Need for participatory approach in smart city development

More countries are rushing to make their cities smarter, by driving the use of technology – though that may not always be fully appreciated by citizens.

Take Singapore, one of the poster boys for smart city developments in Asia, for example. In a project involving the use of sensors to monitor the activities of seniors at home, it was found that the elderly had covered the sensors with towels out of privacy concerns.

In Yinchuan, China, completed residential and commercial buildings remain empty, even as the smart city promises to offer a better quality of life by automating many aspects of urban life, coupled with some good planning.

These are classic examples of what not to do in any smart city development – that is, not engaging citizens well enough to get their buy-in before rolling out a project. This often leads to white elephant projects, wasting resources that could have been put to better use.

Smart city planners could take a leaf from what some European countries have done.

Instead of a top-down approach to implementing smart city projects, Copenhagen in Denmark has residents installing sensors on their bikes to gather data on traffic. Why do they do this? To help fellow bikers avoid crowded areas, as well as the government in optimising road infrastructure.

This was only possible because the residents themselves see the benefits of those sensors, actively contributing to the project, and not because some city planner tells them that something is great.

Ultimately, smart cities, for their technology prowess, are all about improving the lives of people. That should not be forgotten as countries like Malaysia start to test technologies like mobile bus ticketing and cashless payments. Do citizens and businesses see the benefits of those initiatives? Will they be willing to participate in the projects?

Or, will the cost of embracing those technologies surpass any benefits they bring? These are important questions that can only be answered with a more citizen-centric, participatory approach to developing smart cities, and for any smart city project to have a whiff of success.