'Technology in isolation for its own sake is useless’: citizens and leaders play a key role in forging a network of smart cities

To celebrate the 2020 IMD-SUTD Smart City results, a panel of experts from top-ranking smart cities look at ingredients of success
50 min.
September 2020


How ‘smart’ a city is plays a significant role in how well it has managed the pandemic, but it is not the exclusive criterion for measuring success in facing future global risks, experts said after examining the 2020 Smart City Index.

Success lies at the intersection of advanced technology, the engagement of vitizens and the role of leadership. This was the overriding message of an expert panel that convened to discuss the results of the 2020 SUTD-IMD Smart City Index, released earlier today. They were joined virtually by some 300 participants.

“In deploying technology we must not have the technology itself in mind so much as inclusion, making citizens the center of the universe and creating trust and transparency,” said Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative.

The discussion was moderated by Heng Chee Chan, Ambassador-at-Large with the Singapore Foreign Ministry and chairperson of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), which is the partner of IMD in this yearly ranking.

He said Singapore, which came top of the 2020 Smart City Index for the second year running, had been lucky with the success of its contact tracing system but stressed that “if people do not trust systems, they will not comply and cooperate”.

On inclusion, he said “not everyone has a smartphone”. In terms of citizen needs, he said the pandemic had highlighted how citizens are not interested in the ‘hows’ or ‘whys’ of information but in getting it fast.

Focusing on these three areas should be the driving force of making cities smarter.

Technology only provides added value

“Cities like Seoul are not as smart as Singapore, and yet COVID was more contained there,” said panellist and Director of the IMD World Competitiveness Center Professor Arturo Bris, cautioning that technology alone was no panacea.

So what other factors may come into play? Cultural ones are key, said Jan Pellervo Vapaavuori, Mayor of Helsinki since June 2017 and former Minister of Economic Affairs of Finland:

“Smart cities can only be based on smart people, on educating people and on how a society on average, has been educated.”

He suggested it was no coincidence that Singapore (1st) and Helsinki (3nd) had great education systems.

On the Finnish people, Mr Vapaavuori said “We are early adaptors, curious people; we trust society and the authorities. So we are willing to utilize the technology that society provides us with.”

He added that the right type of leadership action, based on a comprehensive approach and a  holistic view, was a necessary ingredient for smart cities.

Smart city leaders have a global responsibility

Mr Vapaavuori said that Helsinki might have escaped relatively unscathed from the pandemic so far but that it was “ so dependent on international trade that if the rest of the word was not feeling well it is still also a huge headache for us”.

On this, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, urged citizens to realise that whilst it was natural to expect their leaders to prioritise them as citizens, we live in a very interconnected, diverse world and “the only way to make it safe for every single one of us is to make sure everyone has the benefit of protection.”

This, he said, was why Singapore backs the WHO-led COVAX facility, a pooled procurement mechanism for new COVID-19 vaccines.

Bruno Lanvin, panelist and President of the IMD Smart City Observatory, added that leaders need to bring people together so they feel they’re part of building smart cities and there are benefits for them coming out of it.”

Find the city’s weakness, then add the technology

“Smartness is about linking needs to technologies,” said Professor Arturo Bris, Director of the IMD World Competitiveness Center. Different cities need to improve different areas – from traffic issues to hyperconnectivity. Identify the need first and then add the relevant technology. “The mistake is to start with the technology itself,” he cautioned.

It is a pitfall that is possibly part of the story behind some Chinese cities falling in this year’s ranking. Zhuhai, in 62nd position, is the best-performing Chinese city.

China is a great example of how you can have great traffic cameras but if you do not control traffic problems they can be useless,” he said. But Chinese cities also suffer from their size. “In China we see mega cities. Smarter cities tend to be small or mid-size,” explained Bris.

Trust in technology brings its smartness alive

Dr Balakrishnan stated that “whether a city is smart or not is whether citizens have deployed the technology properly.”

That, he explained, meant in an inclusive way that addresses the needs of people, not providers, and builds a high-trust society. “Then you have a virtuous cycle of hope, confidence and an ability to get things done, “ he said. “As a city, once you have met your own needs you can build a network.

“I think that the world in the future will consist of  network of cities providing new services. It will be a diverse one and now is a very interesting time in history,” he added.

The panel agreed that the future looks to be one of competitiveness and collaboration between regions and cities, not countries.

The Index, now in its second year, hopes to become a reference tool for policy makers looking to enhance citizen interaction with technology for the common good.

“We hope to improve the methodology year on year and make this index closer to a tool for action. Let’s be smart ourselves,” concluded Lanvin.


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