Creating a city
Downtown Yangon reflects British urban planning, with streets designed like a lattice work. Incorporating various elements – commercial buildings along Strand, Merchant and Phayre (now Pansodan) streets, colonial administration at the Executive House along Dalhousie Street (now Mahabandoola) and local religion with Sule Pagoda at the center of the city, Rangoon was considered among the best cities of the British Empire.
Fast forward in the 21st century, the military administration built a new city in the middle of the country and called it Nay Pyi Taw, the ‘abode of kings.’ Wide boulevards, dispersed government offices each with spacious grounds, a convention center, a replica of the Shwe Dagon pagoda, golf course, a strip of hotels and other elements of a ‘modern city.’ The city was designed to be the capital where all government agencies are located. It is an easy place to navigate if you have a car, but a nightmare for ordinary people because of the limited public transportation available. Dealing with government offices for ordinary people is an expensive activity counting the transportation cost and one has to go to on the fringes of the city where the affordable accommodation and food establishments are located.
Yangon remains to be the main city of Myanmar, but the burden of long periods of neglect and the fast growth put a strain on its resources. Stretched beyond its limits, the city is still plagued with perennial power failures, uncollected garbage, limited water supply, clogged drainage, traffic jams and other urban blight. Highrise buildings have sprouted since the country opened up, but the area in the present city is limited.
The idea of creating a New Yangon was thought of during the time of President Thein Sein, but was not implemented. It was meant to showcase the new Myanmar, progressive and globally connected. The current Yangon Region Government under the leadership of Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein has revived the idea and has commenced steps to make this dream a reality.
The New Yangon is located in southwestern Yangon near the industrial zone of Hlaing Tharyar with an estimated area twice the size of Singapore. It would be an industrial and commercial hub,with facilities for housing and recreation and with sufficient public utilities. The development of the area will be through public-private partnership, relying primarily on private ideas and financing with government support. It is envisioned to be one of the best cities in the region, if not in the world. Keeping abreast with the current urban planning trend, the question is, will the New Yangon be a smart city?
Concept of a ‘smart city’
Transforming into a smart city is the latest trend among planners and many cities are scrambling and working hard to become one. A smart city is envisioned to be a livable community with all the amenities of modern technology. With digital technology as the backbone of the system, a smart city can generate data and identify immediate solutions to improve existing conditions. It is projected that a smart city would have a security system that would reduce crime; a traffic management system that would prevent clogging in the streets and make commuting period shorter; a waste management system that can reduce and recycle trash; and all of these powered by alternative energy sources. This sounds utopian, but the fact is that many cities in the world, particularly in Asia are currently in the process of transforming into becoming ‘smart.’ Being wired using the digital backbone is important to generate and build-up data which will be the source of the trends and patterns that will be analyzed to provide a solution to an identified problem. This means the system will also be an open data ecosystem that anybody can access. To make this possible it is necessary that the governance system is also transparent. It will be a case of the people in the city contributing to make the place a better place to live in. The days when only the political leaders and the bureaucrats are the only ones deciding will be over, and participation will be the new normal.
Smart city models in Asia
Singapore is at the forefront of the smart city transformation. Its use of solar power, the smart interconnected traffic systems and use of various transport modes makes travelling in the city a relaxing activity. The country’s surveillance system also is contributory to its low crime rate. Health monitoring is another area where Singapore has interconnected system contributing to the well-being of its residents and rapid response in times of emergencies. Vietnam is known for the number of motorcycles that is not only clogging the streets but also choking the people with its smoke exhaust. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is working to improve traffic conditions and started by releasing an app to help people with timely information to identify routes to skip away from clogged streets. The city is also working on solutions to parking and ticketing to improve its transportation system. Thailand is currently experimenting smart city initiatives in Chiang Mai, designating it as an innovationdriven city. The project is focused on maximizing the use of alternative energy source, upgrading and promotion of digital economy and the improving the transportation system and infrastructure. India and China are among the countries counting hundreds of their cities undergoing transformation to become ‘smart cities.’ A Smarter Yangon The New Yangon City has the advantage of being developed from scratch in a location that is not yet fully developed. The concept of a ‘smart city’ is worth considering, and making it as the foundation in the development of the new city is the right way to go. If the New Yangon is designed to be a smart city, it should have been highlighted by the people behind this project. If not, there is still time to make them aware of the ‘smart city’ concept and work to make New Yangon align with this concept.
What we have to be cautious about is if the smart city will be exclusive to some and keep away those who are not considered as ‘exclusive’ enough to be part of the smart city. If that happens then it would not be smart but more of an elite enclave set aside for a certain group of people.