Singapore's push to become a Smart Nation continues apace, with the recent announcement that statutory board Government Technology Agency now will come under the Prime Minister's Office, along with the Smart Nation Programme Office and technology planning teams from various agencies.
Eco-architect Jason Pomeroy, Generation T-lister and founding principal of Singapore-based sustainable design firm Pomeroy Studio and host of the Smart Cities 2.0 series (now available on Toggle), has explored some of the world’s most renowned smart cities. He shares his insights about the smartest cities combine technology, culture, history and tradition.
What were some of the most memorable moments from shooting this series?
Jason Pomeroy Having travelled to Europe, India, the Far East, North Asia and South-East Asia for the series, I think the most surprising thing for me was the sheer diversity as to what a smart city means to different people in different places. Each had their own unique challenges, be they technological, economic, socio-cultural, spatial or environmental, after which they developed their own smart solutions.
Higashimatsushima, Japan, and Bandung Indonesia are great examples of just how different the interpretations of what makes them ‘smart’ can be. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami brought unprecedented damage to Higashimatsushima. 65 per cent of the city was underwater, 1,100 lives were lost and approximately 10,000 residents had to be evacuated. Parts of the city went without power for three months following the disaster, exacerbating an already critical situation. From then on, the city’s governors promised to never be as reliant on the national grid again and to create a resilient and self-sustainable society for the remaining residents. The 2022 Net Zero Energy City plan aims to supply the entire city with locally produced energy. Solar power sites have been built, and the first micro-grid community (Higashimatsushima Disaster-Prepared, Smart Eco-Town) provides back-up power for itself and the surrounding community. The city’s entire grid infrastructure is smarter, leaner and more efficient, helping the city in its transition into a Smart City.
Bandung is a typical, rapidly growing Asian city. It has grown from 100,000 inhabitants in 1920 to 2 million today, and is forecast to expand to 4 million by 2030. The result is congestion, overcrowding and pollution that makes further economic growth difficult. The city tackles this by leveraging social media to connect the city government with its people. The Bandung Command Centre filters out trending topics such as floods or traffic jams so the government can quickly attend to the city's problems, and citizens can download one of the 320 apps that the government developed to notify them of issues like traffic. There are 5,000 WiFi hotspots dotted around the city (with 40,000 more on the way), ensuring that the city’s inhabitants are connected anywhere, anytime.
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What do you think is the biggest misconception about smart cities?
JP I think the romantic view of a Smart City is very similar to The Jetsons, a US cartoon in which the protagonists live in a futuristic utopia of robots, flying cars, holograms and inventions. Nowadays, most people would imagine bike-sharing schemes, driverless cars, fridges that talk, the Internet of Things and Big Data as Big Brother. This is a world that is dominated by technology, which permeates every aspect of life and is designed to make life easier and more productive.
While this is true to some extent, it is not the whole story. A city is not necessarily defined by technology and the Internet, but by whether the people’s collective intelligence can embrace the technology to enhance their day-to-day lives without sacrificing their cultural practices that are often rooted in history and tradition. This is what I find particularly exciting and interesting—technology is not the panacea that will solve all problems. Rather we need to pay attention to what really drives us as humans—our values, traditions, and cultures. If we get this right, our cities will become much more liveable, and smart.
What is the smartest city you have ever spent time in?
JP Years ago, I had a building project in Amsterdam and effectively spent 18 months of my life there. I wouldn’t have called it a smart city then, but revisiting the city for this series brought it home to me that civic consciousness, an active academic fraternity, a mobilised private sector wishing to invest in projects for the greater good of civil society and a liberal government are all essential ingredients to allowing a city to flourish. Amsterdam allows these four spheres of civil society, academia, the private sector and government to work in unison and the result is a city that is a joy to live, work and play in. The fact that they are able to take a potential threat such as water (50 per cent of Amsterdam is made up of water) and turn it into a positive attribute is encouraging and a lesson for other cities. Two-thirds of the surface area of the Earth is made up of water, and we can look to Amsterdam as a case study in water management, with strategies like explorations in autonomous boats, floating communities or even using recycled rainwater as a component in beer production.
I guess these earlier experiences must have subconsciously played a part in later waterborne projects that my studio has been involved with from both a commercial design and research viewpoint. ‘The Hibiscus’ in Port Dickson is the largest waterhome development in the world; whilst POG (an acronym for Pod off grid) was a completely floating zero0-carbon community conceived off one of the Venetian islands in Italy and the subject of a book that I wrote (Pod Off Grid: explorations into low energy waterborne communities) and a TV series on CNA (Futurepolis). We’re now looking for sites to be able to implement this vision in Asia.
There seems to be a generation gap when it comes to sustainability, with younger people tending to be more engaged in this issue. How do you deal with this when engaging clients?
JP One of the most exciting things about the younger generation is their interest in sustainability and the environment. This bodes well for the future. What is important though is to communicate, and articulate the economic and practical benefits that sustainability brings, not just the idealistic reasons. When we start to do this then older generations will take note, and real movement will happen.
I think one misconception that is often shared by young and old alike is the assumption that sustainability is expensive, a ‘luxury’ almost. This is simply not true, as we have demonstrated through the B House, a carbon negative home in Singapore that costs the same as a similar home in the area, and more recently Optimma, a carbon-zero mass housing project in the Philippines that will be affordable to the average working Class Filipino when it is complete in 2018.