Pedestrians along the Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge are dwarfed by the towering buildings in Makati City, Dec. 5, 2022. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MIGUEL DE GUZMAN

By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES needs a multi-sectoral approach to developing smarter or more liveable cities, starting with educating policy makers and the public on the concept’s importance and complexities, according to experts.

“Cities are complex systems and to properly understand them requires a complex systems perspective,” Erika Fille T. Legara, senior scientist and associate professor at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), said at the BusinessWorld Insights online forum on Wednesday. 

“We cannot manage and understand megacities like Metro Manila by isolating individual cities that comprise it. We have to understand it as a whole. Everything is linked, interconnected, and interdependent,” added Ms. Legara, who also serves as Aboitiz chair in Data Science at the AIM.

The Philippines lags behind other countries in developing smart cities. In 2022, Manila ranked 176th out of 183 cities in the eighth edition of Cities in Motion Index (CIMI) by Spain-based University of Navarra’s IESE Business School. The index ranked cities in terms of sustainability, fairness, and livability.

“We are not lacking in planning. It’s just a lack of implementation,” said Felino A. Palafox, Jr., principal and founder of Palafox Associates and Palafox Architecture Group, Inc.

Mr. Palafox, an urban planner who was part of the team that developed Dubai, said the success of the largest city in the United Arab Emirates was due to “visionary leadership, strong political will, a good appreciation of urban planning, good design, architecture and engineering, and competence.”

“In our country, it’s always short term and opportunistic. Long-term and visionary thinking appears to be lacking,” he added.

He also pointed out that many urban planning decisions made by local policy makers were mostly political decisions.

To make Metro Manila smarter and more livable, he said that there is a need to build more cities outside the already congested capital region.

AIM’s Ms. Legara noted that the whole point of the smart or livable cities concept is to “improve the well-being or the quality of life of citizens.”

“We have to start thinking in systems and consider interconnectedness, components, and factors,” she said.

“Individuals and even cities, we all follow our what we call ‘natural tendencies.’ Sure, we can be engineered but the engineering and management must be well thought-out, considering human tendencies or human behavior. Why do, for example, people want to move to cities? Because people want to go where the action is, where the economic activities are, where the opportunities are, and where there is a dynamic lifestyle,” she added.

For his part, Steven T. Tan, president of SM Supermalls, there is also a need to educate the public.

“If you coordinate with schools to show what the private sector is doing in contributing to the well-being of our environment, that’s already psyching up our children about what they should be doing in the future or in their own small ways,” he said.

“You can have very big projects and all, but if these are not going to benefit everyone, they are no use. Working with the government is important,” he added.

Mr. Tan encouraged the private sector to build low-cost housing or socialized housing for the informal settlers as “they are the number one polluters in our river ways.”

“At SM Supermalls, we believe that sustainable property development is the key. We make every effort to future-proof our country through the practice of disaster resilience that addresses the increasing demand for urban areas and the threat of climate change,” he added.

The previous administration had identified six smart city projects in the country as part of its commitment to the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, which facilitates cooperation on smart cities development in the region.

Such projects are a command center upgrade and e-government services in Metro Manila, digital traffic systems and a bus rapid transit system in Cebu City, and the convergence of command and control, intelligent transport, traffic systems, and security in Davao City.

“Even if you have the right data, the science and technology, all of these approaches, and plans, if there’s no political will to implement these plans, that would be a big problem,” AIM’s Ms. Legara said.