Smart Cities, Digital Nations: Q&A with Schneider Electric’s Caspar Herzberg

New, greenfield cities present a vast opportunity to build intelligent and connected communities from the onset. In his recent book Smart Cities, Digital Nations, Caspar Herzberg argues we must get these new cities right and learn lessons from past experience.

John Rossant, Chairman, NewCities and Herzberg, President of Middle East and Africa Region, Schneider Electric, discuss how greenfield cities can teach us to build better urban areas.

John Rossant (JR) – As you argue in your book — Smart Cities, Digital Nations — we have to get cities right. Your book focuses on new, greenfield cities. What are some of the lessons these cities have for us?

Caspar Herzberg (CH) – When it comes to building greenfield cities, we need to gather developers, an urban authority, a national government, master planners, the citizens themselves, and businesses that want to set up shop if you have an economic city. All these players must be steered by a special authority and they must come together to work towards a masterplan that will build up the city.

These same players that are brought together need to understand that city building is a long game. What I have seen in past greenfield projects is that some stakeholders may be interested in the short term gains but it may take 10 to 15 years to build a city from a scratch.

This also means that you will have several generations of businesses and of business leaders who go through the building cycle. You will also have different generations of planners who go through the same cycle. What is important is that the end customer – whether that is a private firm or the state – steers and provides leadership on the project from start to finish.

It is also important to understand that this is a process that takes time and stakeholders cannot expect one million people to live in the city on day one. The city also needs to be built around services that you want to provide for citizens and which really need to be taken into account from the very beginning and linked to the economic and social scenes of the city. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in some of the cities I have worked on but is an important lesson.

JR – I think one of the things that has been particularly evident in King Abdullah Economic City and in Songdo has been the push to get very good educational institutions implanted in the cities early on as a magnet for young families and young professionals. How important is this in attracting talent?

CH – If you want to be competitive with cities that are important nodes in the global economic system, you need to attract talent. This is true especially for cities which aspire to build a strong knowledge economy and wish to attract globally mobile talent. In order to draw professionals with this profile, you need a solid education infrastructure and adequate bandwidth across your city networks to offer citizens the quality of life they seek for themselves and their children. These citizens also care about energy efficient buildings, of course a safe and secure environment and the sustainable carbon footprints of the city.

Greenfield cities should also not be afraid to revisit their master plan. If your master plan for a smart city is built around basic services that cater to citizens and businesses, then you can’t really go wrong.

JR – What is the danger of building these cities from scratch and baking in technology solutions that might quickly become obsolete? Sociologist Saskia Sassen has talked about some of these dangers. Is this something you look at or are concerned about?

CH – Most companies look at big projects – like a city for example – to sell their existing products and services. Some businesses ultimately try to steer the development of the city, which, from the beginning, they catered for to implement these products and services. In our fast-changing world, it is true that these technologies can become obsolete over time.

At the same time, rather than focusing on individual solutions or products, I like to concentrate on the basic concept that you need to have an information and communication technology (ICT) master plan and on what services work for citizens. Ultimately, if you go with this approach and build a strong digitally integrated infrastructure and bandwidth, then everything else becomes an upgradable solution that you can change at any point in time.

JR – If Songdo were being designed now rather than 15 years ago, some things would be different. Would the central control room of Songdo be different if it were designed today. How  important is this, or is it a matter of cities changing and we have to cope with that?  

CH – You are right that cities change and we have to cope with that, but I would argue that conceptually the control room would stay the same despite all the technology changes. In 100 years, we will still have one or two spaces where information comes together and people will continue to make decisions based on that information. I think this is a basic concept that will not change because this is how humans are organized: they will pursue gathering data on energy consumption, safety, security and use it for the wellbeing of their citizens.

JR – The infrastructure that makes a smart city is expensive. For example, the control room is a very expensive proposition often. One of the things we have looked at over the years at NewCities is how municipalities can raise new funds for infrastructure through new kinds of public private partnerships, etc. How important is it for planners to look at these new financing models?

CH – Financing infrastructure and how to finance infrastructure that make a smart city are critical issues in all cities around the world – whether you are in Saudi Arabia or Korea. However what you can charge and how much value you are going to get out of different services will vary by location. These contracts are also difficult to do, they are long-term contracts of 20-25 years, and can be particularly challenging for greenfield cities. The commercial success of the service provider is ultimately linked to the amount of people that are moving into the newly built city and are taking up their services. We have seen examples where the initial population growth projections were overly optimistic. Navigating between the commercial reality and the political pressure of a city development authority is difficult.

JR – Apart from the sensors, the digital services, the LEED-building standards, etc. One of the things that is rarely talked about is the importance of good design. Good design in terms of promoting walkability, design in the use of green space, design in making buildings that are nice to look at and fit together. How important is design when you look at new cities?

CH – For me, all these factors are part of a city’s level of livability: from aesthetics to wellbeing, from green spaces to the ability to move around. All these criteria can be translated into services and the infrastructure that is needed to supply these services must be turned into a business case which has of course a monetary part and qualitative part. One factor in the success of Songdo in Korea, is the huge central park around which the Songdo business district is built. Prioritizing green open space both as a ‘lung’ for the city and as a social space was a courageous and smart decision by a commercial real estate developer.