The rise of the smarter, cleaner city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 March, 2012, 12:00am


We've all heard of smartphones, smart cars and even smart homes, but do we live in a smart city? Hong Kong has more embedded intelligence than most crowded megapolises, but its 'cashless society' innovations such as the Octopus smart card could soon be eclipsed by far more ambitious projects on the mainland.

A possible template for more than 20 purpose-built smart cities in China is springing up across the Yellow Sea on reclaimed land near Songdo, South Korea. There, 64 kilometres from Seoul, developers are constructing a 600-hectare city ready for 2017. Called New Songdo City, smart homes are at its heart. The 7,000 people who already live there (a total of 60,000 residents is the target) can already enjoy the fruits of 'U.Life'. This is a package of wired-up technology that allows householders to use all kinds of devices such as phones, PCs, tablets and touch-screen pads to control the lighting, heating, air conditioning and even blinds and curtains.

Residents will eventually have citywide access to TelePrescence units for video-calling friends and family, emergency services, schools and banks (TelePresence refers to phone technology that enables users to feel as if they are in the same room when they are not).

The infrastructure, too, is smart; sensors in the roads will measure vehicle loads and adjust traffic measures, and dim the LED-lit streets when no one is around. Refuse collection is done automatically by a network of vacuum pipes. The result will probably be a low-carbon, low-energy, but thoroughly hi-tech city, although still a recognisable one: the traditionally high-rise Central Business District remains.

New Songdo City isn't a planned government project. It's being wired up by Cisco and the city's developer is New Songdo International City Development (NSIC), a joint-venture between South Korean construction firm POSCO E&C and US-based developer Gale International.

Smart cities are big business, with US$39.5 billion due to be spent on their technology around the globe by 2016 - a five-fold increase over 2010. Suggesting that such a city must cover economy, environment, governance, lifestyle, transportation, and community, analysts at ABI Research identified 102 smart city projects worldwide, with 21 in the Asia-Pacific region.

'Over the next five years we will see a significant increase on spending for smart transportation technologies such as automatic vehicle ID and smart governance systems such as e-ID and ID document systems,' says Josh Flood, senior analyst at ABI Research.

The need for smart cities is obvious. Cities house just over half the world's population of seven billion, and that is expected to rise to 70 per cent (6.3 billion people) by 2050. Cities need to work efficiently, and that means good transport. Hong Kong is already highly regarded in this respect. It has to be, because it is so densely populated.

'There is a benefit to Hong Kong being so high-rise,' says Paul Katz, global managing principal of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), which counts New Songdo City among its projects. 'It's easier to be smart when you have high-rise cities - to invest in transport, get more connectivity and services close at hand, and it's easier to upgrade systems.'

KPF's International Commerce Centre (ICC) in Hong Kong is more than just home to the world's highest hotel. It's also the catalyst for a sophisticated transportation network that could make the Pearl River Delta area a more important model than Songdo for Asia's emerging megalopolises.

'The ICC helped pay for the airport and high-speed rail link. But the bigger picture is a 15-minute train journey from Kowloon to Shenzhen, and a further 20 minutes to Guangzhou, which will connect the Pearl River Delta megalopolis of 200 million people,' says Katz.

That 200km/h Hong Kong section is planned for 2015.

Hong Kong and Amsterdam were rated the world's best performing cities in terms of mobility by management consultancy Arthur D. Little (ADL). Its research covered everything from public transport's popularity and the number of cars per capita to average travel speed and transport-related CO2 emissions. Tehran and Atlanta, in the US state of Georgia, were at the bottom.

Hong Kong is cited as a 'leading city' in terms of its networked urban mobility system, with ADL commending the reduced incentive for people to drive (just eight per cent do) and the resulting low level of road deaths and transport-related CO2 emissions.

'Cities that don't move don't work. But most of the world's great cities have evolved through natural processes over hundreds, if not thousands, of years,' says John Miles, group director at Arup, and chairman of the UK Automotive Council's Intelligent Mobility Working Group.

Singapore and Songdo, where there's enough planning and authority to mandate the adoption of intelligent systems, are exceptions. But the 'viral growth' of the internet, web-connected smartphones and common access is anything but 'top down'.

Asks Miles: 'Could this sort of anarchic development, this Darwinian evolution of systems and facilities, achieve for mobility what the top-down approach has never been able to achieve?'

Technology isn't the answer to all social problems. But for now, it's where the smart money is.