Saturday, 13 February 2016

Smart cities were very much on the agenda at the World Government Summit, held in Dubai last week. Experts on the subject discussed the various dimensions of smart cities, from digital transformation to agile governance, and their challenges and enablers.

As part of the process to encourage government sector to take to smart ways, best government services on smartphone were honored.

Policymakers also discussed the next-gen opportunities and the numerous organizational, technological, cultural and policy challenges related to smart cities. Stakeholders from all over the world exchanged experiences, tried to build synergies and signed cooperation agreements. A report – Smart City for Public Value – shed light on the impact of a regional network of smart cities, besides listing its accomplishments.

There was a feeling though that while rapid progress is being made vis-à-vis smart cities, waiting eagerly for their turn are far-flung villages, which have virtually given birth to metropolitan cities that we inhabit today.

Smart cities would do well to adopt a village each – may be more – and replicate all the products and services they have managed to implement
Ehtesham Shahid

Dubai in particular, and the UAE in general, has been at the forefront of this drive toward smart cities. Its stated objective is to improve the quality of life and raise the levels of public “happiness”. “Dubai’s vision is not just to be the “smartest” city in the world by 2017 but also to be one of the “happiest” places on earth to live and work,” says the report.

The UAE is ranked 32nd in the U.N.’s ICT Development Index and 23rd in the World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index. Internet penetration in the country stands above 90 percent while penetration of mobile subscriptions is nearly 117 percent and progress is being made due to the infrastructure already available. Unfortunately, this is not the case all over the world, which also raises the question of equitable distribution of technology and services related to it.

There is no denying the advantages of having smart cities. It builds efficiency, enhances productivity and apparently also makes its inhabitants “happy”. But promised improvements in quality of life also, understandably, attract a large flow of population to mega cities. It is not surprising that the population of Dubai is expected to increase to five million by 2030.

With services getting better, communications getting smarter and lives getting “happier”, more aspirants are only expected to arrive in these cities from all over the world. More importantly, smart services may be reaching remote areas in the UAE but it is definitely not the case all over the world.

During the Summit, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, had a succinct and direct message. “We must address emerging digital divides between genders, generations, urban and rural areas, as well as between countries in peace and countries in crisis,” he said.
Adoption technique

The momentum being built by smart city applications is bound to reach villages at some stage. But for now, smart cities would do well to adopt a village each – may be more – and try and replicate all the products and services they have managed to implement in their respective cities.

Such attempts are already being made in some parts of the world but they are still few and far between. Moreover, these are not examples of a smart city adopting a village but instead of projects running parallel with little attempts to synergize the two.

It is also important not do this in a patronizing sort of a way. Last thing a deprived village would need is a shoddy corporate social responsibility exercise making a mockery of their already miserable condition. In effect, these adopted villages should become extended entities, even sounding boards, of some of these smart city developments.

Better still, if one needs to get away from the din and bustle of the city life, to unwind at a quiet place close to nature, they should be able to enjoy “smart village tourism” with the same set of facilities they enjoy in a smart city. If a few enterprising ones choose to settle down in a village, expecting to expand their businesses in villages, so be it.

That will truly be a case of smart cities and smarter villages.

Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.