Smart city dreams only a stretch away

February 06, 2019 | 08:00
(0) user say
Vietnam is making great efforts to build smart cities based on its internal and external advantages. Ta Thi Thanh Huong, urban green growth specialist from the Global Green Growth Institute in Vietnam, writes about the challenges and opportunities that come with developing this type of city.
smart city dreams only a stretch away
Ta Thi Thanh Huong, urban green growth specialist from the Global Green Growth Institute in Vietnam

Vietnam boasts one of Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economies and one of the most rapid rates of urbanisation in the region. The breakneck expansion of cities come with a set of unique challenges – but also with exciting new opportunities to ensure growth is inclusive, sustainable and, above all, green.

Creating smart cities will allow Vietnam to sidestep the pitfalls of rapid urbanisation – pollution or inadequate infrastructure, for example – as its cities expand, with more than 50 per cent of the population set to live in cities by 2030.

A blueprint for smart cities – or smart green cities – could see solar panels on the roofs of Ho Chi Minh City’s skyscrapers, electric buses ferrying passengers across Hanoi or energy-efficient lightbulbs illuminating the streets of the central city of Danang. These changes will no doubt improve the quality of life for the millions of people already living in cities across the country, all while protecting the environment and creating jobs.

The Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) is working with the Vietnamese government to help make this vision a reality. Here is how.

What is a smart city?

There is no single agreed-upon definition of what a “smart city” is, but I like this one: “A smart city is defined as a city that operates in an ambitious and innovative manner covering areas of economy, people, governance, mobility, environment, and living.”

Essentially, a smart city is one that uses the latest technology to constantly strive to be the best place to live, both for the citizens and the environment. Smart city technologies also deliver green growth, such as mobile apps that alert the next bus arrival or automatic waste collection systems. Typically, we have seen two approaches to smart city development. The first is a top-down approach, where governments have built new smart cities from scratch, such as Songdo in South Korea or Masdar in the United Arab Emirates.

The second is a bottom-up approach, where existing cities have incorporated smart city elements in priority areas, such as Paris’ smart city employment scheme that links individuals with decent short-term employment. The second route is the most applicable approach for Vietnam, given that cities are already established, and with the rapid pace of development the timing is perfect for the adoption of smart green cities.

The Vietnamese government has made smart cities a top priority launching both the urban green growth development plan (with GGGI’s support) and a smart city strategy. Over 30 cities have made steps to become smart cities, including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Danang.

The most successful initiatives to date have brought the public and private sector together to get smart city initiatives off the ground. In a watershed move, the leaders of Danang recently signed a memorandum of understanding with FPT Group to develop smart solutions in transport, agriculture, English language training, healthcare, and tourism – a great example for other cities in Vietnam to follow.

Vietnam’s international and regional partners also have a key role to play. Very wisely, Vietnam is also looking to leverage experience from other countries, signing agreements with the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Finland, and India.

In April 2018, the three biggest cities of Vietnam – Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Danang – were among the 26 cities of 10 ASEAN member states that have been named as pilot cities for the ASEAN Smart Cities Network. The network aims to better connect digital infrastructure and services like e-payments across the region and is envisioned as a collaborative platform working towards the common goal of smart and sustainable urban development. Having this solid foundation is great, but now Vietnam’s cities must go further to reap the benefits that smart cities can deliver.

Solution-driven policies

There are a few key areas that Vietnam should focus on to develop its smart green cities, all within reach.

First is energy. Smart cities offer solutions to how cities are powered. For example, smart meters and grids allow households to monitor their consumption of electricity and ensure appliances are switched off when not needed – such as air conditioning when people are at work. Also, by generating renewable energy via rooftop solar panels, this can be sold back to the grid or drawn down self-consumption. To address the financing gap for these types of projects, GGGI is currently developing a solar leasing facility to see rapid scale up of solar rooftop across Vietnam.

Homes can even install battery packs to store the excess generation during the day or, if they have, use electric vehicles as a battery pack. These electric cars could be charged during the day at the office.

Vietnamese cities can also look to smart systems for lighting – such as solar energy efficient LED street lighting with a light remote-control management system that adjusts the level of lighting remotely and automatically notifies maintenance needs. Cities should also promote the development of utility scale wind and solar projects to power their cities – ensuring clean energy that will improve air quality in cities.

Second is transport. Intelligent transport systems that manage traffic flows based on volume, and provide live information on public transport, can reduce journey times while enhancing safety and encourage increased use of public transport – all while reducing harmful emissions.

Hanoi is planning to build up a smart traffic management system like this. A bus app has been launched for users to find the best route, and the buses are equipped with location and cameras to provide information back to the centre on traffic and timing of buses being displayed at bus-stops.

Hanoi and other cities in Vietnam should continue to improve the system by adding more public transport with ticketless payment cards – as seen in cities across the world from Bangkok to London. Cities should also promote bicycle sharing schemes, either with docking stations or attract startups like Mobike which do not require docking infrastructure.

Third is waste. Using technology can be a key to resolve the problem of waste management. From waste bins equipped with fill-sensors to data-based management and logistics platforms, the industry is shifting into a cleaner, more efficient part of modern life. Smart waste management mainly promotes recycling, avoids the congested collection of waste generated domestically, reduces human labour and time spent sorting recycling and only collecting waste when needed, resulting in a healthier environment. After waste has been recycled and composted (in the case of organic matter), the remaining waste can be used to generate electricity – GGGI is working on this “waste to resource” approach in two cities.

Fourth is air quality. Among the many environmental challenges facing cities, air quality is especially difficult to manage. Today, data plays a big role in helping cities measure and manage air quality. The negative impacts of air pollution include the elevated risk of cardiovascular problems like heart disease and stroke and more acute asthma.

Studies have shown that life-long exposure to air pollution can shave years from life expectancy, with children and the elderly being the most vulnerable. The development of more advanced sensors, analytical tools, and communications campaigns are allowing cities to make citizens more aware, engage residents in reducing pollution, and address the health outcomes of poor air quality. By distributing the data-collection network throughout the city, cities can develop smarter, more timely responses to pollution and help improve air quality for all residents.

Smart green cities offer countless benefits to citizens, using the latest technology to provide cleaner, safer, more prosperous cities to live in – and provide flexible, on-demand employment. However, this can only be achieved through successful public-private partnerships that have the active involvement of citizens.

To make smart green cities a reality, GGGI will continue to work with the Vietnamese government to set an effective enabling environment through clear policies as well as fostering partnerships with tech companies. Through this, we will see Vietnam’s cities at the heart of building Vietnam 4.0.

We are facing a crucial juncture in Vietnam’s impressive development trajectory – let’s work together to make sure that growth is green and smart.

What the stars mean:

★ Poor ★ ★ Promising ★★★ Good ★★★★ Very good ★★★★★ Exceptional