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Technology shapes cities for the better

Cities can enjoy returns of new technology and choose robust technologies that suit them best, say speakers at a forum. -ST
Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer

Thu, May 09, 2013
The Straits Times

From left, Mr Peter Ho, Professor Wang Shu, Mr Narayana Murthy, Professor Edward Glaeser and Professor Chan Heng Chee at a public forum held at The Fullerton hotel last Friday.

SINGAPORE - One of the chief concerns about living in a city is how easy it is for one to get from Point A to Point B quickly, safely and cheaply.

As Indian entrepreneur Narayana Murthy pointed out at a public forum at The Fullerton hotel last Friday, settling that not only boosts one's well-being, but can actually be a big boon to economic productivity too.

For example, he noted that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2009 surveyed Toronto and found that those living in this largest Canadian city were so stuck in daily traffic jams that employers lost C$3.3 billion (S$4 billion) worth of productive hours.

The OECD is an international body that helps countries tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of globalisation.

When you consider that 3.4 billion of the global population now live in cities, among whom 828 million live in slums, the losses in productivity can be very large indeed.

The forum, on how technology and governance are shaping cities today, was hosted jointly by the Singapore University of Technology and Design's Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKYCIC) and the Ministry of National Development's Centre for Liveable Cities.

Mr Murthy, who founded the IT multinational Infosys and is dubbed the Bill Gates of India, was among four speakers, the others being former civil service chief Peter Ho, Harvard University don Edward Glaeser and acclaimed Chinese architect Wang Shu.

The quartet are part of LKYCIC's international advisory panel, which had its inaugural meeting last Thursday.

The panel's three other members are former diplomat Chan Heng Chee, who chairs the seven- month-old LKYCIC; SMRT chief Desmond Kuek; and Mr Lee Tzu Yang, who chairs the Shell Companies in Singapore.

Given that the past 20 years have unleashed the most rapid technological developments in history, it might seem only good sense to wire one's city to the hilt to ease life there.

But Professor Chan, who moderated the full-house forum, wondered how risky it was to rely too much on technology, which is always replacing itself within months.

To that, Mr Murthy said: "We have found that replacing technological infrastructure is becoming easier, cheaper and more comfortable for the user. So as long as city planners are comfortable with the returns that the new technology brings, obsolescence should not be an issue."

Agreeing, Professor Glaeser said: "Rarely have countries been locked in by technology; they are locked in by human capital."

So, he added, governments should stoke entrepreneurship by rewarding those willing to try new things.

Pointing out that technology was but an enabler, Mr Ho said good governance boiled down to choosing robust technologies that suited one's city best.

"We take our MRT for granted and complain a lot when it breaks down, but imagine the alternative explored many years ago, which was to have an all-bus system - if we had adopted that instead and continued to grow as we are growing today, we'd be having big problems," he said.

Mr Murthy said that upcoming software and IT-enabled services would shift power from the rich to the poor and middle classes, and so "rulers of cities will have to change their mindset", which has long been fixated on attracting only the super-rich to their urbanscapes.

Another result of this power shift, said Mr Murthy, is that technology would make everything more transparent and so enable one to pinpoint who is accountable for specific actions.

He said: "We will begin to see fewer abandoned projects because it is city elites who abandon projects that threaten their power and interests."

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