Towards a smarter Colombo | Daily News

Towards a smarter Colombo

Colombo, the country’s commercial capital, will see a rapid transformation under the Western Region Megapolis project currently underway. The city will look different in just four or five years – scores of high rise buildings are coming up, new flyovers are taking shape and unseen aspects such as sanitation are getting as makeover. Colombo is already home to nearly one million permanent and transiting residents and the figures will go higher as rural to urban migration continues.

The city is the pivot on which the economy revolves and in Colombo’s case, it is responsible for a good part of the country’s economic performance. But for all its importance, Colombo has basically been an unplanned city with ad-hoc developments that had not taken future population and other projections into account. The Megapolis project is an opportunity to correct these mistakes and build back better so that the entire city populace will benefit.

This is indeed the goal of World Cities Day which falls today. This year, the United Nations has selected the theme Inclusive Cities, Shared Development to highlight the important role of urbanization as a source of global development and social inclusion. Planned urbanization maximizes the capacity of cities to generate employment and wealth, and to foster diversity and social cohesion between different classes, cultures, ethnicities and religions. Cities designed to live together create opportunities, enable connection and interaction, and facilitate sustainable use of shared resources. Local urban planners have now taken these concerns on board not only in the case of Colombo, but also for Kandy, Trincomalee, Jaffna and Galle among others.

This plan is likely to be aligned with the new framework adopted this month at the HABITAT III Conference held in Quito, Ecuador which will set the world on a course towards sustainable urban development by rethinking how cities are planned, managed and inhabited. The New Urban Agenda will set the pace on how to deal with the challenges of urbanization in the next two decades and is seen as an extension of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed on by the 193 Member States of the UN in September 2015.

It is a vision for cities that are safe, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable, which is just what we want to see in a city such as Colombo. Under this visionary framework, city planners will also have to address problems such as crime, pollution and poverty which have taken their toll on hundreds of millions of city-dwellers. Over the next few decades, urbanization will be driven by several key initiatives - the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Agenda for Humanity, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

In the words of the outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “cities are increasingly the home of humanity. They are central to climate action, global prosperity, peace and human rights. To transform our world, we must transform its cities”. More than half of all people live in cities and planned human settlements, and that proportion is projected to grow to two thirds by 2050 when the world population will reach nine billion from today’s seven billion. Urban areas already are hubs of energy, innovation and economic dynamism. Using these factors as a template, city planners must design cities for the future.

There is already buzzword for future cities – they will be “smart cities” where everything and everyone will be connected via the Internet of Things (IoT) concept, although many experts have raised security and privacy concerns. In fact, a recent report issued in the USA predicted that cities around the world could spend as much as US$ 41 trillion on smart technology over the next 20 years. The market for smart city technology is predicted to reach US$ 760 billion in just four years.

Traffic snarls will be a thing of the past with driverless cars that can communicate with road signals and with each other. With city roads becoming virtually collision free, there will be massive savings in terms of insurance and health costs. There will also be no need to own a car when you can call up a driverless car at any time – which will also obviate the need for most parking spaces.

Energy will be supplied mostly or only by renewable sources. New powergrids will use two-way communication between the utility and customers to make more efficient use of energy. All waste materials will be recycled via solar-powered trash compactors. Most people will be able to work from home via always-on connectivity, which will further reduce the need for personal transport.

It is clear that the public sector alone will not be able to accomplish all these, which will cost billions of dollars in the long run. There is a clear case here for Public-Private Partnerships – the Sri Lankan Government has already announced that such PPPs would be sought for several transformational projects. The authorities should form a broad network of stakeholders to turn our key cities to smart cities using such PPP synergies. 

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