Emerging economies are creating their own conception of

Emerging economies are creating their own conception of “smart cities” that incorporate appropriate technologies, mixed-use development, and sustainable transport. Photo by EMBARQ Brazil/Flickr.

The idea of “smart cities” – defined as those whose social and technological infrastructure accelerates sustainable economic growth – has captured the attention of city leaders and urban dwellers around the globe. It has also caught the attention of international development banks, as over the next fifty years, cities will garner some US$ 350 trillion in investment.

But for many emerging cities, basic services are far more vital than many of the flashier concepts associated with smart cities. Instead of leaving emerging cities out of this dialogue, some major players are coming together to find a new definition of what the smart city can signify for emerging economies with an emphasis on the social rather than the technological infrastructure.

At the center of this conversation are the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which helps growing mid-size cities in Latin America and the Caribbean find and implement sustainability projects that also increase quality of life, and the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, which provides policy analysis to leaders and investors in the Americas. The two parties used the launch of the Winter 2014 issue of Americas Quarterly: “Our Cities, Our Future: Making Cities Healthy, Green and Sustainable” to bring together a panel of experts from NGOs, academia, and business to develop a clearer idea of what “smart cities” for emerging economies will actually entail.

Data as natural resource

A central point of the panel’s discussion was the need to integrate data into every facet of emerging cities’ operations to enable sustainability. Michael Sorkin, Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at the City College of New York began the talk with the fact that “if the entire world used its resources at the rate of North America, we would need four Earths to sustain this level of consumption,” underscoring the need to shift to a more sustainable model of urban development. In response, Timothy Docking, lead of the Emerging Markets Funding Group at IBM, said that using data “to leapfrog past intermediate stages of development” is a key way to propel this shift. This means developing Wi-Fi networks instead of spending money installing power lines, or moving immediately into using wind power instead of coal. These smarter decisions will translate into billions of dollars and millions of tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that emerging cities will save by using data to get development right the first time around.

From “smart” to “appropriate” technologies

Many of the panelists recognized that not every city has the ability to put autonomous cars on their roadways, nor should they. Sorkin spoke about how smart cities do not even need to employ technologies to make them “smarter.” Smart urban design is a pivotal aspect of smart cities that does not necessitate large investment, but can have broad-reaching effects, instilling new sets of behaviors in urban residents, like shared streets that instill respect for pedestrians, or transit-oriented and mixed-use development that makes the city more conducive to a sustainable lifestyle.

Smart cities mean smarter decisions

Finally, the panelists stressed that when technology is used, it should be used to advance larger societal goals. Abha Joshi-Ghani, Director for Knowledge Exchange and Learning at the World Bank Institute, spoke about how, when deploying technology, leaders should think how it helps “departmental organization, inter-agency coordination, and giving citizens greater voice in their governments.” Joshi-Ghani provided the example of urban sprawl: understanding how urban sprawl has created car dependency and strained natural resources allows city leaders to create effective, environmentally-conscious policies the first time around. This necessitates swift knowledge exchange mechanisms between and across agencies as well as quicker turnaround between policy creation and implementation. This is the difference between smart cities and wise cities.

A hundred year discussion

As cities move further along in their development, the problems they face will change, as will the words to describe them. While this is one in what is likely to be a series of discussions on the intersection of smart cities and emerging economies, it is important in that it underscored the need for emerging cities to develop “smart” solutions that meet their needs rather than emulate the patterns of “smart” development prevalent in the developed world. Cities across the world are setting out on a journey towards smarter, more sustainable cities, and although many challenges remain, at the end of the event was a powerful feeling of ownership that these cities are creating a future that is purely their own.