Deploying disruptive technologies to reshape the future of cities

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As an urban dweller in Beijing, a rapidly modernizing city, my daily life would look like a science-fiction movie for people from just a few decades ago. I use my mobile phone to buy groceries, pay for meals, take photos, access the subway, and find my way to unknown places.

Digital technology has disrupted urban development and transformed city life, which makes me wonder: How will disruptive technologies reshape the future of cities, especially those in emerging economies?

In early July, I had the opportunity to join a three-day learning event on “ Disruptive Technologies for Development” held at the World Bank’s Singapore Hub.  

Singapore is ranked among the world’s top smart cities for good reason. To drive pervasive adoption of digital and smart technologies, Singapore launched the visionary “ Smart Nation” initiative by establishing a designated institutional arrangement, implementing strategic projects – on digital ID, e-payment, smart sensors platform, and smart mobility – and creating an enabling environment for innovation.

Deploying disruptive technologies can make cities better places to work and live in. Other takeaways from the event:

1. Smart cities are eventually about people rather than technology.
The concept of smart cities has evolved over time, and no one-size-fits-all solution exists. In Dubai, a pilot program is providing personalized smart services to residents. Users can benefit from a multi-functional smartphone app that can plan daily errands, buy e-tickets for trips, and provide reminders of nearby classes and other services.
These services are not unique to high-income countries. In China, more than 200,000 primary school students are learning English remotely from 30,000 North American Instructors. Migrant workers can transfer money to family members within seconds through online e-payment apps such as AliPay or WePay. The utilization of disruptive technologies has generated benefits to people across different gender, age, and social status groups. 

2. Deployment of disruptive technology should be based on clearly defined use cases and careful cost-effective analysis.

In recent years, I have seen unprecedented enthusiasm among Chinese government leaders to make cities smarter by using the most up-to-date information technologies. Some initiatives are well grounded while others are not, such as the overuse of facial recognition technology regardless of the actual efficiency of this specific technology. I am impressed by the pragmatic attitude of the Singaporean government, which has followed a systematic approach of imaging the potential uses, integrating existing resources, and improving the quality and efficiency of service delivery. Conducting cost-effective analysis for selecting appropriate technical options may not be easy, but it is worth keeping in mind that “the more the merrier” does not apply to the utilization of disruptive technologies. 

3. The private sector has a major role to play in bringing intelligence to city governance and management.
Building smart cities presents trillion-dollar business opportunities. Globally high-tech giants have had deep engagement in providing technical solutions. During the learning event, IBM shared its experience of using blockchain to facilitate international trading and food security for business owners, as well as to empower governments on advancing e-governance and the provision of public utilities. Similarly, in China, Alibaba established a “ City Brain” platform for Hangzhou. The platform enhanced the city’s administrative capacity for transparent governance, effective service delivery, and high-quality industrial development. 

4. Governments can focus on creating an enabling environment and watching for unintended consequences.
Singapore fosters an innovation-enabling environment, comprising not only common technical standards and procedures for data collection and sharing, but also legal frameworks with a clear mechanism that protects privacy and intellectual property rights. In the city’s vision for automated vehicles, possible unintended consequences are carefully investigated, such as traffic congestion, urban sprawl, and impacts on accessibility of lower-income groups.
City leaders can also amplify the influence of disruptive technologies by mobilizing additional resources from society. In Shanghai, the city government has launched a data-driven competition called “ SODA,” or Shanghai Open Data Apps, to unlock the value of various databases on key city management issues, such as air pollution, water quality, public transit, food security, consumer behavior, education, and healthcare.

To better prepare for the emerging demand for deploying disruptive technologies in cities, the World Bank has initiated wide internal discussions as well as external consultations toward a solid action plan. We welcome your ideas that can help us explore new opportunities at the technology frontier to build inclusive, resilient, and sustainable cities and communities.
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Wanli Fang

Senior Urban Development Specialist

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