In good times as in bad, resilient and functional economies share some common attributes; they are smart, inclusive and environmentally sustainable. The above virtues are all a function of planning and good governance and citizenry participation.
In the wake of the economic devastation caused by the Covid-19 storm, which has severely tested the resilience of cities and countries alike, nations such as New Zealand and Taiwan have emerged as shining examples of resilient economies, approaching the challenges in a smart, inclusive and sustainable way.
Taiwan, for instance, spotted the Covid-19 strain early enough and mobilised resources to beat it. It remains among Asian nations with the lowest infection rates despite its close interaction with China, the epicenter of the first wave of the outbreak.
Being a smart economy where technology and innovation drive operations and inform decisions, the country was able to detect the first signs of danger as soon as the initial cases were reported in Wuhan last December.
Taiwan officials then moved with speed to install systems and equipment for screening passengers at airports and quarantining suspected cases early before the rest of the world awakened to the contagious monster. New Zealand, a country of five million that is also known for its high citizenry participation in decision-making, followed a similar route.
What can today’s cities learn from countries like New Zealand and Taiwan?
A smart city is one in which digital technology and innovation are the bedrock of efficient service delivery. In the context of the pandemic, it means a city can continue operating seamlessly even with lockdown and restriction measures since many tasks, such as delivery of goods, are automated and there is little or no reliance on manual processes which would necessitate constant human interactions.
Private sector players have particularly been seen to drive this digital approach, swiftly adjusting to changing times across sectors. Both metropolitan and national governments are, therefore, required to provide enabling and conducive investment environment and trigger more innovations and technologies that would lessen the impact of the pandemic and other disruptions.
Smart cities leverage on fact-based information and data to optimise resources, connect people and improve the business climate, which in turn facilitates trade. A smart city emphasizes efficiency. For instance, it may encourage the use of smart, energy-saving equipment with minimal impact on the environment, thus promoting sustainable development.
At the same time, intelligent traffic systems can be installed to collect data and send information on traffic and road accidents to drivers and suggest less congested routes. Similarly, traffic lights are calibrated to regulate the smooth flow of vehicles in all directions to prevent traffic jams.
Sensors installed in the light posts can turn lights on and off, depending on whether there is movement in the surrounding areas.
Smart technologies also help in sending information on available parking spots to drivers looking to park in the area, meaning that they save valuable time and fuel, which in effect reduces pollution and congestion while also boosting productivity and the ease of doing business.
Such technologies also promptly send information to hospitals and the police about road crashes, robberies and other unexpected occurrences. As a result, cities are safer and friendly places for all.
In the same breadth, and this is one thing that cities in Kenya ought to think critically about, smart technologies can be applied to streamline garbage collection and improve urban beautification. Used correctly and consistently, they can also help authorities in tracing air pollution.
When digitally-enabled, garbage bins can inform waste collection companies when they fill up, meaning there will be no spillage and sanitation is done on time— not too early or too late. A range of sensors can also be used to provide information on air and noise pollution, or to monitor water levels in rivers with a view to preventing deaths and destruction arising from floods.
Next, resilient and sustainable cities are more inclusive in the sense that community participation is at the center of policymaking, as well as in the design and delivery of public services, and prioritisation of budgets and investments.
For such highly functional cities, public participation is mandatory for projects to earn the consensus vote from the people intended to benefit or to be affected adversely.
After all, it is the people who know what they are most in need of and what they treasure more between new developments and the status quo. Inclusivity also means the entire population, whether rich or poor, has equal access to basic services like education, healthcare and housing.
Where cities are in charge of social welfare, they have invested in social safety nets, giving a lifeline to the most vulnerable groups. Such measures range from food rations to stipends for those who find themselves out of work. Such programmes cushion the population from economic shocks and adversities such as those caused by Coronavirus.
Lastly, resilient cities strive to be environmentally sustainable. They, for example, set targets for achieving carbon neutrality while strengthening energy security, enhancing mobility and improving the quality of life.
To achieve these goals, some have adopted sustainable approaches with a long-term impact on managing emissions from automobiles and power plants, including policies to encourage the transition to cleaner alternatives.
For instance, non-motorised transport may be encouraged by dedicating safe infrastructure to cyclists and pedestrians and projecting such modes as fun and cool through modelling by leaders and influencers. Similarly, emission fees can be imposed to deter pollution alongside tax incentives for cleaner technologies.
Adoption of a feebate (fee/rebate) system, for instance, could go a long way in this green drive, especially in developing nations like Kenya.
With a feebate in place, buyers of environmentally-friendly cars, such as electric vehicles and newer, more fuel-efficient brands would be offered reliefs. On the other hand, owners of cars with carbon emissions above a set limit will be penalised. This is a model that is already working for several European nations like Denmark and Norway.
However, when all is said and done, it should be noted that a smart and liveable city starts with the right planning. A liveable city has a competitive economy, where the poor can get by as much as the rich; it has a high quality of life, and a sustainable environment that ensures its citizenry enjoy clean air, water and other social and public amenities.
To make a city pleasant to live in, over and above being smart, inclusive and sustainable, you need three other levers— planning, development and visionary governance. When designing urban plans, flexibility should be factored in, creating room for changes expected to take place in the future.
A city’s liveability profile comes with the economic benefits of attracting tourists and investments as foreigners and locals alike get assured they can live, work and play in a safe, welcoming environment. On the flip side, poor roads, traffic jams, unstable electricity supply, and poor garbage collection and housing erode the shine off a jurisdiction’s appeal.
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