Urbanising the ‘smart’ way



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

Iino says.

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

holistic progress.


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