Where is the world’s most hi-tech city? (And it’s not San Francisco …)

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Where is the world’s most hi-tech city? (And it’s not San Francisco …)” was written by Colin Marshall, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 19th October 2016 06.30 UTC

Before long, Santiago could be a city full of electric vehicles charged by “smart” power grids, many of them driving on highways equipped with traffic-reducing automated variable toll pricing. Perhaps a new arrival to the Chilean capital would go for the chance to found a technology company, incentivised by programmes like the state-backed, foreigner-friendly Start-Up Chile, in “Chilecon Valley”. And perhaps they’ll stay for the capital’s reputation boasting the most advanced public transit system in Latin America.

Or they might opt for Africa instead of South America, to take advantage of the assistance offered by organisations like SmartXchange in Durban. Not only does South Africa’s third largest city now have an increasingly tech-savvy middle class population, it has schools like the Durban University of Technology, whose Urban Futures Centre is even developing technological solutions to the common challenges of drug use, security and policing strategy. If these succeed, Durban, like Santiago, may count itself among the highest-tech cities sooner than the rest of the world could imagine.

An urbanite cannot live by startup incubation alone – only implementing the latest technology within a sound built and social environment can make a city truly hi-tech. Indeed, I kept hearing the same answer from current and former San Franciscans asked to name the best such cities in the world right now: “Not San Francisco.” Yet last year Tech Insider’s ranked the “undeniable epicentre of all things tech, from its gigantic start-up culture to its venture capital scene to its population of designers and programmers,” at the top spot. If San Francisco doesn’t rank among the most hi-tech cities in the world, which city could?

The epicentre of tech lies less in San Francisco proper than in Silicon Valley to the south (Tech Insider’s list conflates the two). It’s the birthplace of the personal computer, now home to Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel and Stanford University, and the cradle of thousands upon thousands of startups. Only in recent years have large numbers of technology companies and their workers based themselves in urban San Francisco instead of the suburban Silicon Valley, and the resulting conflicts between the long-term bohemian population and these wealthy new arrivals have exposed its real, underdeveloped technological state.

Twitter headquarters, San Francisco
San Francisco is home to Twitter’s headquarters, but is Silicon Valley still the world’s tech hub? Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

“Planners in 1996 had no way of predicting the tech boom,” admitted Taylor Huckaby, a representative of San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) agency in March in response to residents’ complaints about the unreliability of the city’s transport infrastructure. They’d grown especially fed up with its commuter rail network, designed and built at enormous expense in the 1960s and 70s, much of which, Huckaby tweeted through Bart’s official feed, “has reached the end of its useful life”.

No matter how much app developing innovation San Francisco attracts – Twitter is headquartered there – the experience it provides San Franciscans remains, for the foreseeable future, decidedly low-tech. Other cities have tried to become startup hubs, offering an environment equally attractive to currently small but potentially huge tech companies.

The very nature of a mature city like San Francisco, with its old buildings and layers of regulation, throws serious obstacles to 21st-century modernisation, but some city builders have addressed that problem by starting afresh and raising a state-of-the-art metropolis from the ground up.

Masdar City – a walled, Norman Foster-designed development in Abu Dhabi – began construction in 2008 at the behest of renewable energy company Masdar. The original $22bn (£18bn) plan envisioned a community of 50,000, its energy and other resource use to be all centrally monitored and adjusted. But the global financial crisis deferred this urban dream, greatly slowing construction, curtailing ambitious plans for a personal rapid transit system, and rendering the stated goal of full carbon neutrality seemingly impossible. Only 5% of the planned smart city in the desert stands today.

Participants of the Start Up Chile programme.
Since Start-up Chile began, $40m have been invested in 1,309 startups. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

A more successful example has appeared eight miles from South Korea’s largest international airport: Songdo International Business District, built over 12 years on 600 hectares of reclaimed waterfront land at a cost of $40bn. It is both the world’s first smart city and largest private development in history. Computers embedded in the streets and structures form a citywide information network used for monitoring and maintenance. A pneumatic waste disposal system, obviating the need for garbage cans and trucks, directs all refuse to an automatic central processing facility underground.

With all its built-in computational power, Songdo aims to go beyond the concept of the high technology smart city to become a technologically “ubiquitous city”. Data sensors continually collect information on the city’s flows of water, energy, and traffic for ongoing optimisation. A partnership between Songdo’s builders and Cisco Systems – the Silicon Valley maker of networking equipment – has so far led to the installation of a “telepresence” system, which enables instant audiovisual communication between residents. It also promises the citizenry of Songdo future domestic niceties such as appliances controllable by smartphones and systems to track the whereabouts of their children.

On a private tour, representatives from developer and majority stakeholder Gale International described Songdo to me as not just a technological project but an “urbanistic” one. It synthesises, they said, the best elements of such classically great metropolises as Paris (wide boulevards), New York (Songdo’s own Central Park occupies nearly 10% of its land area), and Venice (visitors can boat down canals dug for the purpose). But not even they could deny that Songdo, with its often empty public spaces and – apart from a few deliberately traditional-looking restaurants – eerie historical uniformity, has yet to replicate the urban essence of those places.

