When people hear the term “smart city,” they usually associate it with high-tech metropolises dotted with futuristic looking smart buildings and populated by young, always connected, always on-the-go digital natives. It’s a stereotype that’s enough to intimidate those who may not fit the bill. But the very concept of a smart city — a people-centered, highly livable, sustainable urban space — suggests that it should be an environment that can accommodate anyone and everyone.
And the argument for making smart cities inclusive is strong. More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban centers, and this proportion is expected to increase to nearly 70 percent by 2050. Successfully delivering city services to such a large and increasingly diverse population is going to have to involve the use of advanced technology.
The challenge of making smart cities inclusive lies in the digital divide between different population segments. This is especially pronounced in the Philippines, where internet penetration rate hovers at just around 41 percent, while smartphone users number at over 47 million — that is, around 45 percent of the population.
Getting around this obstacle requires focusing on the needs and preferences of residents rather than the capabilities of connected infrastructure. Cities looking to roll out smart city initiatives can apply an inclusion lens to that effort across various aspects of the journey.
Data and security
Smart cities leverage digital platforms and connected devices to gather data about residents, which help local governments enhance efficiency and tailor services to residents’ needs. But this exercise opens up residents to security risks and data breaches.
To maintain public trust and promote buy-in for smart city initiatives, city leaders should engage directly with residents in building and codifying digital rights. This can come in the form of privacy and use policies, technological sovereignty directives, or free software tools that allow residents to interact with public data more efficiently.
Chief data officers and policymakers should also make an effort to reach out to “digitally invisible” populations — residents who are hard to reach and, therefore, difficult to gather data on. Cities can approach local community leaders for assistance or conduct in-person outreach to ensure that these residents also benefit from smart city initiatives.
Digital and technology
Reaching out to the digitally invisible population can also inform policymakers’ efforts at expanding digital access and skills. This demographic is likely excluded from digitally enabled services. Knowing where these households are and what they need will help city leaders bridge that gap either by expanding internet services to those areas or looking at other modalities by which these households can access services.
Cities can also look into improving residents’ digital knowledge and skills. The older generation, in particular, may not be aware of the various government services that are already available online. City leaders can partner with libraries, educators, community centers, and even the private sector in establishing digital literacy prorgrams that will teach residents how to navigate the Web, maximize its potential, and at the same time keep their data secure.
Finance and funding
Smart city initiatives typically involve large upfront technology costs, for which city governments may not always have sufficient budget. This is particularly challenging for projects aimed at low-income or hard-to-reach populations.
Local governments can partner with the private sector to address this funding issue. The City of Manila, for example, last month signed a memorandum of agreement with Globe Telecom that makes the latter’s GoWiFi available for free in the city’s key areas such as the city hall, hospitals and public schools. Globe is looking at the initiative as the first step in the capital’s digital transformation journey, which suggests that the telecom giant is willing to take on more of the city’s connectivity and innovation challenges.
It couldn’t have come at a better time: Manila ranked the lowest in Asia in the 2019 Smart City Index published last week by Switzerland-based IMD Business School and Singapore University of Technology and Design. The index based the cities’ “smartness” on their success in using smart technologies to improve the lives of citizens.
It would be quite a treat to see Manila — and maybe even our other major cities — rise up that index in the years to come. Not just for the bragging rights, but for the real and lasting benefits of transitioning into a smart, inclusive city. The evidence bears out that these kinds of cities have the potential to improve the lives of millions of urban dwellers by offering greater opportunities for residents and allowing them to reap widespread economic benefits. That’s the kind of good news Filipino city dwellers have long been waiting for.
The author is an audit & assurance partner at Navarro Amper & Co., a member of the Deloitte Asia Pacific Network. Deloitte Asia Pacific Ltd. is a company limited by guarantee and a member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. Members of Deloitte Asia Pacific Ltd. and their related entities, each of which are separate and independent legal entities, provide services from more than 100 cities across the region, including Auckland, Bangkok, Beijing, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Melbourne, Osaka, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei, Tokyo and Yangon.