The New Era Of Smarter Cities

October 30, 2018
kamikatzu waste project
Zero waste project in Kamikatzu, Japan. Photo by Robert Gilhooly / Alamy

In 2003, an inland municipality with only 1,700 inhabitants faced a major challenge: the central government, concerned about the negative consequences for the environment, decided to ban the open waste burning. From that moment, in that country, urban waste would have to be disposed of in standardized incinerators. The city, which did not have the necessary financial resources to build the incinerator, faced a major dilemma: it could not finance the infrastructure needed to process all the waste produced in the municipality, but it could not fail to comply with a new national legislation.

Analyzing deeply the problem and the options, the solution was simpler and more obvious than it seemed: if it is not possible to build the incinerator, why not reduce the production of urban waste? A great political mobilization was made in the city to raise awareness and engage citizens in this difficult mission, and the result was far beyond what was expected. 15 years after the initiative, the small town of Kamikatsu in Japan is reusing and / or recycling more than 80 percent of all the waste produced. Moreover, the city expects to be, in 2020, the first in the world with zero waste production.

This is a true story that could have happened anywhere in the world. In my opinion, Kamikatsu is one of the most important references for understanding the concept of smart cities, precisely because it has nothing to do with technology. On the contrary, it was exactly the non-use of the cutting-edge technology that promoted disruption.

The problems faced by our cities are similar across the globe and many of the solutions can be simple and accessible to any municipal budget. They must, necessarily, undergo a wide discussion with society, evolving a process of co-creation. It is precisely along this path that we can make our cities smarter.

Smart City is not just geographic space. The concept refers, above all, to a change in the mindset of the society, which goes from the political class to the citizens. My “romantic” definition for the term is: smart city is a place where everything seems to conspire to make our lives better.

This concept of smart city is not new. It was born in the early 1980s, especially in the United States, with the use of technology in the systematic search to solve, or at least minimize, major urban problems. Throughout these almost 40 years, there has been a great acceleration in the process of global urbanization. According to the UN, we have jumped from 39.28 percent of the world's population living in cities in 1980 to 54 percent in 2017. In some Latin-American countries like Brazil, the numbers related to the same period are even more impressive: according to the IBGE, the country had 66 percent of its population in urban centers. By 2020, this rate will reach astonishing 90 percent.

This rapid population growth in cities - and consequent exodus from rural areas - has its consequences for society. The first reflexes are felt in the so-called urban problems. Some global numbers illustrate this well: in the United States alone, an estimated $ 121 billion is wasted annually by traffic jams; if we go to health, according to studies by The Lancet, 95 percent of the world's population has at least one type of illness. Cities' challenges do not stop there: Unicef ​​figures indicate that currently around 64 million children between the ages of 6 and 11 do not have access to the school system. And you can imagine, the solutions are not just building more roads, more hospitals and more schools.

It is precisely the complexity and scale of these problems that have driven the evolution of the concept of intelligent cities. If, in the 1980s, all projects were 100 percent technologically based, today the focus on the citizen and the increase of quality of life in cities are - or should be - the pillars of this process.

It is then that comes a methodology that we have been developing and implementing in the last three years: City SmartUp. Much more than a mere play on words, it is the union of two concepts: smart cities plus the mindset behind the startups. In practice, it is a matter of rethinking our cities following four steps based on the principles of entrepreneurship and innovation that we find in the management of startup companies. They are: focusing on the DNA of the city; cultivate simplicity; seeking new partnerships and fostering public-private-PEOPLE partnerships, the PPPPs.

Renato de Castro is the ambassador of Smart Cities at the TM Forum from London, a member of the board of directors at the NGO Leading Cities from Boston, and Volunteer Senior Adviser at International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations information and telecommunications agency. He has accumulated over two decades of experience as a global executive within Asia, the Americas and Europe.

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