A man drives a zero polluting car in Santiago
Santiago’s zero polluting car. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Yet urban essence abounds on the other side of the Sea of Japan. As host of the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo intends to use the occasion to build a model city of the future in the form of a completely hydrogen-powered Olympic Village. It will exist, of course, within a city the rest of the world has long seen as a tech spectacle perpetually on the cutting edge.

But as any longtime resident knows, life in Tokyo, with, for instance, the in-person appointments at bureaucratic branch offices, can feel frustratingly low-tech as often as thrillingly hi-tech.

High technology has permeated life far more deeply elsewhere in Asia, most notably in the city state of Singapore. Its lack of resources, small size and high population density have demanded innovative solutions to age-old logistical and environmental urban problems, and its wealth and top-down government control have made those solutions feasible.

Singapore, which integrates technology and urban planning to a unique degree, pioneered the hi-tech solution to the complications of urban life. Its traffic congestion charging system – the first in the world when implemented in 1975 – now uses a network of cameras, sensors, and GPS devises that foresee and head off jams by adjusting the location and amount of the charge, bringing the government $50m in revenue per year. Street crossers also play a role in this web of technology: senior and disabled citizens, for instance, receive radio frequency identification cards that will keep the crossing lights on for them – along with the free high-speed internet every Singaporean gets.

Though no one can deny Singapore’s technological acumen, its squeaky-clean image and paternalistic style of governance could be off-putting for some. But across the South China Sea over in Hong Kong, the faster-living region possesses equally fast internet. It has long been a part of life in Hong Kong, as has the Octopus, the contactless smart-card system used to pay transport fares when introduced in 1997 – but is now the payment system of choice for almost everything. The city’s increasingly ubiquitous fingerprint scanners allow its citizens easier and more secure passage to and fro.

The Future World exhibit in Singapore
The Future World exhibit was held in Singapore, which has been pioneering hi-tech solutions to the complications in urban life. Photograph: Wallace Woon/EPA

But even some of the less overtly futuristic cities in Europe also stand a chance of emerging as the most hi-tech cities of this century. Barcelona, which has perfected most of the traditional niceties of urban life, and continues to dramatically improve its streets, has more recently outfitted itself with energy-saving lights on the streets, touchscreen information stations, traffic and pollution sensors, and charging points for phones and vehicles alike. In collaboration with Barcelona-based universities, Spanish automaker Seat has got to work converting existing parking facilities into hi-tech, service intensive, transit oriented “microcities”.

But perhaps the most technologically promising European capital is on the other end of the continent: Tallinn, Estonia, the birthplace of Skype. The country plowed all the resources it could into information technology after gaining its independence in 1991, and it shows: signs point to the nearest hotspot where one can tap into the high-speed data services available, well before they made it to the US and the UK. Over a decade ago, Tallinn became the first city to hold elections online, through the same system citizens use to pay their taxes and view all government data pertaining to them. Access to these features of Estonian technological life greatly widened when the country introduced a convenient system of e-Residency in 2014.

For my part, I moved from California to Seoul. Home to such tech intensive conglomerates as Samsung and LG, the capital of South Korea has the most plausible claim to the title of the world’s most hi-tech city, despite the haphazardness of the unprecedented rapid development following its near-total destruction in the Korean War. “What a Londoner notices first is the ways in which the city is more advanced than his own,” historian Perry Anderson wrote 20 years ago, marvelling at this more-first-world-than-the-first-world metropolis that seemingly materialised from nowhere. “One is constantly struck by the intelligence brought to the inconspicuous details of living, as if the routines of urban existence were being freshly invented for the first time.”

South Korea’s comprehensive internet infrastructure already sets speed records, and the government plans to widely implement 5G, the next generation of wireless connections, by the year 2020. And Seoulites can connect wherever they please – not only at the city’s more than 10,000 free Wi-Fi hot spots, but even underground, while riding one of the finest metro systems in the world. Real-time displays keep riders apprised of the location of the next train, and the same goes for buses. Commuters can also stop at one of the station’s “virtual stores” where, simply by snapping a picture of their desired product with their smartphone, they can arrange for its delivery to their home the very same day.

Yet even in Seoul, the integration of the hi-tech into urban life occasionally gets stifled: a 1999 law meant to standardise internet payment systems has forced South Koreans to use increasingly outdated web browsers, and economic protectionism (often under the banner of national security) tends to render international e-commerce sites useless, as well as mapping and ride-share applications. However, the country has announced intentions of clearing up some of these issues by the time of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

The fruits of humanity’s now seemingly constant technological revolutions and the living patterns of our urban population currently integrate nowhere better than they do in Seoul. Yet the title of the world’s most hi-tech city could go anywhere in the next decade: to a city about to emerge triumphantly from the developing world, to a historic capital that has turned to the future, to a slick development that has settled into its urban identity … or to some place as yet barely imagined.

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