Urbanising the ‘smart’ way
ASEAN is home to some of the fastest growing cities in the world. As of 2015, ASEAN has 21 cities
with a population of 1 million or more and, barring Singapore, each one of them is expected to see their
population increase by at least 16 percent by 2025, according to the United Nations World Urbanisation
Cities have become nerve centres for economic growth and development, which has brought a large
influx of rural-urban migration. City infrastructure, however, has not kept pace with the growing urban
population, and this has resulted in inadequate availability of clean water, sanitation facilities, energy
and efficient transport systems. A report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates a need for a
staggering $7 trillion investment in infrastructure, housing and commercial space by 2030 for Southeast
Asian cities – a target that will be hard to meet for developing nations.
The emergence of new technologies has created an opportunity for urban planners in this region to
address the needs of their respective societies and attain sustainable growth and development. Infusing
smart technology into ASEAN’s emerging cities is being considered a viable opportunity in improving the
livelihood of the growing urban society.
The importance of definition
Experts have emphasised that defining
a smart city plays an important role in
ensuring that the adoption of new technologies
will indeed meet the end-goal
of improving quality of life. There are
several definitions of what a smart city is,
but in 2014 the Information Technology
Unit (ITU), the specialised agency of the
United Nations for Information and Communications
Technology (ICT), agreed
on one: "A smart sustainable city is an
innovative city that uses information and
communication technologies and other
means to improve quality of life, efficiency
of urban operation and services, and
competitiveness, while ensuring that it
meets the needs of present and future
generations with respect to economic,
social and environmental aspects."
According to Mr Ichiro Iino, Chief Executive for Asia-Pacific, Hitachi, Ltd, while some define smart cities
as those with sustainable social infrastructure, and others believe it implies the utilisation of cutting
edge technology to improve efficiency, the key question governments and key stakeholders of smart
cities should try to address first and foremost, is “how to improve ‘quality of life’ and how to apply smart
technology in achieving this target”. Accomplishing this requires an identification of the key issues in each
respective city, for government leadership to consolidate the voices of stakeholders and thereby alleviate
these specific issues with technology.
Dr Sekhar Kondepudi, Associate Professor of Smart Buildings and Smart Cities at the National University
of Singapore and Vice-Chair of the ITU Smart and Sustainable Cities Focus Group (SSCFG), agrees.
Smart technology is an enabler of improving the quality of lives of citizens. “If you don’t improve the
quality of life of urban dwellers, you aren’t doing something right,” he says. Nonetheless, improving the
lives of city dwellers is in itself subjective. Dr Kondepudi believes that cities determine what to focus on
depending on where they lie on their development trajectory. Initiatives should be taken in the context of
the requirements of a population that need addressing in that specific urban environment. Technology
will most likely act as a catalyst in driving the improvements sought.
This is exemplified in the case of Japan. In the 1960s and 1970s, Mr Iino says the Japanese government
drove investment into developing Japan’s industries and infrastructure. The initiatives brought tremendous
enefits to Japan, and helped the country experience rapid growth and establish solid economic fundamentals.
However, they also resulted in urban issues like excessive traffic congestion, air and water pollution
and urban waste disposal problems in large cities like Tokyo.
“Japan tried to solve these societal issues with innovation, and Hitachi contributed to the progress with
our advanced technology. This also brought opportunities to further advance the technologies and better
address the social agendas of the cities.” Mr Iino says. In this sense, the use of technology became
key in addressing the citizens’ needs and thereby enabling unhindered long-term development of a city.
Mr Iino elaborates that “Hitachi’s experience in data transmission and IoT-related technology can be
leveraged in other Asian countries as they look to develop their own smart cities”.
This is an example of the alignment between the economic needs of a city and the quest to improve the
lives of its people. Striking this balance involves understanding what people want—and need—and then
delivering on the requirements through the use of innovative solutions.
The roles of the
private vs public sectors
Enabling smart city development in emerging cities requires an immense synchronisation of strategies of both
the public and private sectors. Mr Iino points out that the government plays a pivotal role in defining its goals
and creating the basic physical outlay for smart technology to build on adequately. “Private companies should
support the government initiative in establishing smart cities. Hitachi, for instance, is focusing on a ‘collaborative
creation’ approach, which aims to create new value through collaboration with stakeholders in both the
public and private sectors” Mr Iino commented.
While the long-term investments in infrastructure lie in the hands of the government, the private sector has
been creating innovative solutions to plug the gaps in providing basic needs. Dr Kondepudi highlights how
apps, such as Next Drop in Bangalore which notifies communities of water supply in their neighbourhood, are
examples of how intermittent solutions have originated from the private sector and contributed to developing
efficiency in urban societies and improving quality of life.
The importance of data
One of the most important enablers in smart city development is the effective use of data. According to
Mr Iino, everything and everyone—including humans, products and infrastructure—is a data provider. The
availability of this vast reservoir of data presents opportunities for cities. “It is important to collect, analyse
and make sense of [the data],” in order to derive insights that will ultimately be beneficial to society, Mr
Dr Kondepudi adds that data connectivity among the different components of the physical infrastructure
is needed for key stakeholders from both the public and private sectors to synergize their capabilities into
one collective ecosystem.
Smart technology presents a viable opportunity to the ASEAN region to accelerate their growth and urban
development in a more effective way. Following the formation of clear goals respective to each city’s
unique challenges, private players must work with city governments and urban planners to bring about