Strong economies key to smart cities: experts

International experts at the Taiwan International Smart Green City Summit in Taipei discussed how markets and businesses - and a mindful population - are critical to achieving a smart future

Smart cities are seen as the solution to the wave of urbanisation sweeping the globe, and a sustainability-oriented private sector combined with a robust economy are key factors that will speed up this transformation, said experts at the 2013 Taiwan International Smart Green City Summit on Friday.

Andrew Leung, president of the Asia Institute of Intelligent Buildings who spoke on ‘Achieving Sustainable Environments and Economies’ at the day-long event, pointed out that economic growth and the pursuit of wealth are drivers of urbanisation, drawing people to migrate to cities for better standards of living and well-paying jobs.

“I think, therefore, we have to concentrate on a mind-set that begins with the economy,” he added. “Without money, whatever plans (you have) to tackle urban issues is not sustainable.”

The 2013 Taiwan International Smart Green City Summit, part of the four-day 3rd Taiwan International Smart Green City Expo (BuildInG Taiwan), centred on the theme of “Green Vision, Smart Future”. 

Commissioned by the Bureau of Foreign Trade, Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) and organized by the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA), the series of talks and roundtables looked at the various problems and solutions implemented in different cities around the world, through umbrella sessions such as ‘Global Strategy’ and ‘Smart Innovations, Low Carbon, Green Economy’.

Alice Yu, commissioner of Taiwan’s National Council for Sustainable Development and president of the Yu Chi-Chung Culture and Education Foundation, told Eco-Business on the sidelines: “Every urban city is in transition and they encounter a lot of environmental and social problems.”

“The city is facing unprecedented lack of public facilities, environmental pollution, and lack of green space and other issues because of the rapid urbanisation around the world and the impact of global warming,” noted Peter Huang, TAITRA president and chief executive officer.

And in trying to resolve the need for more infrastructure and development and to accommodate the needs of a growing population and a lifestyle of overconsumption, cities are responsible for 70 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, said Arding Hsu, senior vice president of Siemens Limited China. 

Government can push initial ideas and set a framework but at the end of the day, if you have a good business model for people to change their behaviour, for enterprises and organisations to change their methods, then if it makes business sense and earns money, people will change themselves

Stanley Yip, director of planning and development for Arup China

Building blocks of smart cities

In China, where 70 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, there is a “need to put per capita emissions under control”, said Stanley Yip, director of planning and development for China at Arup, an international design and engineering consulting group. The Asian giant has been the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases since 2006, surpassing the United States.

To address this, China, through its 12th Five-Year Plan covering 2011 to 2015, aims to reduce its carbon intensity or carbon emissions per GDP by 17 per cent from 2010 levels. Arup, in particular, is working with a municipality in Beijing for its urban planning, looking at processes like water flow and waste management, not just the layout and structure of buildings. “The smart city is a city as a system,” he said.

This includes putting a digital infrastructure in place as well, he added, explaining that data gathered through information and communication technologies (ICT) helps in monitoring resource consumption and improving urban operational efficiency. 

Singapore likewise is taking various measures to transform into a smart city. As such, Taiwan considers it as one of its sustainability benchmarks, particularly for its strong push to achieve 80 per cent penetration of green buildings by 2030, said Huang.

Another step Singapore has taken is integrating greenery into the cityscape. Kok Fei Damian Tang, president of the Singapore Institute of Landscape Architects, shared how incorporating living systems – like in the Kallang River Master Plan that he led with the Public Utilities Board – improves people’s relationships with the environment. The Kallang River Master Plan allowed residents to immediately experience the benefits of having parks and green spaces along the previously ordinary canal and waterways.

Importance of businesses and markets

However, given the rapid rate of urbanisation and unrelenting growth, “there’s only one way to ensure that a solution can be scaled up in the shortest period of time – that’s the market”, said Yip.

“Government can push initial ideas and set a framework but at the end of the day, if you have a good business model for people to change their behaviour, for enterprises and organisations to change their methods, then if it makes business sense and earns money, people will change themselves. The business model and the market forces are the ultimate answer,” he explained. 

One example is American non-profit corporation Choose New Jersey. Tracye McDaniel, its president and chief executive officer, who gave a welcome speech at the summit along with Huang and participated at the Global Urban Planning roundtable with Yip, among others, explained that they are one of only about three “next generation types of economic development models” in the United States.

Funded wholly by the private sector, they work with the state government to develop local economy through funding and attracting jobs and foreign direct investments. 

Such a thriving business environment encourages sustainable communities to grow in New Jersey. The state has a ‘Sustainable Jersey’ municipality certification programme, shared McDaniel. Not only does it “provide a sustainable quality of life over the long term for its citizens”, this programme features three components: prosperity, supporting communities to let them grow and maintain wealth; planet, to enable the practice of environmental management and conservation; and people, to let them embrace social equity and fairness in their communities, she explained. 

Since its launch two years ago, out of the 525 municipalities in New Jersey, there are 399 registered municipalities and over 134 have been certified. This sustainability programme cuts across energy efficiency, food preservation, farmland programmes, green business recognitions, health and wellness, water and waste reduction, recycling and other aspects of smart city living, said McDaniel. 

More than profits, people factor

On the other hand, Tang said, “I wouldn’t want to focus too much on economies.” He emphasised that the needs of citizens should be considered in building smart cities, especially in how they view urbanisation and understanding how it impacts their lives.

For example, he mentioned an initiative in Singapore to educate the elderly into using the internet and computer technologies to help them become integrated in a digitally wired world. He also noted how the national government is beginning to speak to people to get them involved in developing programmes.

In Taiwan, Yu likewise told Eco-Business how locals are being educated as environmental protectors, stirring dialogue on sustainability. “But sustainability indicators or the aspects detailing sustainable development have to be considered in terms of execution rather than dialogue, since talk is not enough,” she said. “The political ideology is the most important challenge to beat in Taiwan, since government leadership and budget planning are not yet that confident or are not yet concrete in the policy process.”

“It’s not really an impossible dream,” said Yu of smart cities.

Yip did point out: “The key to success is not how much money we invest, the infrastructure that we build, but how we change people’s lifestyles.”

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