In 2016 and 2017, I had the privilege to travel to Estonia twice with VolTra, a registered charity in Hong Kong promoting international volunteerism, and during the first visit, we visited Voru, a small town in southern Estonia.
With a population of only a few thousand people, the average monthly income is about 840 euros, which is not considered high by EU standards.
“We are not very rich, but we live very well.”
As their mayor said, they may not be materially wealthy, but they are happy and content.
In the local city planning, they have a total of 14 main policy areas, covering different aspects such as families, education, youth development, and economic development. Surprisingly, the most emphasis is not on economic development, but on family policy, focusing on improving the quality of life of local families, and designing the city to meet the needs of residents, giving them enough space to live happily.
Their experience has made me reflect on the fact that a good city not only requires rigid planning. Even with convenient transportation, spacious green spaces, and rich cultural spaces, it is not as important as people living happily in the city. Without citizens, there is no city, and citizens are not just residents living in the city, but they also live in it in a certain way of freedom of choice. Therefore, a people-oriented urban planning direction is particularly important.
In a people-oriented city, a sense of belonging and bonding among the residents are very important. In this southern Estonian town, they did a very well demonstration in bringing the people together. People who work in the capital sometimes come back to the town to rest on vacation, enjoy sauna with friends, drink some wine, eat some desserts, and chat.
The locals in Voru are known for their warm and friendly nature, and one of the ways they enjoy socializing is through dance parties. These events are not only an opportunity to let loose and have fun, but they also provide a chance for people to make new friends and strengthen existing relationships.
“Next week, you will leave. My university classmates from all over the world will come to my farm for a gathering. It has been more than 20 years. We will gather here at this time every year.”
Before embarking on my trip to Estonia, I was impressed by the Estonian government’s vision for promoting digital development. The e-citizenship scheme and STEM education were just a few examples of their initiatives. As someone who has been following the discussions on smart cities in Hong Kong, I was also aware of the government’s consultant research on the blueprint for smart cities.
However, my trip to Estonia opened my eyes to something beyond digital infrastructure. While I was initially captivated by the city’s technological advancements, what impressed me even more was the profound communication and interactions among its residents. It was a refreshing experience that highlighted the importance of social connections and community building, especially in the context of smart city development.
The trip made me realize that a smart city’s success cannot be solely measured by its digital infrastructure or cutting-edge technologies, but also by the happiness and well-being of its citizens. Therefore, prioritizing the needs and well-being of the people should always be at the forefront of smart city development.