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Our policymakers need to intelligently revisit our housing drive/policy with the goal of creating vibrant, livable or ‘smart’ communities that offer diverse economic opportunities to all citizens while attracting innovative businesses and workers. A smart community leverages information, infrastructure, and communication technologies, often in combination with other technologies, to improve the quality of life for its citizens, as well as creating economic opportunity for individuals, businesses, and service organizations for economic growth, social benefits, and environmental sustainability.
This COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of having robust and “smart” infrastructure to ensure that daily life can continue as seamlessly as possible during times of emergency. While the education sector is receiving attention through online systems, there is an urgent need to facilitate commerce, government operations, and health care in like manner. We must also invest in technology and infrastructure to counter and cope with the climate change and its impact on our environment.
With regards to the housing sector, I take the informed view that merely making house-lots available and selling them at reduced prices won’t be sufficient, today. We need to forge a new direction in housing that promotes communities. The ‘housing scheme’ concept was okay in response to the shanty-town-boom as it represented huge improvements and upgrades through regularization and facilitative amenities and necessities. Today’s housing drive requires us to move beyond the 20th century, more so, in keeping with our emerging national economic status hinged on oil and gas. In essence, we must encourage and facilitate smart communities with smart homes forged by modern architectural designs that utilize natural elements, such as, air and abundant sunlight, and powered by environment friendly energy systems. However, creating smart communities requires national and local governments to consider many factors, such as, selecting and implementing technologies in a way that best serves the community, determining needs, creating a plan, leveraging opportunities with local businesses and community stakeholders, coordinating technologies across the many sectors and departments, navigating national and local regulations, and maximizing implementation with limited resources. This would require us to develop a coordinated, inter-government and private sector planning approach to enhance efficiency and promote the development of a unified vision on how communities can approach the many different decisions in the decision-making process.
We must now adopt and or support the use of technology to create safe, accessible, livable communities that are rich with economic opportunity and designed to meet challenges that might arise. To such ends, telecommunications, energy and transportation technologies can be used to create smart infrastructure, underscored by legitimate data management and cybersecurity concerns that accompany the use of these technologies.
However, it is critical for our leaders to recognize and accept that smart-community strategies start with people. It is not only about installing digital interface infrastructures or streamlining city operations; It is also about using technology and data purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life to members of the communities. Quality-of-life has many dimensions, from the air residents breathe to how safe they feel when walking the streets. These are practical and very human concerns. Studies have found that smart communities/cities can use technologies to improve some key quality-of-life indicators through, for eg, lives saved, fewer crime incidents, shorter commutes, a reduced health burden, and averted carbon emissions. These technologies have substantial unrealized potential to improve the urban quality of life. Smart cities change the economics of infrastructure and create room for partnerships and private-sector participation.
It is common knowledge that people in many of our communities/villages begin and end every workday fuming in traffic or piling into overcrowded mini-buses. Improving the daily commute is critical to quality of life. Further, smart communities can be catalysts for better health. For eg, the density of communities/cities is critical to health. So too, are well-designed streets and houses, proper waste disposal, and proper drainage systems for communities in low-lying areas and swamplands. Recent smart communities in some countries have demonstrated that they can deliver a cleaner and more sustainable environment. There is universal agreement that the growth of urbanization, industrialization, and consumption has increased environmental pressures. However, there are technologies, such as, building-automation systems, dynamic electricity pricing, and some mobility applications that could combine to cut emissions.
That said, several communities/cities world-wide have taken actions to leverage smart technologies, such as, installing smart street lighting, traffic or pedestrian sensors, and developing enhanced communications, smart buildings or smart transportation technologies. While the smart community concept is new and evolving, there is evidence of improved quality of life for the residents, and that the number of communities using smart technologies is increasing.
In a nut shell, we need to rethink and retool our housing policy. However, many communities will likely not have the resources and knowledge to build and manage the many technologies that may be available for reaching smart community goals. To such ends, and in light of COVID-19, we need to reevaluate budgets, and otherwise rethink how best to invest scarce resources in creating new communities that can better cope with this and future outbreaks/pandemics, as well the challenges of climate change while promoting communities that offer better quality of life for its residents.
Ronald Singh, LLM, MS
Barrister & Solicitor