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Smart City adoption needs tailored approach

A strong, effective governance model is the cornerstone of a Smart Nation initiative, ensuring decisions and strategic investments are targeted, effective, and transparent.

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Communities are harnessing the benefits of technology for better solutions to urban planning and environmental services.

BRING up the term "Smart Nation" anywhere in Singapore and, quite possibly, most people would associate it with government initiatives such as the SGQR code and SingPass mobile. Chances are that you will hardly find two people describe "Smart Nation" in the same way.

Indeed, it's a concept that has taken Southeast Asian countries and their private-sector collaborators by storm. As countries start to harness the benefits of technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and data analytics to transform every aspect of municipal management, governments are realising that they can optimise their operations to deliver for their citizens the best "e-government" experiences at scale.

According to an Economic Intelligence Unit study, more than 90 million people in South-east Asia are expected to urbanise by 2030, and these urban centres are forecasted to drive 40 per cent of the region's growth. With the influx of urbanites into these developing smart cities, it offers both an opportunity and challenge for urban planners to manage this at scale and efficiency.

Communities are infusing smart city principles into their approaches to urban planning, local transportation systems, environmental services, and emissions reductions. They are relying on smart technologies to optimise their electricity grids and other infrastructure, deliver public Internet access and optimise public safety, human capital management, financial planning and inventory control.

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Across all of these portfolios and many more, timely data is becoming the cornerstone of intelligent decision support, enabling municipal managers to understand public concerns, streamline budgeting and programme planning, maximise operational efficiencies, attract business investment and tourism, and improve citizens' quality of life.

It is a wide-ranging focus, but most smart city applications rely on the same mix of inputs - factors like progressive local planning, a smart strategy for technology investments, a focus on environmental sustainability alongside economic enablement, a commitment to transparency and public access, and effective use of social media. The smart city concept works because it incorporates citizen input while offering a palette of self-service tools for business; fully integrates management activities in challenging areas like water, transportation and land management; and relies heavily on continuous data-gathering, monitoring, and analysis.

SMART CITIES IN PRACTICE

It all sounds great in principle. But what does it look like on the ground, where civil service staff spend their days scrambling to meet high expectations and deliver seamless customer service at the level of government that is closest to citizens' day-to-day lives?

For a water authority, it might mean deploying Smart City technology to analyse sensor data from pumps, combining it with time-of-use charges from the local electrical utility, and saving money by running systems when power rates are low.

Water managers can also use advanced analytics to track revenue streams, spot trends for slow customer payments or bad debt, and adapt rate structures to match.

Environment officers can map and analyse the timing, frequency, and locations of code enforcement incidents, then organise neighbourhood sweeps to reduce or prevent environmental offenders (such as smoking at non-designated areas).

Planning and development offices can streamline permit applications and cut precious days off the approvals process, using a modern engagement platform that is more convenient for developers and more accessible for citizen advocates.

And those examples are just the start. Wherever there is scope in a large, complex municipal administration to simplify processes, cut costs, boost stakeholder engagement, or reinforce citizens' and employees' level of satisfaction with their city government, there is a good chance that someone has dreamed up a smart city app for that. And if they have not, if you are the first to identify the need, the right technology partner can probably help you address it.

BRINGING IT DOWN TO EARTH

For communities that have been hearing about the drive toward Smart Cities and are considering first steps, the sheer breadth of the opportunity is a blessing and a curse. It is so wide-ranging that there are not very many things a municipality cannot do differently or better by adopting a tech-enabled, Smart City strategy. But to tap into that potential, it is important to narrow-cast, by focusing on key priorities and picking the tools and options that meet the most pressing local needs.

Smart City adoption works best in cities that develop and adopt a tailored, winnable approach, rather than trying to "boil the ocean".

The programme has to have top-to-bottom support. Elected officials and senior management must understand what the city is trying to achieve and buy into the vision. Stakeholders and citizens must have a clear picture of how they benefit - or what's in it for them.

A strong, effective governance model is the cornerstone of any Smart City initiative, ensuring that decisions and strategic investments are targeted, effective, and transparent.

Initial budgeting must be carried out with the longer term in mind. Smart City investments deliver multiple returns, from the financial to the social, but they do not pay off overnight. If citizens and stakeholders share the vision for a local Smart City programme, it will be easier for city representatives to make a case for the initial spending.

Smart City technology lends itself to projects that break down silos and allow multiple players to bring their unique strengths to the table. So, the best Smart City initiatives are cooperative efforts, bringing together programmes and departments within a single jurisdiction and looking for synergies across multiples districts. The Municipal Services Office in Singapore is a great example of the application of such an effort.

Governments in South-east Asia are investing heavily in visionary Smart City initiatives where funding is abundant. South-east Asian countries and beyond look to Singapore - arguably the most connected city in the region - as an ever-growing case study for Smart City implementation. It is also paramount to choose the right technology partner with the right experience and capabilities to help set priorities and find the most efficient and coherent path for meeting municipal objectives.

  • The writer is senior vice-president and general manager, Asia-Pacific, of Infor.