Thursday, March 31, 2011

Digitally enabled cities and societies will enhance sustainability in the urban century

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: According to a report released by Ovum, the analyst and consulting company, information technology is an important enabler of a more sustainable approach to designing, building, and operating cities. New greenfield cities and major urban renewal projects provide the focus and investment needed to reengineer the way a city and its society works.

The United Nations is predicting that the world's cities will need to house an additional 2.9 billion people by the middle of what is being called "the urban century." Hundreds of cities will be built and expanded to accommodate migration and growth – particularly in China and India. “This is leading to a rise in competition between cities to attract and retain the investment and people needed for urban development and revitalization” said Dr Steve Hodgkinson, Research Director.

The report, titled “Is your city smart enough?”, identifies two broad streams of digital enablers in cities. The first, Digital-City strategies, are the formal, inside-out projects that provide new ways for public authorities, utilities, and developers to architect and build more efficient infrastructure and services. Digital-City strategies include such things as IP network infrastructure, e-government/Government 2.0 services, and the digitization of processes and systems in urban planning, transport, healthcare, education, utilities, and buildings.

The second, Digital-Society initiatives, are more emergent, outside-in initiatives. They stimulate self-help and co-production behaviors in the community, strengthen social capital, and engender digital inclusion. They complement Digital-City strategies but also hold government bodies to account. Digital-Society initiatives are often created using low-cost websites and publically available social networking platforms such as Facebook.

Hodgkinson states, “Together, formal Digital-City strategies and emergent Digital-Society initiatives offer the prospect of making cities more efficient and more livable even as they become more densely populated.”

He also observes that Digital-City strategies offer a breath of fresh air to stale e-government programs – many of which have reached a plateau in recent years. Online services benefits have been realized, but deeper citizen-centric reform has often become stymied by political volatility, structural complexity, and the conflicting agendas of multiple layers of government.

“The timing is right for cities to drive innovation in the next few decades for a number of reasons. Firstly, urbanization trends compel cities to innovate to prosper – sustainably accommodating a further 2.9 billion people in cities during the next 40 years can’t be done unless we change the way they are built and operated. Secondly, cities bring new energy and focus to e-government – cities are decisive, commercially focused, and by necessity citizen-centric. Intra-city competitive pressures on a global stage will only make them more so in the future.

"Finally, the technology building blocks of Digital-City strategies are becoming increasingly globalized and commoditized – available to any city on equal terms. Cloud computing is creating the means for cities to use shared global technology and solution platforms, rather than each city reinventing the wheel by building and owning fixed assets and dedicated solutions,” states Hodgkinson.

Greenfieldcities are the urban laboratories where the next generation of Digital-City technologies is being developed. Songdo in South Korea is a good example. Global technology company Cisco is implementing a Smart+Connected Communities program to implement leading-edge IP networks and IT systems in all aspects of Songdo’s infrastructure and operations – in its utilities, transport, hospital, school, offices, and homes. For example, every Songdo home will have a high-definition TelePresence unit provided as part of its infrastructure – with 20,000 units so far confirmed. The city will feature an integrated control centre for all of its essential and emergency services.

“Solutions developed in places like Songdo and deployed in the cloud by global companies like Cisco will provide the tools for other cities to accelerate their Digital-City visions. Indeed, this approach may be just the competitive advantage a city is seeking,” Hodgkinson adds.

“Mayors and CEOs of municipal authorities should pay attention to leading Digital-City practices emerging around the world and assess the opportunities to leverage new ideas and share proven solutions. They should also note that global platforms are empowering citizens to create vibrant Digital-Society initiatives of their own. Technology is providing new low-cost tools to strengthen communities and new ways for communities to express their voice and to hold governments to account.”

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