His Excellency Dr. Talal Abu Ghazaleh is a leading international voice on smart cities. He founded the Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organization (TAG-Org) in 1972, and today it is a leading global provider of professional and educational services with more than 100 offices worldwide. He was a senator in the Jordanian Upper House, The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and has expertise in education, accountancy, intellectual property, business administration and management, commerce, information and communications technology (ICT), science and law. He chairs the Honorary Council of the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (I currently serve on the Council). His views on what makes a “smart city” and the role of government and the private sector are refreshing.
What makes a successful smart city?
This is an evolving question — it’s a living animal. Today my concentration is social impact. A smart city cannot be for the citizens if it doesn’t serve its human purposes. You can have the best technology, the best cleanliness, best roads, best everything, but if it doesn’t take into consideration my comfort as a human being, it is not smart. For me today, this is my definition of smart because I have been all my life an information technology-addicted person. I was the chairman of the UN ICT Task Force.
Now we have reached a point that we have become captives to the idea of how developed we are and how much we have achieved in terms of ICT, and we forgot that whatever we do in ICT in itself is a tool. We have been talking about ICT as an enabler. Enabler for what? It has been taught it’s as enabler for development. I chaired the UN Global Alliance for ICT for Development and our full concentration, how we can use ICT for better and more economic development. Today my concepts are completely different and that’s why I’m here in New York. The UN is launching what is called the High Level Advisory Board on Social Impact and I asked to serve on that board. Beyond the social impact fund is how to create mechanisms and guidelines, and rules.
I’m a rules man. In my life there are many rule-making bodies like the International Accounting Standards Board and standards formulation about how we can shift our gear to talking about impact on the citizen. You can have great development but deterioration in the status of the everyday citizen. Therefore, to me, smartness is defined by its level of impact on the citizen and not on the level of the technology.
Why haven’t we seen more examples of people-centric smart cities?
I have not seen many examples, and I am concerned. I love the United Nations and I’m the greatest partner from the private sector and supporter of the UN, but the UN focus has always been on development and now we have invented the new word — sustainable — which I had a problem with. I can talk about that later, but my point is the focus has never been on the impact on the citizen, on society.
Better GDP, better rates of growth and of the various economic indicators which we know. But while we have and the business community as well and the financial markets talk about economic and financial indicators, I’d love to see a social impact indicator and I’d love to see it daily indicating the status of the state of affairs of the impact on society just like we have the economic and financial indicators that are very visible, very much watched, and very much announced.
Do you have an indicator you might add to the conversation?
These social indicators have to be just like the economic and financial indicators. They have to be sectoral. We have to have an indicator on education, social impact of education, social impact in economic level of living or poverty levels or economic well-being levels, on health, on all the battles that affect the well-being of a person. We have to start, I think you used the word people-centric. That’s what I like to be, people-centric and not state-centric because all indicators are left to the state, to the country. Unemployment rates, inflation rates, etcetera. Liquidity, balance of payment. These are state indicators. I’d like to see people-centric indicators that show how are we moving or progressing.
Talk a bit more about that issue of the word “sustainability,” because I think that’s critically important.
Sustainability comes from the word sustain. Sustain means maintain what is there.
To sustain something is to keep it. We don’t want to sustain development, we don’t want to sustain the goals. Sustain means keep them, not achieve them. I participated in the foundation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in my capacity then as the chair of the UN Global Alliance for ICT for Development.
Aristotle used to say, “I love Socrates, I love truth more.” I love the UN and I’m a great supporter, but I was in meetings at the UN this morning, and you hear “sustainable” every other word. It’s become repeated without somebody asking what do you mean by sustaining? What do you mean by sustainable development goals? We had Millennium Development Goals and we failed in achieving them by the way. We have to be honest with ourselves and we have to be realistic.
Unfortunately, in 2015, people of the world are not better off after 15 years of millennium development goals. Now we want to come up with something new, and the UN community invented the term sustainable development goals.
I think what we need is terms like progress. We need progress goals, not sustainable development goals. We need progress goals with a time frame, and that is what was wrong with the first millennium development goals. I was part of it and I asked for a timeline they said it’s impossible. We need to have a timeline and not just wait for another 15 years. The world situation is getting worse by the day if we talk worldwide. All the facts, all the social indicators are getting worse everyday.
We have a very serious problem in the world, and that serious problem can not be achieved by creating buzzwords that make everybody feel happy. This will be my emphasis at this high level advisory board on social investment funds, and from what I heard in this morning session at the UN, everybody was talking about PPP.
Public-Private-Partnerships — do governments really believe in that? No sir. We have to change the culture to achieve and to really practice PPPs. Governments and government officers think of the business community as a party you can call on as you wish and when you wish. We are not partners in the process of decision making. When we want to talk about partnerships, partnership is not only in implementation. You cannot come to me with a project and say I want you to be my partner. I should develop it with you if we are partners.
Otherwise I’m a client or the customer; I’m not a partner. Partnership starts with the culture of partnership. The culture of partnership does not exist in this world. I’m talking about all governments and I’m talking about the international community as well including the UN. Look at any agenda of the UN. If it is PPP, if there is a private sector person, he would come at the end of the session or lunch time or when everybody has left. That happened to me once when I was listed to speak on behalf of the global business community. They scheduled my statement exactly at lunchtime. By the time the last speaker before me was coming down from stage, everybody was going for lunch. I said, “I will not make my statement. I will not be here just as a decoration. If you were serious about hearing the views of the business community, which I respect, and out of my respect of my global business community, I would not speak to it to an empty hall at lunch time. Thank you very much.”
We are partners when we are decision-makers equally and when we are partners in the formulation of the policies and in the formulation of the projects.
Tom was president, CEO and publisher of Next City from May 2015 until April 2018. Before joining Next City, he directed the Center for Resilient Design at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Prior to that, he ran the Regional Plan Association’s New Jersey office, and served as a senior adviser on land use for two New Jersey governors. Tom is a licensed professional planner, and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, as well as an adjunct professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he teaches land use planning and infrastructure planning.