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World Cities Summit, Singapore

Development cannot come at the cost of democracy, argues the World Bank and others

Global city gatherings have multiplied in recent years thanks to the increased prominence of urban issues on the global agenda. But among them, Singapore’s World Cities Summit (WCS), a biennial gathering now in its third edition, stands out. Over 15,000 delegates, hundreds of mayors and city officials from all over the world and a large number of companies active in the urban arena − from Accenture to KPMG, IBM to Siemens − flocked to the Asian city’s towering new casino complex (designed by Moshe Safdie) at Marina Bay to discuss pressing urban issues.

Of the many topics on the table, one cropped up again and again: Smart Cities. What does it signify? Why are companies racing haphazardly to implement ‘smart urban solutions’? Why is IBM forecasting the growth of a multi-billion dollar market in this arena by 2015? The idea is that what is happening at an urban scale today is similar to what happened two decades ago in Formula One. Up to that point, success on the circuit was primarily credited to a car’s mechanics and the driver’s capabilities. But then telemetry technology blossomed. The car was transformed into a computer that was monitored in real-time by thousands of sensors, becoming ‘intelligent’ and better able to respond to the race’s conditions.

In a comparable way, digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities over the past decade, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure. Broadband fibre-optic and wireless telecommunications grids are supporting mobile phones, smartphones and tablets that are becoming increasingly affordable. At the same time, open databases − especially from the government − that people can read and add to are revealing all kinds of information, and public kiosks and displays are helping both the literate and illiterate to access it. Add to this foundation a relentlessly growing network of sensors and digital-control technologies, all tied together by cheap, powerful computers, and our cities are quickly becoming like open-air computers.


The Marina Bay Sands Casino Complex where the World Cities Summit was held.

At the WCS, Singapore was an obvious reference. As stated by Cheng Hsing Yao from the Centre for Liveable Cities: ‘Singapore is a country and a city. We face constant pressure on making the best use of our limited land and resources which have made us become like a living lab where we can share our ideas.’ The transformations have been impressive. This city state of just a few million people, with limited natural resources (even water is imported from neighbouring Malaysia), has moved from struggling with slum clearance in the 1950s to having one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world today. As part of this transformation, Singapore has pioneered some of the first smart city solutions − from dynamic road pricing (subsequently adopted after a fashion by London) to smart energy and intelligent water management.

However, for all Singapore’s successes, the summit also gathered consensus on an important hurdle: many different models will be needed in the coming years to foster the development of our cities. Such was, for instance, the stance of Barcelona’s Deputy Mayor Antoni Vives i Tomàs, who is proposing a more Mediterranean interpretation of a smart city, drawing on urban excellence in the Catalan capital. A city ‘tout court’, as his team puts it, in view of the fact that any city should be smart. A city where public space has priority over most other infrastructures; where participatory bottom-up citizenship is more important than top-down urban optimisation; where intelligent city means more than open-air computing. And where − as Abha Joshi-Ghani from the World Bank put it by paraphrasing Burma’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi − ‘development cannot be at the cost of democracy’. The discussion will probably continue at the next stopover of the urban globetrotters and solution seekers: Barcelona’s own conference on Rethinking Cities: Framing the Future organised with the World Bank (8-10 October 2012).

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