Exploring the urban future

What is a ‘smart city’ and how will it impact the lives of its residents? A white paper titled Exploring the Urban Future considers the kind of life one might lead in the city of the future, the transformational potential it offers and the challenges to get there.

Many governments around the world have implemented initiatives to develop smart cities. The basic premise is a city where information technology (IT) is harnessed to connect citizens, infrastructure and public services, with the aim of improving the quality of life in an urban environment.

Through interviews with urban planners and government leaders, the paper – developed by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore – offers insights into the realities of smart city implementation as it stands today.

From machine to complex social system

The formation and rapid growth of modern cities can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. Factories fuelled economic growth and attracted widespread migration of rural dwellers to urban areas, which provided better opportunities compared to village life and farming.

As urban areas grew, infrastructure and amenities were usually added where the population density was the highest. This in turn attracted more residents in a self-reinforcing cycle of opportunities, amenities and population growth. 

In the past, the design and management of cities were often approached in a similar fashion to controlling a machine. There were optimal outcomes in terms of standards of living and quality of life, and this was achieved through centralised mechanisms and control systems.

In reality, cities behave more like a form of ‘complex social technology’ rather than a machine. Instead of fixed parts operating in pre-designed fashions, cities are comprised of organised individuals, organisations and activities for a variety of purposes. This social technology is complex in the sense that the interactions are dynamic within time and space instead of being predictable and linear like the input-output behaviour of a machine.

Future cities: connected for sustainability, economic growth and inclusivity

The fundamental premise of a smart city is to leverage on IT so that connected sensors, the collection of big data and the analysis of this data through computing power can result in better and faster urban management and services.

As the modern world enters the era of the Internet of Things (IoT), policymakers also hope that by making the city digital ready, this would accelerate the Fourth Industrial Revolution and bring about a transformative and measurable effect on the economy.

Beyond infrastructure control and boosting the economy, digital connectivity also enables residents to participate more actively in governance. This can lead to a more inclusive feedback system, more responsive and timely public services, and improved channels for outreach and public education.

The challenges to building smart cities

Governments must also consider the practical challenges to smart city implementation based on the actual experiences of planners and policymakers. Some of these include:

  • City governance used to be organised into distinct departments with a top-down approach to supervision. The concept of a connected and inclusive city requires better collaboration and coordination between various government agencies.
  • Building a smart city entails interruption and inconveniences when infrastructure and amenities are being upgraded. Community support for these concerns must be earned through communication and outreach. Appropriate data protection safeguards must also be implemented.
  • The benefits from smart cities should not be overhyped by politicians for the sake of winning public support. Implementation should also take into account local needs and context, instead of blindly copying other countries.

The outcome is still uncertain, but the goals are clear

So what is the viability of future cities? Green-field projects, for instance, which consists of deliberately building a new smart city from scratch, have proven difficult to realise so far in the face of challenges such as attracting sufficient residents. The long-term impact of IT on economic growth is also mixed. However, planners and policymakers believe that the social benefits to city dwellers and improvements to the quality of public goods and services are attractive enough to stay the course.

Ultimately, the entire smart city movement presents a new era in the evolution of urban planning. It draws on the possibilities that IT has created for better resource allocation and communication between residents, machines and systems as well as the governing authorities. 

The goals of planners and policymakers past and present are the same: to improve the lives of residents. However, the tools have changed dramatically, and the real challenge is to use these tools appropriately within the context of the cities they manage.

It is also in this spirit that the term ‘future city’, instead of ‘smart city’, should be considered. This is so that the dialogue and mindset moves beyond the context of implementing digital technology to one that encompasses meeting the diverse and complex social needs of the modern city.


The full white paper The Future of Cities is available for download at our pop up box.