Pakistan at a crossroads

Updated December 28, 2019


WITH over 200 million inhabitants, Pakis­tan stands at a crossroads. Recovering from a devastating surge of terrorism, it is now in its third consecutive democratic government.

In the run-up to elections, distinct voices advocated for accountability, good governance, urban sustainability — ie, quality of services such as electricity, water, sewage and mobility — and social and environmental health. Yet citizens have had these unmet expectations for decades, and these issues are only getting worse with time.

Traffic congestion and air pollution are common features in Pakistan today, and rapid urbanisation has created under-resourced urban settlements, causing unprecedented levels of economic, spatial, social and infrastructural challenges.

Urban settlements are the engines of growth and development, and, therefore, they can make or break a country’s sustainability. Pakistan is experiencing a turning point in sustainability, with many areas at the lowest ebb of urban crisis. In the UN 2018 e-government index for 2018, Pakistan’s largest city Karachi was ranked as the lowest among 40 cities of the world assessed for resilience and sustainability through e-governance.

The country must transform its urban hubs into sustainable settlements.

This makes a holistic and integrated vision of urban challenges more necessary than ever. In this context, a smart sustainable cities paradigm has emerged worldwide as a solution to these challenges. As defined by the Operating Unit on Policy-Driven Electronic Governance of the United Nations University, a smart sustainable city is one that implements a transformative governance process, oriented at building capacities to solve multidimensional and complex problems, conducted within a multidisciplinary team and with the collaboration and cooperation of all stakeholders, aiming to achieve sustainable economic, social and environmental development.

Pakistan’s major cities are exactly at the threshold where policymakers have no choice but to adopt this concept. Implicitly, Pakistan Vision 2025 already suggested a smart city transformation, by stating that it “seeks to ensure that Pakistan’s cities are digitally connected [and] equipped with wireless network sensors ... thereby laying the foundations for the cities of Pakistan to be smart and creative”. However, this is still a very simplistic smart city vision, as it is based only on technologies and does not mention the need to build capabilities and competences for solving urban problems.

This narrow understanding of the smart city concept limits its practical implementation. Countries under these circumstances tend to be more easily influenced by multinational IT companies or by more developed countries, which want to sell their solutions as though they are a universal remedy. To be effective, the smart city concept must be understood, absorbed and implemented by Pakistani citizens, as they are the ones who know better what they need and want for their future.

Pakistan cannot afford to lose momentum or else it will run the risk of definitively losing its competitiveness in the region as well as globally. Given that its neighbours China and India are much more advanced in the field of smart cities, with very ambitious national plans and tech innovation hubs, Pakistan has to seize the opportunity to become more economically competitive and sustainable.

The country has favourable factors that can enable and boost a fast transformation. First, it can harness the opportunities offered by CPEC; second, it has a good ICT infrastructure, with 100 per cent 3G/4G mobile coverage, which can be used to implement smart technological solutions; and third, cities such as Lahore, Peshawar and Multan have a very rich cultural heritage, and these unique features can have a catalyst effect. In addition, these cities have a flourishing IT industry with a growing number of IT parks, data centres and innovative tech incubators which can attract international investors.

The moment to act has definitively come. Pakistan’s urban challenges are visible and well identified, and the regional context demands more competitiveness. The solution is right in front of our eyes, but some crucial pieces of the puzzle are still missing, such as designing a national smart city plan tailored to the country’s specific context, building local capabilities and competences for implementing a smart city project, and restructuring traditional governance so that it becomes smart, agile and able to answer Pakistan’s challenges and needs.

Shahid Farooq is a public sector practitioner and researcher on e-governance. He works with UNDP Pakistan as head of Punjab SDGs Support Unit.

Nuno Lopes is a writer and researcher on e-governance, and is editor of Smart Governance for Cities: Perspective and Experiences and co-author of the UNU’s Smart Sustainable Cities report.

Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2019