. Millions of baby boomers are older than Singapore, counting from its breakaway from the Malaysian federation. Why is ancient Manila associated with blight, chaos and—let us admit this—mediocrity? Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok have leaped past Metro Manila in the rankings.
The short answer is we can’t build smart cities by employing non-smart policies. Ok, I am being kind with the term non-smart. It should be mediocre policies.
Now, the easy-to-explain part. Why?
No algorithm for smart planning
Modern and smart societies use all available tools of math and science as the first step to get the process right. Everything is undergirded by algorithm, from the management of traffic to the protection of trees within the urban spread. Fresh developments are not arbitrarily approved as they have to conform with zoning rules. You can’t just bulldoze heritage sites, never. Here, those in charge of planning bloviate on TV, mostly spewing tired orthodoxies. Exhibit A is the proposed strategy to solve urban traffic, which seamless flow is a requirement for a city with the ambition to be called a smart city.
The draft bill that seeks to untangle the costly and crippling transport jams, if you read it carefully, moves against the mass carriers—in our case the buses—and coddles the root of all traffic jams, the cars and the SUVs that eat up 80 percent of metropolitan road use. In smart cities, that kind of harebrained plan would be called insanity.
In Singapore, I have said this a thousand times, the nation-state adopts the reverse. The rules penalize car ownership with heavy taxes and other fines, which, in turn, truly discourage car ownership. The leaders lead by example. The convoy of the prime minister gives way to buses. The preferential use of the roads by public transport is deeply ingrained in their culture.
In the West, the rules are these: walk, bike, take the mass transport system. Great cities such as Barcelona have taken bolder steps, which is to ban cars from busy streets. Munich, the “car capital” of the world, is just as radical as Barcelona in curbing car ownership and use.
Here, we want to regulate the mass carriers to give the roads to private cars.
The absence of savvy planners
The absence of a technical and intellectual manpower to do savvy and scientific planning is also rooted in the disdain for math and science – and smart planning. What are in-name-only public research universities are starved of funds, resources, smart professors and researchers and lab rats. We seem to have developed a disdain for doctorates in the STEM fields. We have more lawyers than STEM professionals. The lack of seriousness in building those innovation and technology hubs has prevented the rise of young geniuses who could do world-class coding and planning.
We have one of the most meager R & D budgets in the Asian region. While there is money for building prisons, there is none to harness the innate and great talents of our budding STEM scientists.
The national obsession is building malls, not labs and technology hubs for serious research and work of important discoveries. Do we have world-class think-tanks with focus on urban planning? We probably have bloviators fronting for the reckless and unconcerned real estate giants.
Innovation is simply overwhelmed by Third World concerns
If we look at the priorities of government, you can’t see anything that is related to hopeful 21stcentury concerns. War on drugs, peace negotiations with Leftist insurgents, the efforts to rein in the country’s intractable poverty, the passage of a death penalty law, the failure of a timid RH program to take off.
Or death and taxes.
The national budget, as a consequence, is consumed by these concerns. Whenever refreshing proposals to jack up the R&D budget, finally build those innovation and technology hubs, and fund the research universities with tons of money are thrown in, they are immediately dampened by the Third World concerns.
The reference to India is misleading
The discussions on how to go about building smart cities are not without a side reference to India’s moves in that direction. Probably because India is a giant blight, full of gridlocked cities as large and as chaotic as MM.
But we forget one thing. India has the intellectual capital to guide and fulfill that ambition. And the leader with the foresight to build that intellectual capital was that unapologetic socialist, Jawaharlal Nehru, who laid the groundwork for the establishment of elite engineering schools now spread across the Indian continent.
The IIT system of more than 23 campuses is reputedly harder to get into than Harvard and Stanford. It has equipped India with the brain pool to do smart planning. Its alumni include Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Rajat Gupta, former managing director of McKinsey. Silicon Valley is awash with cars proudly carrying India Institute of Technology (IIT) stickers.
We differ with India on the main preoccupations: boxing, beauty pageants and basketball instead of turning out world-class coders and programmers.