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Growing urbanisation and the urgent need for “smart cities”

Within the Horizon Europe framework programme that begins in 2021, five mission areas can be identified. One of these areas is “climate-neutral and smart cities”. Smart cities are committed to improving their urban services through the use of digital technology. The EU defines a smart city as “a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies for the benefit of its inhabitants and business”. The emphasis on smart cities is understandable in light of the growing phenomenon of “city-zenship” that FCI has reported on previously, and the fact that the EU expects that 80% of the world’s population is likely to live in urban areas by 2050. Not only that, the prediction for 2100 is that there will be 17 cities with 25-50 million inhabitants and 3 cities with 50-100 million inhabitants – all of them in the “global south”.

At this moment we can only guess what the EU agenda for the smart cities will look like, as concrete targets and timelines still need to be set. However, as the European Commission has previously initiated the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC), bringing together cities, industry, SMEs, banks, research and other smart city actors, we can identify a few focus areas. EIP-SCC notes in its roadmap that the smart cities market must developed from an industry-driven model to one that is demand-driven and looks at the specific needs of cities. At the same time, however, the roadmap realises that “the public purse is not sufficient to deliver the transition from small-scale pilots to mainstream application”.

What are some of the smart city technologies that have been tested in small-scale pilot projects that will benefit citizens? As part of the EU-funded Lighthouse projects, European cities have been experimenting with ways to provide more secure, affordable and clean energy; smart electro mobility; and smart tools and services. As the focus is on energy and mobility & transport, supported by recent developments in ICT, dozens of European cities are improving energy efficiency in buildings and increasingly using electric and hybrid vehicles.

Nairobi and Cape Town are non-European examples where smart city technology is used to optimise resources, including by having street lights gather and send information on the traffic in real time. Both cities are said to look to Singapore as an example and the IMD Smart City Index 2019 indeed ranks Singapore in first place. Three reasons why Singapore does well is its emphasis on health, housing and infrastructure. With its focus on pedestrian walkways, underground car parks and outdoor green spaces, Singapore takes the long-term health of its citizens to heart. In order to integrate liveability, sustainability and growth, there is also an awareness to provide affordable housing. Up to 80% of the population currently lives in public housing. Finally, Singapore actively promotes the integration of active mobility modes like walking and cycling with public transportation services.

The need to develop into smart cities in order to successfully deal with issues such as air pollution, traffic congestion and climate change is urgent, and perhaps even more urgent in the global south, where the mega cities of the future will be located. Looking at the energy consumption of cities in the global south relative to their population, this is small compared to the global north. It is clear, however, that our natural environment will not cope if those in the developing world aspire to the same consumption habits of those in the developed economies and if the latter do not radically consume less.

Edited by: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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