Building Tomorrow: The Challenges and Promises of Pakistan’s First Smart City

Indonesia and Egypt are two notable countries building new capital cities, which are expected to be completed in the next few years or may take shape in the coming decade.

Indonesia and Egypt are two notable countries building new capital cities, which are expected to be completed in the next few years or may take shape in the coming decade. Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, built by Greek Architect Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis in 1960, is the second new capital city in the world with Brazil’s Brasilia being built in the 1950s, which is the unique feat of both cities being built from scratch. Looking at the capital cities of various Empires in history, we can notice one thing: cities once built rarely vanish from the face of the Earth; unlike Empires and countries, be it the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire or the Mughal Empire, all these Empires vanished, giving birth to many new countries. However, the cities are still there. Parag Khanna, an author of the famous books like “The Future is Asian” and “Connectography”, termed, “Cities as humanity’s most enduring and stable mode of social organisation, outlasting all empires and nations over which they have presided.

Pakistan is home to some of the most historic and lively cities in the world, and also, to its credit, building a new planned capital city, Islamabad, yet Pakistan is kind of lost in the race to keep its urban planning on par with the rest of the world. But this doesn’t mean we cannot bounce back from that stagnation. The world is now going through a new kind of Urban revolution to make cities climate-compliant and intelligent so that technology is embedded in every nook and corner. It is generally believed that smart cities are expensive and useless pursuits of rich countries, while this proposition about smart cities is unfounded. It is falsely conceived as a city that is to be built from the Scratch and thus belongs to an exclusive club of great powers only. While the fact is that any city can become a smart city, the prerequisite to conceive and build a smart city is a culture of innovation and invention and not the coffers of any nation. Smart City is a holistic term for the hundreds of projects to upgrade its healthcare, grid systems, and energy infrastructure, using cutting-edge technologies from software to materials used in its construction to its modern state-of-the-art law enforcement and crime control units and efficient cyber threat neutralisation mechanisms.

According to historical accounts, Amsterdam was built in the 12th century, but it became a smart city in 2016 through an initiative called (ASC) Amsterdam Smart City, launched in 2009. The European Commission termed it the European Capital of Innovation; this shows that we don’t have to search for new locations or new special economic zones (SEZs) to develop a smart city from Scratch. The development of Sondogo International Business District in South Korea cost a whopping $40 billion. This kind of amount to build a smart city is understandably discouraging for a country like ours, which is in the midst of recovering from the losses incurred by terror attacks as TTP-led terrorism not just resulted in thousands of deaths but also barred the country from vital investment at the crucial juncture of 21st century. But it doesn’t mean we should abandon our pursuit of smart cities. The decisive victory against Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan allowed the country to progress towards rebuilding and focusing on infrastructure and climate issues. As the elections in Pakistan are over, and Federal and Provincial Governments are in operation, another decisive victory for Pakistan will be to garner political stability because big-shot investors always go for long-term to permanent investment venues, and Pakistan’s potential as an investment hub due to its viable transhipment hub in the region is unmatched. The new tenure of all the provincial governments and their prioritisation of urban planning in respective provinces aided by the Federal Government will provide a sound ground to turn Pakistan’s Urban spaces into inclusive, resilient and sustainable ecosystems under the umbrella of local innovative solutions.

With floods becoming an annual occurrence in our country and high temperatures worsened by electricity outages due to old and outdated energy infrastructure, resilience is evident in the proactive stance of citizens and expatriates alike, who, armed with social media, highlight the urgent need for urban renewal and climate resilience. The traditional political promises which are evident in South Asian democracies, including Pakistan, have no place in modern democratic societies as Pakistan’s social order is now defying client politics and actively questioning Federal and Provincial government decisions about various issues, at the same time, people appreciate public facilitation projects like Metro Bus, Orange Line Train, Inauguration of motorways, development of tourist attractions, healthcare initiatives and modernising the internet infrastructure to be on par with international bandwidth.

The presence of Political Parties, treasury ministers and opposition members, government departments, healthcare departments, and law enforcement agencies serves as the first push towards adjusting our course towards smart cities. The public participation via social media with all these officials, departments, and even the executives of this country shows that Pakistan is not left behind in turning its society into a tech-savvy society, where citizens are connected to the internet and are using it to their advantage.

Turning our gaze towards building Pakistan’s first smart city, it’s clear that the path to modernization is fraught with hurdles yet ripe with potential. The transformation of Lahore into a smart city is not just a dream but a necessity, given its historical significance, industrial base, and wealthy urban tapestry. Lahore, currently grappling with the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted cities globally, is at a crossroads. The journey towards becoming Pakistan’s first smart city is ambitious but achievable, requiring a blend of political will, public-private partnerships, the interest of overseas Pakistanis in the smart city projects and community engagement.

A 360-degree view of the previous governments, their manifestos, and development projects in terms of infrastructure building, urban development, adopting a three-dimensional strategy by various governments,

  1. Upgrading rural areas by providing road connectivity, electricity and essential healthcare units.
  2. Establishing local manufacturing units in the Suburb
  3. Gradual Modernization of the urban regions.

The politics in Pakistan is now polarised to the extent that a public facilitation project is also subject to political wrangling, terming the Metro Bus service as Jangla Bus Service. Peshawar BRT was also criticised for delays and over budget. This political sloganeering is only limiting the scope of urban development in the eyes of the Pakistani population. PML(N) is known for its gradual urbanisation strategy, which grants district status to various municipalities across Pakistan; most of those municipalities are now thriving cities waiting for much-needed upgrades. The 2024 election campaign also saw such Urban promises made by the party leadership.

It is pertinent to mention that Pakistan Tehreek Insaf spearheaded a revolutionary new system, which now results in clean cities free from pollution, thus improving the quality of life considerably. Clean water supply and removing waste from streets and markets is the prime focus of the Water and Sanitation Company, commonly known as WSSC. This company was formed in PTI’s first reign in KPK, and it operates in most of its main metropolises across KPK. Waste management is of prime importance for any thriving modern city, and in Pakistan, the Chief Ministers of all the provinces can learn best practices from each other. Thus, for vibrant Urban Planning and New Smart Cities Like Lahore, the onus is on every political office bearer to bring harmony and keep Urban Planning decisions away from politics.

Though it may sound idealistic to bring politicians from different political parties together to form a consensus on establishing Pakistan’s first smart city, if a person far from the corridors of power can sense progress in our neighbourhood, then these politicians who are actually present in those corridors of power know much more than an ordinary person.

Waqas Jan
Waqas Jan
The writer is a graduate of National Defence University Pakistan. His research interests include Arms Control Verification, Compliance and Enforcement, Humanitarian Arms Control, Export Controls and Disarmament Machinery.