‘Smart’ cities offer potential cure for America’s urban woes

SEOUL. South Korea | If Americans are to address a rising tide of urban dysfunction and implement high-tech, smart cities, they must focus not only on digital technologies but also on the culture of digital citizenship.

That’s the prescription of Park Jung-sook, secretary-general of the World Smart Sustainable Cities Organization, or WeGO, a global association of over 200 cities worldwide.

“Data is the blood of a smart city and data is generated by smart citizens,” Ms. Park says, “so the social contract is more important than ever.”

The adoption of new technologies may address what more and more Americans feel is the declining quality of life in the country’s greatest cities, including rising crime, underpopulated downtowns and declining revenue bases for basic services and security. But the tech-adoption strategies must be systemic rather than simply physical, smart city analysts say.

“Smart cities are not just master planning,” Ms. Park said. “They are a new culture for humankind.”

They demand, she noted, the adoption of realistic attitudes toward data collection; pragmatic attitudes toward data use; and an updated series of protocols governing the interfaces between technology, government, business, the individual and society.

Calling smart cities “a kind of choice,” Ms. Park observed, “If citizens don’t supply data, you don’t get a smart city.”

Alluding to anti-mask protesters during the recent COVID-19 global pandemic, she said: “That is your choice, but you may be left behind, you may become marginalized in your own city – or you may die.”

The fourth industrial revolution

Inner-city America needs help. 

Crumbling infrastructure; overpopulation and homelessness; fentanyl epidemics and disintegrating law and order — these are just some issues plaguing cities that once were admired worldwide.

 A 2022 article in The Atlantic reported that New York, where over a third of a million persons live in public housing and a quarter of a million are on waiting lists, is seeking a jaw-dropping $78 billion to fix its facilities. In Seattle, a poll this year found that 59% of respondents believed their city had gotten worse over the last three years.

Solutions may lie across the Pacific, where Seoul-based WeGO had its origins in e-governance.

South Korea, with its educated, urbanized population densely clustered in high-rise apartment complexes, set up a nationwide broadband network in the 1990s. Similar futuristic approaches were pioneered in a slew of mobile service rollouts.

The result: South Koreans became among the world’s most gadget-friendly, tech-savvy people, while the national government has set a global standard in e-governance. WeGO, with 50 original member-cities from around the globe, was founded in the South Korean capital in 2010.

In 2017, WeGo shifted its mission with the recognition that public-private partnerships, rather than just governments, are key to livable cities, Ms. Park said. The global shutdown and disruptions brought on by COVID forced another shift, underscoring the “importance of integrating resilience in our cities to ensure the well-being of citizens.”

Can these lessons be learned across the Pacific? Many of the great American urban conglomerations grew to their present prominence in a very different time.

“New York, Seattle and LA were very successful cities in the era of the Third Industrial Revolution,” she said. “But now we have to change our perspective.”

Historians date the Third Industrial Revolution to 1969, ushering in an era of vastly more powerful telecommunications, electronics and personal computers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is ongoing, marked by the digitization and automation of industries, media and societies.

“We have to adapt to new machines and technologies” with related protocols, she said. “This is the basis of society.”

Data and democracy

Data-intensive technologies helped South Korea meet the challenge of the COVID virus with zero lockdowns and some of the world’s lowest per-capita death tolls. A core tool was an information web that, under emergency laws, that was able to synchronize “big data” drawn from customs information, closed-circuit TV networks, credit card transactions, public transport usage and smartphone location tracking.

Artificial intelligence systems then mined this data ocean to find persons who had been close to infected persons. A private-sector messaging app, Kakao, was used to warn tracked citizens to test.

South Koreans largely did not protest these invasive measures, Ms. Park noted, surprisingly attributing the acceptance to the deep roots of  democracy in the country today and a trust by citizens that the data would not be put to malign uses.

“Voting rights are very important,” she said. “We trust our government and give rights to our leaders, then do our best to be good citizens.”

That approach may be a tougher sell in the United States, with a traditional popular skepticism of central government and intrusions on person property and liberties. Ms. Park counters that anyone who has an online presence has already effectively abandoned control of their personal data.

“Already, Google has all this information about you,” she insisted. “You trust Google but won’t give your information to your own country?”

She grants that South Korea’s more homogeneous, communal society is very different from the diverse, individualistic American model, but says a balance must be struck.

“During[COVID], we realized that digital identity is very important,” she said. “But we have to find our digital rights.”

Elected officials are the key to building trust.

“I cannot protest against a big company, but over city leaders, I have a voice,” she said. Likewise, social media has granted citizens creative tools and feedback mechanisms traditional media lacked.

Smart cities, smart citizens

For cities and city residents prepared to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution, multiple technologies have emerged to improve the quality of urban life.

“Smart curtains” are digital drapes that can be chosen from any color or pattern, and drawn across windows manufactured of transparent displays. These windows can also replace stand-alone TV screens.

Ms. Park prefers to talk not of specific technologies, but of the benefits they offer. “We are facing a low birth-rate cliff, so the question is how to make houses more comfortable and more convenient for spouses.”

That means not simply building traditional public housing, but housing tailored to habitation groups. For example, housing zones for singles need multiple public spaces to enable interactions, from shared laundries to shared meeting spaces.

As mega-cities rise, commutes extend and inner-city property prices soar. Decentralization is one answer; Sao Paulo, she said, is taking a deep look at how to expand remote work and education.

Singapore leads in smart sustainability, she said. Gaps are purposely built in high-rise buildings to reduce heat, and rainwater-collection facilities water plants in the complexes’ public green spaces.

In crime-ridden cities, surveillance cameras are essential, but draw complaints about privacy violations. Some British CCTV companies are programmed to blur faces — but also deploy AI to recognize violent movements or weapons, enabling swift police responses.

AI embedded in CCTV also can also calculate numbers of persons in spaces, enabling warnings of dangerous overcrowding at public events such as concerts. Related systems in transport terminals enable faster passenger movement around choke points.

Cities even take a “smart” approach to waste management:. In Tunis, sensors in trash cans alert authorities when full, enabling sanitation workers to plan their routes and pickup times more efficiently.

In Seoul, citizens can rent sustainable transport — public bicycles — via an app. Bike sensors show authorities if and where bikes are abandoned, enabling efficient collection at night.

Such oversight promotes “ethical citizenship,” Ms. Park said, but she acknowledges the tradeoffs that come with a wider system demand a “big discourse” —  a social compact on digital rights and ethics.

“You need a centralized system, then you can have all these things,” she said. “Smart city! Smart citizens!”

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