The age of smart cities
How does Asia fare?by Gwyneth Cheng
Let’s face it—today’s urban lifestyles are unsustainable. We simply consume and dump more resources than our planet can replenish. While Asia’s smart cities promise to solve some sustainability issues and make urban environments more liveable, the most successful are also often the wealthiest, leaving most of Asia’s urban poor to their own devices.
Will Asia’s cities get the hang of going smart?
This isn’t news, and urban population growth is still nowhere near slowing. The United Nations predicts that two-thirds of the world will live in urban areas by 2050. Africa and Asia will see the steepest growth, with Asia, in particular, carrying 64 percent of the planet’s urban population by then.
Governments have been seeking ways to redefine liveability, and in recent decades a trendy, modern concept has emerged: smart cities. As technology becomes more ubiquitous and accessible—with the Internet and big data at our fingertips and artificial intelligence no longer a stretch of the imagination—it’s only logical that tech has become a catalyst of sustainable development.
That said, what exactly is a smart city? It’s all still rather confusing, as the concept has been defined too many different ways. What we do know from all these definitions is that merely applying technology to city-wide operations doesn’t make a smart city. Rather, a city only earns the label when it applies technology according to the needs of its people.
Think about it—there’s a lot that technology and data can do in a city. We can create more efficient transport networks, improve water supply and quality, build better waste disposal facilities, and establish more efficient energy dissemination methods, among other things. Technology can upgrade essential functions and adapt to each city’s unique challenges.
But the challenge lies in having these solutions benefit a city’s people according to their needs. Improving water pipelines only at the heart of the city, for example, doesn’t benefit people who live nearer to the outskirts and who aren’t as connected.
For a city to be truly smart, technology should be applied in a manner that benefits the population in an equitable manner—this means either that technology benefits everyone in a city or that different groups of people get suitable help depending on their situations.
Unsurprisingly, the smart cities concept works well for small, wealthy countries such as Singapore. Although it has a small land area and limited natural resources, Singapore faces a demand for water so high, it can fill 782 Olympic-sized swimming pools each day. This number is predicted to double in 40 years, which spells trouble for the city-state.
In response, the government commissioned teams of researchers to create innovative solutions to ensure not only a steady supply of water but also the same level of water security for years to come. After years of research, NEWater—drinking water from treating and purifying used water—was introduced. It currently supplies 40 percent of Singapore’s water demand.
And this research is still ongoing. Further technological advancements in NEWater and desalination methods will have Singapore’s inventions meeting almost 85 percent of its residents’ total water demand by 2060.
Singapore’s water sustainability and management strategy has become a model for many other countries. NEWater is an example of how technology can create a solution to handle a population’s unsustainable lifestyle—it provides citizens greater access to drinking water as well as water sustainability without the need for further resource degradation, which increases the population’s overall quality of life.
It is a fact that wealthier cities in Asia, such as Singapore, tend to have an advantage when it comes to smart cities. After all, the very concept had originally been made for wealthy Western countries. The first investors who championed smart city technologies invested in wealthier cities in North America and Europe, and only focused on East and Southeast Asia much later on. Even so, these investors tended to choose only countries with strong economies.
Japan was one such country. In 2009, Japan introduced the “i-Japan Strategy 2015”—aiming to apply information technology into its citizens’ lives to create a digital city—and it has never looked back since. Prioritising some of the biggest urban issues in their largest cities, Japan’s national and local governments have strived to make life more efficient and sustainable for their residents.
Yokohama, a Japanese city with 3.7 million people crammed into an area of 437.4km², has experienced many issues from high car ownership. To ease congestion and relieve vehicular pollution, the local government worked with automobile giant Nissan to implement an electric-car-sharing service.
Known as “Choimobi Yokohama”, the service lets residents register on its official website for an electric car they can pick up from and return to 14 locations near Yokohama Station. By making it convenient for people to get an electric car and building proper facilities for the service, the local government’s proactive solution successfully pushed residents into a lifestyle change—from 2013 to 2014, the number of electric car drivers increased from 50 to more than 10,000.
This project has reduced the level of vehicular emissions and improved the quality of transportation for Yokohama’s citizens.
Like Japan, other Asian countries with strong economies have also seen rapid developments in this field. While large, rapidly growing nations like China and India have recently started applying the smart city concept, wealthier cities have witnessed most of these “smart” developments.
What this tells us is that smart cities are still a very elite concept. So, how does it fit into a region with a diverse range of cities and groups within them?
In short, we haven’t really gotten the hang of smart cities yet. Even in wealthier Asian cities, not all of our efforts have been effective.
The smart city in Songdo has fallen short of reaching the South Korean government’s goals, for example. Meant to solve overpopulation in Seoul, Songdo was planned as a new way to do quality living for at least 300,000 residents. Today, more than 10 years since it was introduced, Songdo only has a population of around half that number.
In Songdo, technology exists everywhere. Underground chutes “suck” trash out of houses and send them to be recycled to generate electricity. Apartments, streets, and traffic all have digital elements, and almost everything can be done remotely.
In many ways, Songdo is the utopia we imagine a smart city to be. But reality paints a different picture. People aren’t enticed to move in and hence businesses aren’t either. The cost of living is way too high, and in the city’s quest to become car-free—without providing public transportation that’s efficient enough—it takes almost two hours for residents to reach downtown Seoul for work.
