Sustainable cities need sustainable transport, informal economics

In fact, the East has better opportunities than its Western counterpart to invest in sustainable infrastructures and build sustainable cities, says delegate at World Cities Summit.

SINGAPORE--Chinese cities lead the in industrial policies, while Jakarta has plans to implement low-carbon public transport.

According to James Close, lead partner for Ernst & Young's sustainability and cleantech services practice, the East has better opportunities than its Western counterpart to invest in sustainable infrastructures and build sustainable cities. In an interview with ZDNet on the sidelines of the World Cities Summit here this week, he explained how technology can also play a role.

Q: Can you name three trends for growing sustainable cities?
First, we need to use cities as a means for industrial policy. Chinese cities are leading the way. At a conference in Beijing two years ago for mayors of the country's top 20 cities, I was struck by the level of ambition and clarity of vision by some of the mayors.

They oversaw a major project to retrofit 2 million homes with solar panels as a way of developing world-leading technology. They wanted to own the intellectual property for this technology so they could avoid their current predicament of getting only US$5 from every iPod as the assembler and manufacturer. And, as the changes in the solar market in Germany shows, it's working. They are creating better photovoltaic panels than the Germans.

Second, we need sustainable transportation. Jakarta, for example, has ambitious plans to implement low-carbon public transport to reduce carbon emissions by 2 million tonnes over 10 years. They're looking to do this by increasing the number of passengers on feeder and trunk/feeder routes by 1.2 million, and its urban greening programme is expected to reduce overall emissions by 1.3 million tonnes.

In many ways, this expansion of the transport system is easier than for developed economies as it is unconstrained by existing and old infrastructure. However, it requires imagination and rigorous planning to create an enduring solution.

The East has much better opportunities than the West to invest in highly sustainable infrastructures.

Third, the role of informal economics is as important as traditional methods of financing.

Dharavai, one of the world's largest slums and part of Mumbai, has had to adapt out of necessity and recycle its waste. Everything has a value, including its water which is in scarce supply and critical to effective sanitation.

But its community is tightly-knit and resourceful, and attempts to impose redevelopment plans haven't worked. This represents the challenge fast-growing cities face--improving the built environment when faced with constraints of space and finance, while retaining the spirit of the community. We shouldn't discount this.

How will technology play a role?
Public institutions aren't great at doing technology. However, by putting data out in the public domain, innovative technology providers could use that data for innovation.

For example, in London, publicly available data from a bike scheme was turned into an app on smart devices. The app provided information on where to locate bikes, which stations were empty of rental bikes, and so on.

This afforded innovative companies an opportunity to obtain more value out of public data, and also helped the city of London achieve something sooner than its planners might have done, given long planning cycles, commissioning of the project and delivery. This also helped the city save on costs, as they did not spend any money on the app.

Another innovative use of tech is its Global Information System, which helps tracks heat spots in London. The city planners can see where heat is emitted most and plan for energy-efficient, or retrofit energy efficient, solutions.

Will taxing carbon emission, as Australia has introduced, become the global norm?
This is a question of politics versus economics.

In Europe, we have European Union Emissions Trading System, which similarly regulates carbon emissions. In a world of economic uncertainty, the ability to collect taxes in terms of emissions is attractive. This could gradually become a common effect.

However, there are big elephants in the room--China and the United States, both of which have different views of things. But we haven't that much time.

Clement Teo is a freelance IT writer based in Singapore.