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13 May 2019

What other smart city projects can learn from Taipei

James Orme

As technology becomes the foundation of everything society does, governments around the world are in the throes of ambitious development projects seeking to extract as much value as possible from new technologies. In 2016, Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, established a smart city project management office (PMO) to help it realise its smart city vision. A year after it launched, the initiative has been the recipient of an array of awards.

Since its launch, the PMO has hosted over 600 meetings and facilitated the launch of 60 public-private sector initiatives, including programs to use unmanned aerial vehicles to collect water samples from city reservoirs, as well as using small sensors to provide residents with air quality, humidity and temperature data. The scale of its vision huge: it is currently running over 160 test projects covering any and every technology you can think of.

While technology is at the centre of smart city projects, Dr Chen-Yu Lee, director of the PMO cautions that smart city projects should not be distracted by technology, but instead primarily focus on how services can be improved.

Taipei has been recognised for improving many of its public services, including education and sustainability. As part of a project to modernise services in the New Taipei City Library, a 24-hour self-checkout system and e-book display was installed, which displays various publications and provides advisory services.

Despite international recognition, Dr Lee said Taipei is not comparing itself to other cities, although he recognised the city has its own way of doing things. Dr Lee credits its ‘Change Culture’ concept for enabling the project to churn out such a high volume of initiatives.

“We don’t think we are smarter than others, we are just trying to make the city better,” Lee said. “Every city has its own definition of a smart city. In Taipei, for the past three years, the core concept of smart city has been ‘Change Culture’. This means we aim to establish a new mechanism that makes the civil servants of Taipei able to adopt new concepts and new technologies.”

Once the technical, ethical, and legal challenges associated with the various projects have been identified and resolved, projects then begin the journey to becoming public policy, which is by and large a question of scalability. In the future, the PMO hopes to use data and algorithms to match citizens with services, improving scalability of services through smart efficiencies. Scaling out projects also requires building out the required infrastructure throughout the city, such as communications networks, data collection platforms and all-encompassing algorithms.

For instance, many of the projects will flourish when combined with the improved connection and compute capacity of 5G. But the mobile network needs a mediator that can reconcile the interests and concerns of stakeholders. With smart cities, technology itself is rarely the issue, it’s people and regulations. The PMO accordingly spends a large portion of its resources on communications and negotiations to generate support, particularly from the city’s mayor.

“5G has developed into the main axis of international technological development, and Taipei currently has two operators,” Lee said. “The communication between the policy, industry and enterprises, the PMO will help to arrange, adjust, and implement the central and local, and the exchange between officials and industry.”

As in other smart cities, the public sector is the major owner of public services in Taipei, but they still rely on innovative private sector partners to propose new ideas. The PMO helps to ‘coordinate the test field’ with different government agencies, so the private sector can apply and test their concept in real life.

“We call these Proof of Concept (PoC) projects. Within these projects, the public sector provides the public resources, while the private sector provides solutions.”

To learn more about what it’s like to be at the epicentre of smart city development, be sure to catch Dr Lee’s presentation at the IoT Connectivity & Platforms Theatre on day one of Cloud Expo Asia HK.

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