Urban planners in Asia are grappling with the fact that from this year onwards, more than 50 per cent of the continent’s population has shifted to urban areas from the rural countryside, and there is huge strain on already poor and outdated infrastructure. The continent will be home to 64 per cent of the world’s urban population by 2050 and in order to cope, cities need to be redesigned right now.

It is natural, therefore, that there is a great interest in smart cities across the continent as urban planners scramble to use technology to better the lives of their residents and cope with the massive influx of people.

Singapore has shown the greatest ambition in the region and is a trailblazer in the use of technology to better the lives of its citizens with its focused effort to build a Smart Nation.

As Brett Dixon, Asia Pacific General Manager of spatial analytics company Esri, notes, the most successful smart cities in the region, like Singapore, Incheon in Korea and Auckland in New Zealand, have one thing in common. And that is their policies around smart cities are citizen focussed. “They’re based on outcomes for citizens and outcomes for the cities and not necessarily talking about technology first,” Dixon notes.

He adds that citizens are more engaged in the process of defining what the city will be, what it is, what it will be, and what it should be. “And they’re engaged in the process from the beginning throughout the whole evolution. So that, to me, smart city thinking really should be centred on the citizen and outcomes for the citizens and technology is a tool for that.”

One key characteristic of smart city planning is the ability to understand the geographical characteristics of the urban area. This is vital for planning infrastructure, housing, zoning and traffic management. Fortunately, geospatial technology is helping officials to use GIS to plan urban development more wisely so that it has maximum impact. A geographic information system, or GIS, is designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyse, manage, and present all types of geographical data.

Esri’s Smart Cities Lead for West Asia, Middle East and Africa, Richard Budden, notes that location intelligence and a framework for geographic understanding is a crucial part of any smart city implementation. “Without an understanding of where assets are, where your people are, where your activities are taking place, looking at trends over time of people movements or transportation flows, any city leader, any government agency is not going to be able to act or plan or be effective without a clear understanding of location,” he adds.

Leading the way

In Singapore, government entities like Singapore Land Authority (SLA), Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Housing Development Board (HDB) are using GIS related information to provide solutions that benefit the common citizens.

Due to the constraints of a limited land area, one crucial Smart Nation push in Singapore is to look for ways to make better use of space, including venturing underground.

URA is using 3D modelling to visualise extensive and complex underground building projects, before even breaking ground. The agency’s Gemma (GIS Enabled Mapping Modelling and Analysis) platform assists in planning for the future by helping to identify key areas to inject more jobs or homes, rejuvenate older towns or bring more job opportunities closer to residential localities so that workers do not need to travel far. The agency is designing new business hubs close to residential districts around the city, in a bid to cut rush hour traffic.

LTA uses GIS to focus on areas where there is overcrowding in the public transportation system. Using the system it addressed overcrowding, frequency of service and delays by adding 1,000 buses to routes that required them. The LTA’s choice to employ technology-led decision-making has resulted in a cut of average wait times by up to seven minutes and a 60 per cent reduction in persistently crowded bus services.

Another example of the use of technology is SLA’s solar potential analysis programme which informs utilities on how best to leverage the country’s solar power potential to provide consumers with a reliable source of renewable energy.

Singapore is not alone in using smart technologies to improve the lives of its citizens.

For example, the Brisbane City Council has been using a 3D map to develop a sustainable growth model. The innovative model enables the visualisation and analysis of development plans in relation to the existing urban environment and in a level of detail not previously possible.

Its accuracy and ability to consume 2D and 3D data from multiple agencies and take advantage of emerging technologies such as virtual reality and drones, has seen it set a benchmark as a key strategic planning, development assessment and community engagement tool.

Digital transformation

Smart Dubai, the government agency leading Dubai’s digital transformation, is also using 3D technology to underpin its Dubai Pulse smart city application. Dubai Pulse uses Esri’s ArcGIS platform to create a realistic digital twin of the city, and provides more than 44 government entities with intuitive and secure services and tools including dashboards, mobile apps and analytics capabilities.

“Dubai Pulse acts as a digital aggregator for all of Dubai’s data, allowing leaders and stakeholders in all sectors across Dubai to easily access impactful information and data to assist in everyday business planning and overall city management,” said Her Excellency Dr Aisha Bin Bishr, Director General of the Smart Dubai Office. “The platform is open for the public and private sector to contribute to and build, helping enhance the city’s ability to analyse data, expedite decision-making, and innovate accordingly.”

In the US, Los Angles uses GIS technology to integrate more than 500 datasets into a centralised business intelligence system. It allows staff, the public, and outside agencies to access, visualise, and analyse real-time data relating to the city’s operations. City departments, the county, state, and federal government all contribute data, with plans for non-profits and universities to also contribute to the growing knowledge bank.

According to the Mayor of Los Angles, Eric Garcetti, public safety personnel can make critical, real-time decisions based on solid, map-based data. “If a firefighter with an iPad or a mobile device is called to respond to an emergency like an earthquake, then thanks to GeoHub, they could just pull up more than the 911 data for that call. They could find important facts, like building inspection status, location of the nearest fire hydrants, sewer lines, streetlights – any information that would make it easier to respond to an emergency,” Mayor Garcetti adds.

Maps provide that common language of space. Geospatial technology provides a common framework by which governments, businesses and communities can engage and collaborate, Dixon adds.

Speaking to Govinsider, Jack Dangermond, founder and President of Esri, notes that the “most inspiring thing” is that governments are using location intelligence to engage their communities in building smarter cities. “They are achieving this through data-driven grass-roots solutions and apps,” he adds.

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