Smart Cities need Smart Governance

Modern cities are over-engineered to the point that they no longer serve the needs of the people who live in them. Urban sprawl, long commutes, hollowed-out inner cities and soaring home prices are just a few of the symptoms of an urban development model that is not working as it should.

Cities need to reconnect with their residents. Modern urbanites, interacting with municipal services using smart devices and social media, have never been closer to their cities. And city administrators have never had such granular insight into how well they are performing.

Modern ‘smart’ cities deploy technologies that allow them to listen to their residents, analyze the data generated by citizen interactions and respond rapidly to evolving trends.

But imagining the technologies and lifestyle changes that will emerge over the coming decade is only the beginning. A city is only truly smart if both its infrastructure and its institutions are optimally responsive and adaptive to future changes. To achieve that you have to go back to basics and examine not only how a smart city is built but how it is governed.

The private sector has an important role to play not only in the delivery of services but in the smart governance of new cities. Municipal services offered by government are often costly and inefficient because there is little real accountability to improve them. Five-year election cycles and entrenched bureaucracies are the enemies of agile urban development.

In King Abdullah Economic City many services provided by government in traditional cities – health services, education, security, road maintenance and others – are instead managed on a corporate basis. Government provides the license to operate: the city developer provides the services.

This is the level at which the private sector excels. Successful companies are those that meet and exceed their customers’ needs while reducing costs, increasing efficiencies and enhancing the bottom line. And companies operate on an approval framework measured in quarters, not political cycles.

Smart governance ultimately is what distinguishes truly smart cities.

This is still an evolving field. At KAEC, for example, we are exploring ways to involve residents and tenants more directly in the governance of the city. By giving people a greater say in how their city is operated we can better understand and meet their needs.

We are introducing on-demand administration, allowing citizens to interact with the city management directly via a suite of dedicate smartphone apps. And we are planning for the future, examining the impact of driverless cars on our roads, and the possibilities of machine-to-machine communication.

Being smart means knowing what you don’t know.

Autonomous vehicles, connected machines, remote drones are all exciting technologies but the truth is that nobody knows how they will affect our communities or our urban planning. The priority for smart cities is to embrace new and emerging technologies while remaining flexible and adaptive to the changes they bring. And always remaining aligned with the needs of their residents. That’s just smart business.

The interview was filmed with Sarah Lockett, Business Correspondent of The Business Debate and Fahd Al Rasheed, KAEC CEO and MD.

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