Prioritise urban poverty over smart green cities

THE Association for Welfare, Community and Dialogue is concerned that issues related to the urban poor seems to have taken a backseat while plans of turning cities into smart green cities have gained prominence.

According to press reports, the government aims to turn the federal territories into smart cities by 2030.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said this is in line with the concept of Malaysia Madani, which also emphasises the aspect of sustainability with the concept of green city and smart city.

“The Federal Territories Department has also drawn up a development agenda for the future in a sustainable, liveable and smart manner.

It is obvious that the PM has not addressed how the urban poor will be integrated in this smart green city, or how he plans to ensure Information and communication technology, which is key to unlocking the potential of cities, is not merely a gadget for rich, and their investments, but a tool that will also emancipate the urban poor.

According to research, although information and communication technology (ICT) has recently revolutionised human settlements, its allocation and availability have not been evenly distributed globally. Consequently, the urban poor have often been excluded from government-driven smart city projects due to their inability to access and utilise ICT.

Of greater concern is the massive smart city development pursued by many developing nations excluding the poor altogether.

Newcastle University professor Robert Hollands wrote that since smart cities are sponsored primarily by the richest segments of society, large-scale smart infrastructure initiatives fail to consider “serious problems like poverty, inequality and discrimination.”

The example of India’s smart cities project is a concerning precedent. The private corporations responsible for developing much of the land have benefited from government efforts to loosen eminent domain laws, allowing them to force local farmers off their land. In turn, commercial development of this land will create few housing units, spend a full 70% of its budget on land occupied by just 4% of the population, and force tens of thousands of the urban poor into slums.

In Rwanda, where the city of Kigali is the site of a new smart city initiative, its builders project that homes will cost nearly US$200,000 (RM851,600), in a region where the average income is just US$200 per month. It is little surprise, then, that critics have labelled these projects a “social apartheid” – smart public transit, waste disposal, and policing seem largely projects made by and for the rich.

Therefore, it is imperative for the government to address issues concerning the urban poor, in terms of their human capital development related to digital and green technological skills, and social infrastructure that would ensure their upward mobility, identity, autonomy, which would balance the uneven nature of smart city development.

This includes the importance of local government elections, which could help to bring about the aspirations of society at large into the governance of smart cities. – February 5, 2023.

* Ronald Benjamin is secretary of the Association for Welfare, Community and Dialogue.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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