Improving Urban Life Through Smart City Projects

A visiting Henry Luce Fellow looks at the progress Taiwan has made on its urban digitization efforts and what is needed to make those programs more effective and equitable for all citizens.

Over the past five years, Taiwan has placed “smart cities” – urban centers that run on data collected through sensors and other electronic means – at the forefront of its national digitization strategy.

Smart city experiments are ubiquitous at both the national and local levels. The National Development Council (NDC) launched the Asia Silicon Valley Development Agency (ASVDA) in 2016 to incubate technical solutions useful for all municipalities, and in the same year Taipei began its Smart Taipei initiative. Each major city now also has a similar program.

These initiatives are part of a national vision of a “modern city” – one responsive to the needs of its citizens and based on advanced technology and a high degree of transparency. The projects mainly focus on connecting private firms with public needs, while educating the rest of the government on what the term “smart” should mean in practice.

Imbuing cities with technology has become a central part of the national strategy. At a 2018 conference, President Tsai Ing-wen described smart cities as a major catalyst for the next stage of Taiwan’s economic development. She commended domestic companies for actively investing in developing the artificial intelligence of things (AIoT), while citing the ASVDA project and other government efforts to create test fields to push that development forward.

Photo: Smart Taipei

ASVDA has taken the lead in the national digitization campaign. The agency’s stated mission is to “pursue a new economic model for sustainable development based on the core values of innovation, employment, and equitable distribution.”

“ASVDA functions like a cross-ministry platform,” explains Joseph Chun-ju Lin, a senior specialist at the NDC’s Department of Industrial Development. “It works with industries to pilot test new technologies for cities, get feedback, and eventually make those technologies advanced enough to export overseas, including Southeast Asian countries.”

Since another NDC department is responsible for urban planning as a whole, “our focus is purely on introducing new technologies into smart city projects,” Lin says. ASVDA has guided the application of more than a dozen successful smart city technologies, from city lights and parking to long-distance medical diagnosis.

Photo: ASVDA

“Taiwan smart city projects are carried out with both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches,” says Lin. “Not only is the central government committed to introducing new technologies to develop smart city projects, but local governments are also invited to design their own smart city projects and apply for national subsidies if necessary.”

Smart Taipei has become one of the most successful local digitization efforts in Taiwan and in the world. One Hong Kong-based executive goes so far as to say that “other governments should look to Taipei as the foundation to develop any smart city initiative.”

The initiative was launched by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and works directly with companies to test, develop, and incubate technical solutions at the neighborhood level. It is a prime example both of how technology can solve urban problems and how difficult it is to integrate these solutions into long-term, scalable plans.

With a budget of NT$40 million (US$1.4 million) and an office of 22 people, Smart Taipei has embraced the goal of making Taipei “more livable and sustainable,” says Leo Chen-yu Lee, the program’s director. “It does this by serving as a bridge between private companies and public needs, and consulting for city departments on their technical vision.”

Smart Taipei helps companies focused on healthcare, housing, education, transportation, and finance partner with relevant city departments to test their products quickly and cheaply. If the product works and solves an existing problem, it has the potential to become a city-wide policy. The initiative is based on open data and a constant public-private feedback loop. In essence, Taipei has been made into a living urban lab with citizens at its center.

“Smart Taipei has truly figured out how to design technology for the community,” says Jordan Kostelac, director of property technology for multinational real estate firm JLL in Hong Kong.

“It takes away the tech-messiah fantasy of monopoly, allows for trial in a competitive way, and is grounded in radical transparency.”

In just five years, Smart Taipei has incubated more than 200 technical solutions. “Smart Taipei has recently founded, and they have already done incredible work for the city,” says Stephen Liu, executive director at Turing Drive, a Taipei-based autonomous bus company. “They facilitated contact with all the relevant government agencies so we could test our autonomous vehicles.”

Image of Turing Autonomous Bus software. Photo: Turning Drive

This spirit of experimentation can be a double-edged sword. To ensure that relevant technical solutions are created to address community needs, failure is a constant reality. Lee of Smart Taipei explains that “in the past five years, out of more than 200 projects, only 10 have become city policies.” But 10 relevant solutions could radically transform life in Taipei, a city of almost three million people.

As Taipei integrates solutions and learns from its failures, however, the Smart Taipei lab remains isolated from the rest of the country. Lee admits that it is still “difficult to cooperate with other cities.” In essence, each city in Taiwan has its own funding and method for developing a smart city, and is working separately to solve identical problems. “Either because of differences in resources or mentality,” cities across Taiwan are not collaborating on their digital strategies, says Lee.

Additionally, all such projects remain vulnerable to changes in the political winds. “Each mayor has different priorities and thinks about smart cities differently,” Lee says. “In the world of elections, the long-term future of every project is perpetually uncertain.”

Smart Taipei offers valuable lessons for how to place citizens before technology, and a warning of what could happen if the experimentation is not integrated nationally. Imagine a collaborative framework where an urban puzzle in Kaohsiung could be partly funded by Taipei and resolved in Taitung.

Integrating technology within cities in a productive way requires long-term, large-scale planning. The greatest success of Smart Taipei and the NDC is that they have defined and institutionalized collective values around data and technology: transparency, inclusion, and competitiveness. But very few of the proposed new technologies have actually been adopted, and even fewer have led to significant change in city life.

Isolated technological solutions will never be the final answer. Individual “smart” solutions for specific community issues can be akin to putting a band-aid on problems that require national collaboration. Smart projects can provide a semblance of improving urban life by coming up with shiny solutions without fully addressing the structural concerns. It is important to ask what fundamental difference easier parking, smart streetlights, and faster vending machines are making for city residents. “When it comes to urban planning, technology is rarely the issue; it is the people and the system” that matter, Lee concludes. 

The problem is primarily with the national planning landscape, says Lee Wei-feng, an urban planner and CEO of Taipei-based consulting firm Paul Hsu & Partners. “In Taiwan, private developers control everything. They usually buy land in two-hectare chunks and build it out to their preference.”

So, while the existing smart city solutions can solve small problems, they can’t address multi-jurisdictional questions like emissions or urban-rural inequality. As Paul Hsu, senior advisor to Paul Hsu & Partners, has been emphasizing for the past two decades, it is just as important to have smart villages as it is to have smart cities.

Taiwan finds itself in a golden moment for designing technology and cities in tandem. It has articulated the values of effective digitization. It has the “world’s best sensor manufacturing, system integration industry (semiconductors), and communication infrastructure,” says Paul Hsu & Partners’ Lee. “The only piece missing is the political and business will to coordinate all national urban functions together.”

To ensure that development is equitable and scalable, it will be vital to bring all the digitization projects around Taiwan together, base them on the model Smart Taipei pioneered, ground them in national urban planning, and imagine what cities should look like 100 years from now – not just in one election cycle.

Read the companion article: Challenges in Evaluating the Progress of Smart Cities