Smart cities. What are they? How are they developed? And by whom and to what end?
These are some questions we grappled with at a recent workshop I attended titled 'Smart City Blueprint' organised by the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD).
It was an event meant to equip regional political parties with the skills for implementing smart city policies.
With most delegates coming from a political, rather than a technical background, concerns were raised about the potential conflict between technologies and democracy. Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party showcased their smart city initiatives, all of which involved civic participation and consultation.
Coming from Singapore, where technological infrastructure building is dominated by the state and its business partners, I was rather sceptical about the notion of a citizen-centred "smart city". Indeed, in our teleconference with the Taiwanese Digital Minister, Ms Audrey Tang, I inquired about how governments can avoid a technocratic regime which excludes "non-experts" from decision-making processes.
To answer my query, she shared with us the g0v (pronounced gov zero) movement that took root since 2012. Symbolically, the zero represents a shift from traditional, statist views of governance.
However, symbolism is never completely the same as actual practice. In Singapore, "Our Singapore Conversation" was similarly symbolic insofar as it alludes to a conversation between the government and the citizenry.
In actual practice, however, questionably worded surveys confused the "Conversation" with the state's agenda while many valid and sincere concerns raised by Singaporeans simply did not translate into actual policies.
This was apparently not the case with g0v. Since its inception, the movement has implemented many projects that were shaped by citizens, with many more in the works through regular public hackathons. One impressive project was the Government budget visualisation. Beyond displaying analyses of government taxation and spending, it included a feedback mechanism that was accessible to users as long as they had Internet access. The democratic implications are evident, governments could not shroud their spending through questionable appeals to the "greater good", nor could they feign ignorance of citizens' perspectives, for these are both transparent and available to the public.
Beyond the virtual realm, consultative practices were also actualised through the Digital Ministry's Social Innovation Lab. In this space, citizens were able to initiate and showcase their social innovations.
Minister Tang showed us the example of a self-driving tricycle created by a group of social entrepreneurs. This tricycle was modified by other members of the public to better suit the needs of the city. Eventually, this project was funded and promoted by the government.
This particular initiative struck close to home as it reminded me of my own start-up experience five years ago. A business partner and I created samples of Virtual Reality "Learning Journeys" that enabled students to explore heritage sites in Singapore which were beyond their usual National Education curriculum.
However, we learnt that such initiatives were monopolised by the Ministry of Education and any funding for innovations was limited to their testbed schools. While we had to scuttle the project, I learnt a valuable lesson, that state support was very important in fostering social innovation.
In the Taiwanese case, social initiatives did not have to undergo crippling red tape, nor were they limited to addressing government-defined problems. After all, who could better understand the problems faced by citizens, other than the citizens themselves? This is also true in the Northern European countries as well.
While we are constantly told that our Ministers are the best in the world, insofar as indicated by their earnings and qualifications, certain concepts fall beyond the grasp of ministries and government officials. In its recent move to ban PMDs and bicycles in 15 PAP-run estates, the government adopted a reactive approach and failed the account for the nuanced implications of such a drastic blanket ban.
Many of my friends who relied upon providing food delivery services for a living felt that such a ban had a significant reduction on their mobility and delivery rates, some even felt that food delivery was no longer a viable job option. While the safety risks of PMDs are well-documented, such populist and reactive policies without considering alternatives reflect an inherent lack of regard for the diverse needs of society and its members.
Herein lies the importance of consultative governance. Taiwan has shown that consultation and transparency can be greatly augmented through technological means. A "Smart City", then, is one that is founded upon a smart citizenry and active civic engagement – not just one with the latest gadgets.