Does technology a smarter city make?

Cost and culture have been big barriers to the adoption of more smart and sustainable solutions in cities. But is technology the cure-all we think it is anyway? Experts debated this at a forum held by Eco-Business and BMW.

The advent of the fourth industrial revolution has thrown down the gauntlet to a generation of sustainability professionals: in an age billed as the fastest period of human innovation in history, how can technology be used to address the obstacles blocking the way to a more sustainable future? 

Experts from the government, private sector and research sectors tackled that question head on at a panel discussion in Singapore last week. 

Nanotechnology, biotechnology, the Internet of Things, and a host of other innovations pervade every inch of our lives today, noted Eco-Business managing editor Jessica Cheam, who was moderating the inaugural forum ‘Technology + Sustainability: The Road to Smart Cities’.

At the same time, humanity is facing its biggest crisis due to rapid urbanisation, climate change, and political instability, she added. 

“But this revolution offers us an unparalleled opportunity to solve our problems, with the right governance, conducive environment and public-private partnerships,” she said.

Speakers at the 100-strong forum were likewise convinced of the immense potential of technology to solve the big issues of the day.

Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University (ERI@N), said: “The only solution we have to slow climate change is technology, and because of it we have the sharing economy and the possibility of working from home. Commuting can be reduced, and transportation issues can be addressed.”

Mankind is on the cusp of another major disruption known as the fourth industrial revolution, where the use of data and smart technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things will play a bigger role than ever in people’s lives.

The effects of new technology have been felt in the field mobility, which has been up-ended by ride-sharing services such as Uber and bicycle-sharing programmes such as Mobike and Ofo.

But there is more disruption to come, said Mhaisalkar, who compared the situation today to how motor cars replaced horse-drawn carriages on the streets on New York City in just 13 years. 

The future of mobility

Three factors will shape the future of transport, Mhaisalkar said: Low-carbon vehicles such as electric cars; self-driving vehicles; and digitisation, which enables mobility to be sold as a service.

The conversation turned to the city-state’s efforts to increase the use of electric vehicles (EVs) and autonomous vehicles (AVs), and the question of whose responsibility it was to shoulder the costs of building infrastructure for the scheme. 

Mhaisalkar noted that a private company is putting together Singapore’s first electric car-sharing programme, slated to be launched in December, and will include the installation of charging stations across the country. BlueSG, a subsidiary of French multinational Bolloré Group, aims to set up 500 charging stations and roll out 1,000 electric vehicles for the programme.  

When deciding whether or not to implement new technology, two points must be considered—whether it makes lives better, and the cost, he said. 

“Unless from a cost perspective we have viability, the technology is not going to be adopted even if it is sustainable. For example, Singapore ramped up its solar production capacity once prices reached grid parity —that is, when solar energy becomes cheaper or equal to the price of buying electricity from the grid, Mhaisalkar elaborated.

The same, he said, would happen with EV and AV technology. “The technology is ready, but the cost is not yet at a tipping point where it’s a no-brainer to adopt it.”

Businesses can help to bring down the costs of adopting new technology by creating demand for their own products, said Tan Szue Hann, head of sustainable urban solutions and principal architect at Surbana Jurong Consultants.  

He gave the example of how tyre company Michelin began publishing its eponymous restaurant guide in order to encourage people to dine out more, therefore driving more and wearing down their tyres at a faster rate.

“The idea that the private sector comes in, pushes these initiatives and then pushes for mass adoption of their products could actually solve a bit of the cost and infrastructure issue at the same time,” Tan said.

The event, held at the German car manufacturer BMW’s showroom in Singapore, was organised by Eco-Business and BMW Asia in conjunction with the launch of BMW’s  iPerformance vehicles, a series of plug-in hybrid cars that can be powered by both electricity and a combustion engine. Since BMW introduced its i brand in 2014, 120 units of the BMW i3 and i8 models have been registered in Singapore. 

Technology = Smart?

Speakers urged the government to get involved in building smarter, more sustainable cities. Mhaisalkar noted that China’s rapid uptake of EVs was largely due to government investment, and said there was a role for governments in creating demand for technologies that could then be quickly scaled up for mass adoption.

Singapore has been “practical” in this regard, he said.

Vivien Chow, director of applied innovation and partnership at the Government Technology Agency, shared that her agency has been working with the private sector to co-develop new technologies.

For instance, the agency has invited businesses to look at potential smart uses for the lampposts that dot the city, whether for electric charging or to install solar panels, she shared. The government has allocated zones such as One North and the Nanyang Technological University campus for companies to test their AVs.

The government can therefore offer Singapore’s infrastructure to the private sector to come up with smart ideas for how to use new tech and test it out in a real-life setting, she said. The agency studies the adoption of smart technologies in other countries for inspiration as well, such as Estonia for national electronic identification systems, and China for electronic payments, Chow noted.

But Surbana Jurong Consultants’ Tan cautioned that technology alone does not make a city smart when it comes to urban planning.

“In developing countries, what’s considered smart is decent sanitation, as compared to sophisticated markets where there are buildings that interpret what tenants want and autonomous cars,” he said. “I’m not going to go to Papua New Guinea and say, ‘You go cashless’.”

Tan called for an understanding that technology is a means to an end; to change how people live to bring about a more sustainable future. “Technology is really a tool, it’s not a goal in itself.”

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