The Social City Project: Our Cities Get Smarter Every Day. But Do They Become Happier Places for All?

Ho-Chi-Minh-City (Vietnam) – Smartness is a shining promise of comfort and happiness, but without social justice it will segregate the city and leave the urban poor behind.

The new Saigon Waterbus system, designed to relieve traffic congestion. Photo: Isabelle Windhorst

Dr. Sơn Thanh Tùng, USSH HCMC, explaining the Social City Concept and its potential for HCMC. Photo: Isabelle Windhorst

High-rise buildings forming the new HCMC skyline. Photo: Isabelle Windhorst

Dr. Erik Harms, Yale University, pointing out negative effects of smart urban planning in the Thu Thiem New Urban Zone HCMC. Photo: Isabelle Windhorst

Dr. Levita A. Duhayalungsod, University of the Philippines Los Banos presenting sustainable city plans in the Philippines. Photo: Isabelle Windhorst

Therefore, on 27th and 28th of September 2018, FES Vietnam and the University for Social Sciences and Humanities Ho-Chi-Minh-City (USSH HCMC) invited Vietnamese academics, policy-makers and international experts to find solutions for building smart, social and sustainable cities in Vietnam.

Connecting the City

The yellow new waterbus on the Saigon River in HCMC is shining bright in the afternoon sun as the participants of the international conference “An Aspiration for a Smart but Social City in Vietnam” enter Bach Dang Station in District 1.

But what does the waterbus have to do with building a social city?

The new waterbus route, opened end of last year, with its 11 stations could be an alternative method of transportation for people who are driven to the outskirts of HCMC by rising rent prices and help them connect to the inner city and important social services. 

Building a socially just city

The problem of transportation is one of many that the urban poor are confronted with. Poverty today is not only judged by wage but on multiple levels: from access to social services, like health care and education, to decent housing and clean air.

These challenges are especially pressing in the face of the rapid urbanization that big cities in Vietnam are witnessing at the moment.

A Social City Program, like the one introduced in Germany in 1999, is one way to tackle these problems: “The program supports less developed urban areas to prevent a social downward spiral of poverty, neglect and infrastructure decay by providing investments in urban regeneration in an integrative, inclusive and social way”, Dr. Sơn Thanh Tùng, USSH, explained during the conference.

Be smart, be happy?

At the same time, the advent of new smart technologies is opening up possibilities for city planning and is potentially helping to enhance sustainability.

However, there are also risks. Access to the new technologies is expensive and requires technical knowledge. If urban planning does not secure equal access for everyone then the urban poor are at a disadvantage and social segregation will become even more widespread.

This means that smart cities are not automatically livable cities. Thus Dr. Erik Harms urged everyone in urban planning to think thoroughly, “(…) whether the cities we are making are truly better cities than they were before (…)”.

What kind of smartness do we need?

The first important step in this process is to figure out what we are actually talking about when the catchphrase “Smart City” is used. Does it only mean smart hardware? Or also smart citizens and smart policies?

Only then it will be possible to determine what kind of smart technology is really helpful and what kind of smart policies are needed to empower all citizens to understand and take part in the development, protecting them from negative impacts and exclusion.

This also includes challenges regarding data security and transparency that have to be solved in order to gain people’s trust in the new technologies.

The need for participation

In order to ensure that people’s needs are really met they have to be able to voice them and be included in the city planning process.

Moreover, the local residents also have important knowledge about their neighbourhoods. In the German Social City Program therefore residents are recognized as ‘local experts’, as they have the best picture of the situation on the ground, knowing better than anyone the problem their neighbourhood faces, as well as its potential”, Dr. Tùng pointed out.

Some instruments, such as the UN Sustainable City Programme that Prof. Levita A. Duhayalungsod presented, are tested in this regard.

Getting together

Dedicated to this vision of inclusive urban planning FES and USSH HCMC, with support from the Urban Committee of the HCMC People's Council, Vietnam Fatherland Front HCMC and Vietnam Union of Friendship Organisations, took one step in that direction by bringing together various actors from academics, policy-makers and civil society to discuss these issues with each other at the HCMC conference.

Tools for building a social city

The bright yellow waterbus might be one part in the effort of building a socially just city, but it is far from enough.

This is why FES will continue its project and will, together with a research group from USSH HCMC under the lead of Dr. Tùng, publish a study on multidimensional poverty in HCMC. The study will give recommendations on how to improve policies to ensure a socially just urban development that leaves no one behind.

Follow FES to keep updated on future developments on #SocialCityAsia #HCMC #MultidimensionalPoverty #SmartCityHCMC




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