Asia cities find innovative solutions to create future cities

15, Nov. 2021

Singapore is held up as a model smart city where tech innovations help create a liveable city-state amid nature. (Photo: Centre for Liveable Cities)
Singapore is held up as a model smart city where tech innovations help create a liveable city-state amid nature. (Photo: Centre for Liveable Cities)

By Celine Chen

SINGAPORE, NNA - Asia Pacific cities including those in Southeast Asia are beginning to break ground in exploring innovative responses to sustainability and inclusion challenges as they build future smart metropolises across the region.

A new report by MIT Technology Review Insights said leading cities are pioneering sustainable innovation, offering solutions for overcoming social, economic, and ecological challenges to their peers in the region as well as globally.

Findings for the report clearly show how inclusive tech can make cities better for everyone, said MIT Technology Review.

Innovators in the region are using cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and big data to enable circular economy supply chains, optimize traffic, and track extreme weather disasters to ensure swift and effective response.

Titled "21st century cities: Asia Pacific's urban transformation", the report said innovation facilitated by collective data and associated technology in a certain location is helping citizens who live in areas of unplanned development to access employment opportunities, facilities, and emergency services.

"Consumer apps are adapting their offerings to support vulnerable groups, including live location sharing, female-specific ride sharing, and crowdsourcing data for safety assessments on potentially risky areas. And connected devices are offering information and support to elderly communities," said MIT Technology Review which produced the report together with multinational IT and consulting company Accenture.

They had conducted in-depth interviews on the subject with experts from organizations and universities including the Future Cities Laboratory, University of Tokyo, and Melbourne School of Design.

Singapore was highlighted for its successful transformation through persistent innovation into a global metropolis with "among the best livability metrics of any city".

Tanvi Maheshwari, an associate director at the Future Cities Lab Global, sees Singapore as a laboratory petri dish of innovation that can inspire others.

“Singapore’s urban planning and policy innovations have been exported around the world in one form or another. It’s a place where you experiment with new technologies and systems in a controlled setting, where there’s a lot of executive oversight so you can track performance. And that gives you a unique opportunity to test out ideas that may seem almost utopian in a real-life setting,” she said.

Thailand’s Phuket island may be known worldwide as a tropical paradise, but many may not be aware it is the kingdom's first ever smart city.

It is one of 26 Southeast Asian cities in the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) that set out a collaborative framework a few years ago for selected cities to work toward sustainable and smart development.

Phuket aims to build on the island’s renowned tourism reputation, focusing on safety, the environment, the economy, governance, education, and health care alongside tourism development using a data platform. It hopes to serve as a blueprint for other cities that rely on tourism.

Phuket's smart city data platform combines government data, transportation, and tourist data with public Wi-Fi and environment sensors to better understand the needs of tourists and allow local businesses to benefit from the data.

On the mainland in the eastern Rayong province is the country’s first fully functioning 5G-based smart city Ban Chang which is harnessing 5G and cloud to provide live traffic and public safety analytics.

Rayong is part of the Eastern Economic Corridor where smart features from manufacturing and energy have been introduced to manage industrial estates.

The conglomeration of many citizens in a bustling city has facilitated the development of new business models and the rise of Asian super-apps like Didi in the Asia Pacific, and Grab and Gojek in Southeast Asia that offer on-demand services like ride-hailing and food delivery.

Apps like these can only reach scale in highly populated areas like Jakarta and Bangkok, which then give them the clout to expand into smaller cities and rural areas, said the report.

In Thailand, national sustainability plans also include the retrofitting of government buildings as well as launching green low- and middle- income housing, and green building specifications.

In a first for the Philippines, Mactan Cebu International Airport used glulam timber, a natural alternative to steel and concrete, to build a new terminal.

Cities are also pioneering new approaches to city planning to leverage nature-based resilience, such as China's "sponge cities" aimed at managing flooding, water pollution and water scarcity in urban areas.

Thailand, too, is looking to natural water dynamics like wetlands, trees, and parks to increase infiltration and slow down water flow during heavy downpours.

Francesca Fanshawe, editor of the report, said, "As home to some of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, Asia Pacific cities no doubt face unprecedented challenges in the decades ahead. But work is being done across the region to find solutions that support urban citizens in developing a more sustainable and inclusive future

Alibaba’s City Brain project in Hangzhou harnesses artificial intelligence (AI) to collect data like video from intersection cameras and the GPS locations of cars and buses, analyzing the information to prevent traffic congestion. The technology has shortened commutes tremendously.

Apart from Chinese cities like Beijing and Chongqing, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia is also benefiting from City Brain. Cloud computing platforms are also bringing efficiency to the complex infrastructure work involved in transport development, such as Microsoft’s cloud support for Malaysia’s transit expansion.

One shining example of a clean and sustainable metropolis is Surabaya, one of Indonesia’s major cities on Java island of Java. It has been transformed into a connected, citizen-led urban center, with a focus on cleanliness, waste management and low emissions.

“It was well-run by a mayor with a very inclusive approach, getting citizens engaged and involved in looking at sustainability and recycling,” said Khoo Teng Chye, former executive director at Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities.

Despite positive initiatives and projects, there are gaps between the ideal of more sustainable, inclusive cities and ground realities. This calls for more constructive approaches, starting with a deeper understanding of the key challenges and desires of urban communities.

"We have seen cities across Asia Pacific respond to the pandemic through cross-sector collaboration and innovative technologies, and most of these changes will remain beyond the pandemic and provide the basis for acceleration and competition between city hubs. Now is a critical time to rethink the future and recalibrate post-pandemic priorities to realize future cities where every citizen has access to essential services, such as security, mobility, healthcare, education, and commerce in new and convenient ways." said Fabio Vacirca, an Accenture senior managing director for several regions including Southeast Asia.

Hugh Lim, executive director of the Centre for Liveable Cities, a co-organizer of the World Cities Summit, said, “Adapting to crises and growing from them is a key feature of resilience, something that cities must learn to do as the challenges they face become increasingly complex. In the face of pandemics and future disruptions from climate change, it is more important than ever that cities invest in a sustainable future for the world.”

In a report in October, Polaris Market Research said the global smart cities market was valued at $411 billion in 2020. It is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 14.4 percent from 2021 to hit $1.03 trillion in 2028.

While North America is the dominant regional market for smart cities, the Asia Pacific is predicted to garner the fastest growth rate this decade because of increasing IT investment supported by government initiatives in growing economies such as China, India, Singapore, and South Korea, said the research company.