With Songdo, simply implementing technology in city-wide operations ultimately wasn’t enough to achieve the grand goals it had planned, as this wasn’t what its residents required.
This tells us that an effective smart city in Asia is probably less about building cities from scratch than implementing technology where it’s most needed. Moreover, while higher-income cities like Songdo have their fair share of problems, bigger issues about not just quality of life but also standards of living still persist among the urban poor in lower-income cities till this day.
Thus, Asia’s smart cities have to prioritise efforts to do both—solve problems for their richer residents, as well as tackle some of the most severe and persistent issues faced by their urban poor.
The ASEAN region’s ten member states are making good attempts. In 2018, they established the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN), among the biggest efforts towards smart cities, to support one another in the quest to create smart cities that also benefit the vulnerable.
It’s a timely move. These nations support more than 630 million people, of which more than half are city dwellers. Dense cities with more than 5 million residents, including Jakarta, Bangkok, and Metro Manila, are soon expecting another 90 million more people to move in. Medium-sized cities such as Phnom Penh, Da Nang, Vientiane, and Makassar will see even greater growth.
Facing worsening urban issues, the 32nd ASEAN Summit in 2018 saw the ASCN established as a platform where member states work together to create smart and sustainable cities. Cities agreed to emphasise their citizens’ needs by adopting developmental strategies that take human rights and freedom into account and encouraging the sharing of knowledge and information across cultures.
The ASCN aims to improve six main aspects of a city: civic and social, health and well-being, safety and security, quality environment, built infrastructure, as well as industry and innovation. It hopes to create smart cities that use technologies to improve lives equitably. Some of the efforts that showcase this most prominently are the pushes for equal healthcare access and equal protection from natural disasters in the region.
Equal healthcare access is an arduous goal, particularly for lower-income cities. It’s made more challenging as cities expand and more migrants move in from rural areas—these migrants are often forced to live in urban slums with poor access to basic services.
Despite this, local governments in Indonesia have been working to make it happen. Makassar City, the capital of Sulawesi, Indonesia, has been slowly integrating technology into daily services since the inception of the Smart City Plan in 2014. The fifth largest city in the country, Makassar City is home to more than 1.8 million people. It aims to create a more sustainable city that can support its massive population.
The city plans to introduce telemedicine, which would allow residents to get professional healthcare consultancy through mobile health services. People will be able to get diagnosed or even access emergency care through an app at any time. Healthcare vehicles will be well-equipped and virtually linked to 46 health centres.
Of course, telemedicine isn’t a perfect solution, as it mostly caters to those who can afford mobile phones.
To ensure that less-connected groups still get the same level of access, the ASCN has set goals that help cities plan one step ahead, including providing the urban poor with affordable and accessible housing and investing in remote education for youth. The latter, especially, could help them identify any potential medical conditions in their families.
In ASEAN, where natural disasters are widespread, ensuring equitable protection for populations brings additional challenges. Over the years, urban development has destroyed many ecosystems that used to thrive in the region, eradicating natural barriers and worsening the impact of natural disasters when they occur.
Water-related disasters are most common in the region. Thailand lost a total of US$45 billion in 2011 to persistent flooding across the nation. Conserving the natural environment, in turn, prevents or lessens the impacts and costs of these disasters.
This is clearest in the Laotian city of Luang Prabang, home to 183 wetlands and ponds. Apart from being one of the most biodiverse biomes on the planet, Luang Prabang’s wetlands act as natural sponges, absorbing excess water when rivers overflow and preventing it from entering the city as flash floods. Years of urbanisation have severely threatened Luang Prabang’s wetlands—polluted by untreated sewage and destroyed by poorly regulated construction—eradicating the city’s most effective flood barriers.
The local government has introduced the Master Plan for Urban Drainage and Sewage System in response, hoping to modernise and improve the city’s sewage processing facilities and drainage system. Luang Prabang’s government is also going “smart” in the process, using sensors and remote surveillance methods to collect data about the area’s wetlands and using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) abilities to inform further development decisions.
Through these efforts, Luang Prabang’s residents enjoy an improved quality of life through reduced risk of flooding. Furthermore, residents who live nearer to the wetlands and rely on them for agriculture are able to reap the benefits of a healthier wetland ecosystem, ensuring greater food security for them. In this way, protecting wetlands with remote technology enables governments to help different groups of people according to the most pressing issues that each group faces.
Through ASCN, ASEAN has taken the first steps towards the future. For the rest of Asia’s cities, the challenge to improve the lives of all their citizens remains. The examples here clearly show that creating smart cities requires meticulous effort and consideration for the people to be successful.
“The ASCN and its Framework make it clear that our foremost task is to develop livable and sustainable cities. Smart Cities are only useful if they deliver what improves the lives of our citizens and creates new opportunities for all.”
- Khoo Teng Chye, Executive Director of the Centre for Liveable Cities Singapore
The concept of smart cities may have taken root in North America and Europe, but it will be Asia that develops and reaches its full potential.
It’s a good sign that governments in Asia are investing more and working together to create smart cities. If done well, this could change how we define livability for the better—and even turn some of Asia’s most persistent urban issues into huge opportunities for its nations and their people.