Smart cities appear to be popping up all around the world, but are they really helping urban development within the most rural areas?
Over the course of the past year, both Dubai and Toronto have boasted plans for the first smart cities in the world. Saudi Arabia’s NEOM is probably the most ambitious project we’ve seen yet, and you can read about that here.
Even more recently, Bill Gates committed $80 million USD to build a smart city in western Arizona–just a stone’s throw away from Las Vegas.
But when it comes to country-wide development at the base-level Gates appears to be more discerning.
The Great Flush-Toilet Debate
In response to a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (the Indian government’s clean-up-the-streets initiative), Gates said that building western toilets is like opening a savings account. “The real challenge is getting people to use them. Part of our Swachh Bharat partnership with the government is to try and make sure that the toilets that are built are not so bad that you’d rather not use them. The first stage is behavior change,” Gates added.
He also said that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan worked well in some parts of India and didn’t, in some parts. “Once a village passes the view that nobody should be doing this (open defecation), then it tends to stay . . . if you intervene for just a few years then sometimes it becomes the expectation . . . that’s behavior change,” he said.
The presence of western toilets, strange as it may seem, is often of the first technological overhaul many developing areas look to employ.
Cultural Habit or Limited Access
India isn’t alone. There are similar problems in other very rural areas when it comes to flush toilet use. One phenomenal example I was able to experience firsthand in the most rural areas of the Hunan province in China.
There, I saw that people going to the bathroom outside considered only a minor problem.
Those who did so were typically extremely young, old, or intoxicated. In their defense, because there’s no properly regulated sanitation system (like there is in Xi’an), the average person walking down the street may be hard-pressed to find any kind of restroom. Moreover, the streets are often already filled with rotting trash from shops and homes. Because this is where other refuse has collected, it becomes the most logical place to go for some.
But just a few minutes away, where they have sanitation staff and toilets at a school, the streets and courtyards look very different:
In fact, the majority of the students, parents, and community I interacted with in rural areas all had one thing to say: schools are a beacon of development.
Technology, cleanliness, food, electricity, and safe sleeping quarters are available here more often than anywhere else.
Smart City Troubleshooting
During Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff‘s announcement of the smart city endeavor, he posed a strong argument to sew the seeds of the smart city. Building a city from nothing could help rethink government, social policy, and data-driven management, as well as test solutions to cybersecurity and privacy concerns.
“If you could create a place, it’d be a laboratory to experiment with these problems,” he said.
Moreover, according to VTS, “Google is likely to pick rural areas where infrastructure isn’t yet up to speed, aka somewhere in the Midwest, though Google has reportedly been eyeing Detroit and Denver. Land ripe for redevelopment would be an ideal canvas”.
If building test smart cities in rural and underdeveloped areas helps modern technology spread faster to those third-world environments, should we focus more attention on funding them?