Future-ready cities need engaged communities. Here’s why.

By Ranamita Chakraborty and Yogesh Hirdaramani

At GovInsider’s recent Festival of Innovation, panellists from the urban planning, philanthropic, and technology sectors discussed how cities need engaged, open-minded communities, alongside smart technology, to build resilience and go future-proof.

Earlier this year, the Canadian city of Toronto announced the development of a zero-carbon, affordable neighbourhood, after plans for a data-rich hub had been scrapped, according to a report by the MIT Technology Review. The writer said that the initial data-driven vision had failed to account for the needs and culture of Toronto citizens, focusing instead on what might be characterised as bells and whistles.

At the Festival of Innovation 2022, panellists from the public and the private sectors discussed how smart cities can adopt technology to improve the lives of citizens. Nevertheless, a resounding message was clear: Smart city technology needs to play a complementary role for communities that actively participate in resilience building.

As agencies prepare technology crucial for upcoming challenges – from climate threats to future pandemics – it is critical that they also invest in developing engaged communities that can weather adversity and actively support their most vulnerable members.

Smart can’t replace heart

Near the end of day one’s closing panel, Going Beyond Livable: Towards Lovable Smart Cities, moderator Tamsin Greulich-Smith asked the floor: How do we balance between the objectives of a smart city and a heart city?

The question tapped in to the central tension that panellists had been grappling with: What role does a smart city play in enabling genuinely lovable communities? Does smart city technology complement or challenge the organic and serendipitous connections people form with one another and with the city itself?

In the panel’s opening presentation, Mark Wee, an adviser to and former Executive Director of the DesignSingapore Council, said that fostering a community’s sense of belonging was crucial to building resilience for future crises. Although smart city technology is critical to ensuring people’s daily needs are met, it is the intangible, human factor that keeps a city running during difficult times amid problems from ageing populations to climate threats.

Melissa Kwee, Chief Executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), suggested that the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic might prove instructive.

She said that during the pandemic, citizens had used digital platforms not only to meet their own needs, but also to meet the needs of others. For instance, the NVPC’s online donation platform, Giving.sg, received S$102 million (US$73 million) of donations in 2020 – more than double what it received in 2019. She said that showed how creating the right digital channels for people to share and give could help foster a sense of community and “lovability”.
“Lovability is loving, it’s being able to give and share”
- Melissa Kwee, Chief Executive, National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, Singapore


Similarly, Woo Jun Jie, a Senior Research Fellow in the Governance and Economy Department at the Institute of Policy Studies, noted that technology played a crucial role in ensuring people remained connected during the pandemic and had created a “digital layer” over the city.

“Technology is an enabler. It’s here to enable your lives and [it] makes things easier … and then you can focus on what matters to you,” Gregoire Thomas, Head of Vertical and Specialised Partnerships at telecoms supplier Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise. He shared that smart city tech should be adopted not for tech’s sake, but to solve human challenges such as ensuring that transportation was reliable. Such tech should be responsive to a city’s unique history and culture, he said.

Wee said that the next step forward might be for technologists to work with designers, the public sector and urban planners to facilitate engaged and loving communities. In this vision, technology would not merely serve to meet basic needs, but also to actively build communities.

Resilience tech required

Beyond community building, technology also helps government agencies to predict and manage large-scale threats that may not otherwise be possible to confront. At the Creating Future-Proof Cities panel, panellists explored how government agencies can tap such technology to boost resilience.

Supercomputing technology stands as an example in which tools are playing a major role in helping government agencies extract insights from massive amounts of data. They are improving the ways in which cities are administered and addressing challenges ranging from air pollution to urban planning and even climate change, as GovInsider has reported.

During the panel, Efthymia Pavlidou from Singapore’s National Environment Agency explained how she uses supercomputing technology to monitor environmental hazards in the region. Such threats include forest fires and transboundary haze that can affect Singapore’s air quality, as well as volcanic eruptions which can disrupt operations in its airspace.

“Since we can not change the external conditions, we can monitor the situation and make sure we prepare suitable responses to it,” Pavlidou said. Her agency is using machine-learning and deep-learning algorithms to gather a wealth of satellite data and monitor large and remote areas.

The National Environment Agency is also building software so data can be extracted on specific events such as haze. Pavlidou said a need existed to find an efficient way to obtain meaningful insights from the data collected using technology.

Supercomputing technology is also helping government agencies improve sustainability by building digital twins of data centres and cities. Panellist Wen Yong Gang, a Professor and ​Associate Dean of Research, at Nanyang Technological University’s College of Engineering said large-scale computational resources were needed to run digital twins, making supercomputing a necessity.

Digital twin technology involves mapping the physical world in cyberspace and seeing how scenarios play out in a virtual environment to assess their impact, he explained. During his keynote speech, he shared that he was using digital twins to plan energy-efficient data centres before they are built.

Urban planners can also use digital twins to plan cities and ensure they are environmentally sustainable. “Today, we can run climate models against geospatial 3D models of cities and calculate where we can place parks to have cold and fresh corridors,” said panellist Roman Skorzus, Policy Lead in the Tech for Development Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Data builds durability

None of this would be possible without real-time, reliable data. Data is a crucial element of making cities sustainable, resilient and ready for the future. For example, data such as weather forecasts is vital when it comes to environmental threats, Skorzus said.

A recent project on climate resilience by the Tony Blair Institute found that just 23 per cent of least-developed countries were using early-warning systems properly. Government agencies in such countries faced challenges such as weather stations not being available, a lack of processing power, and inadequate staff to run models, leading to losses of life and money, he said.

Cities may also be less resilient when agencies are not empowered to collaborate on solving problems. Skorzus said that in Kyrgyzstan, the weather agency was legally required to charge for any use of its data, creating obstacles for other government agencies as they were prohibited from using valuable weather data.

Echoing that view, fellow panellist Andre Araujo, a Field Specialist in Data-in-Motion at US-based enterprise data management systems supplier Cloudera said data were required to understand what was happening in cities and how they were evolving in order to drive positive change in the future. “Today, we have an array of different technologies we can use to acquire that data,” he said.

Throughout cities, sensors are busily engaged in collecting data from just about everything – from weather conditions to crowd density to road traffic. However, government agencies must be able to make sense of such large amounts of data effectively.

Creating platforms and developing systems capable of processing all that data would set cities up for success, Araujo said. Agencies could then process that data to generate real-time, rapid insights that could inform their decision-making at critical moments.

Beyond government agencies, resilience also means empowering ordinary citizens to come up with solutions during crises. Woo said an example of this might entail providing an open data platform for citizens to access data in real-time so they can understand how they could help their community and respond to a crisis.

He pointed out that governments don’t always have the requisite tools or expertise, making it necessary to leverage people’s knowledge and experience at the most basic level, noting that that was the direction in which Singapore was headed with its Smart Nation initiative. Smart Nation Singapore has made datasets collected by public agencies accessible to the public to encourage co-creation.

Although it may be easy to be enthralled by a vision of technology and data as the solution to all ills, government agencies must complement such efforts with active community building. Nevertheless, as panellists at the Festival of Innovation pointed out, investing in the right tech tools at the right time can empower citizens and government agencies to connect and build more resilient communities.

To watch these panels or other panels at the Festival of Innovation, register here.