The Planning Imperative for Smarter Better Cities

With more than 80 percent of global GDP generated in cities, cities are the primary drivers and engines of economic growth, innovation and opportunity. Cities can be powerful magnets for largest enterprises and highly skilled and educated workers. They are the gateways for visitors and new immigrants. They are important trade hubs for both goods and services, and the focal points of global commerce. They house substantial infrastructure assets and major institutions that power regional prosperity and the nation’s quality of life.

Cities can also become home to increasing social disparities, poverty, pollution, waste and environmental problems. The ability of cities to create new jobs and opportunities, absorb new visitors and immigrants, and provide a good quality of life to every resident and citizen is a key determinant of its competitiveness and attractiveness for capital, talent, skilled labor and trade. That ability comes from capacity and governance. Urbanisation can contribute to sustainable growth if managed well by re-thinking city planning process and technology, adopting new operating models and allowing innovation and new ideas to emerge.

Planning, development and management of cities have become far more complex than even a decade ago as the global economy continues to integrate. Cities must adapt to social, economic and environmental changes, adopt new technologies and processes, and be adept in new and innovative ways of managing themselves if they are to gain and sustain their attractiveness.

Many Asian cities are in dire need of infrastructure upgrades if they are to be celebrated as liveable cities. More than ever they also need to adopt new ways of planning and managing in order to generate revenues to pay for their bills and narrow their alarming budget deficits.

There are cities who cannot pay for all of their electricity bills and hence have to reduce operating hours. Better water and waste management are a growing concern, as are mobility related issues.

The list of challenges is well known and some cities have taken initiatives but they are all for tackling the symptoms and not solving and addressing the roots of the problems: poor planning and governance.

Among the emerging technologies available today are the tools for more effective planning.

These tools can manage the ill effects of urban sprawl, reduce capital and operating costs of infrastructure and help cities adapt and respond quickly to economic, environmental and societal changes.

These technologies are effective and take just hours (instead of current months) to model, analyse, simulate and visualise cities in interactive 3D. However they depend heavily on availability and accuracy of data: spatial, transactional, demographic, operational and sensor data. This becomes a challenge for cities that do not even have a master plan of their street lighting systems. A master developer of a roughly 1000 ha. greenfield development in SEA believes that close to $150 million in infrastructure development costs can be saved by switching to a digital planning process.

Some of the current approaches rely heavily on technology and ‘point solutions’ that sometimes simply automates the inherited mess. In the past years, information technology experts and firms have proposed and launched an array of smart technology solutions that promises remedies for some of the perennial problems of city management - but before we start thinking and talking about technology and its benefits, we must address the planing and governance issues. City administrators, governments, institutional investors, financiers, technology firms, infrastructure development firms and other local agencies must come together, collaborate and find solutions that has long term investment value and benefits to citizens. Most importantly, governments must take the lead. Without their vision and will to re-imagining city planning, development and management, not much progress will be made.