Trends to Watch 2019: Smart Cities in Asia Get Smarter

Posted on 6th February 2019

Smart City Singapore

Photo Credit: Larry Teo on Unsplash

“Smart cities” was one of the buzz phrases of the year 2018. Local and national governments have been keen to develop their own smart cities to enjoy the promised savings, greater efficiency in resource deployment, potential reductions in congestion and improved sustainability, not to mention the prestige.

Within ASEAN, members states are already ahead of the curve. They launched the ASEAN Smart Cities Network last year and are expected to meet in Tokyo this year as part of a joint initiative by Japan and Singapore. Japan is collaborating with ASEAN to pursue smart cities projects by partnering with Society 5.0, the ASEAN-Japan Innovation Network, and the Japan-ASEAN Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development Goals Bridging Initiative among others.

Asian governments are also rushing to sign agreements with the private sector. Indonesia is working with Dassault Systèmes to develop the Padang Pariaman Smart City Implementation Project; private sector firms from Japan and China will begin building a smart city in Thailand, Sunway and NEC will be collaborating on developing smart city solutions for the Iskandar region in Malaysia; and the list goes on.

As the pursuit of smart cities grows in the region, here are some trends that we will see.

  1. Rise in policies that support the smart cities environment

Smart cities depend on vast amounts of data and connected devices. This year, governments are drumming up support for two policy areas necessary to support smart cities: policies that enable the constituent technologies and policies that protect citizens’ rights. Enabling policies and others that encourage the development of new technologies mooted around Asia include the use of (anonymised) data for research, the protection of IP rights, or regulatory sandboxes that allow new product testing without regulation. On the other side, policy-makers will also need to carefully consider grey policy areas. For example, increased use of surveillance drones and security robots within smart cities will require guidelines that balance national security and individual privacy.

  1. Growth in applications that focus on people-centricity

Smart cities often come with wholesale redevelopment of an area; usually, this is the most visible, most talked about, and the part of the plan most likely to cause backlash. In 2019, smart cities will likely respond by trending towards genuine consultation with local inhabitants and adaptive design.

For example, local privacy rules will dictate how smart cities can run on a basic level. Wayfinding and smart mapping apps depend on whether transport agencies can or are willing to share data, while the sensor-equipped smart districts like Google’s Sidewalk Toronto or South Korea’s Songdo could fall afoul of consent laws. Moreover, governments should seek the involvement of civil society to create tailored solutions and improve the chances of success. In London, a city often highly-rated in smart cities indexes, launched the ‘Smart London Plan’ in 2013 to increase citizens’ participation through improving digital inclusion and access to open data.

  1. More governments will take up a leadership role

Smart cities projects are long-term projects reliant on a vision, leadership, and commitment from national leaders. With the term sometimes an ill-defined buzzword, these criteria are crucial for projects that make meaningful improvements to life or create real innovation.

For bigger countries, this will require collaboration between municipal governments and the central government to ensure similar initiatives and effective project management across government levels. With the amount of resources and commitment needed, governments will likely play a larger role in 2019. Japan is a prime example; taking a whole-of-government approach while collaborating with key Japanese technology firms through the Japan Smart Community Alliance (JSCA) and sharing their policies on smart-energy, disaster, spatial and other planning initiatives.  As a result, Japan is becoming a leading smart city hub, and other countries are likely to look to their example this year.

  1. Greater support for start-ups and innovation

To create an environment conducive to smart cities, governments have to support start-ups and encourage innovation. Governments have increasingly looked to start-ups and private providers to help boost smart cities with Deloitte finding that only 16% of cities are able to self-fund the infrastructure they need for smart cities.

Policy-makers can create opportunities through grants, rebates, subsidies or competitions. For example, the collaboration between the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore and TNB Ventures invited start-ups to join an innovation call and pitch their ideas. In addition, government can look to educational institutions for digital talent. In Indonesia, the Digital Talent Scholarship programme expects to train 20 000 people by 2019 on artificial intelligence, robotics, cybersecurity, and big data, among others. Encouraging exchange between academia and the public and private sectors will drive the development of local smart cities initiatives.

  1. Careful measurements for smart cities initiatives

With the huge investment poured into smart cities, ensuring there is some measure of success is crucial. 2019’s projects should focus on indicators that evaluate the impact of smart cities on sustainability (CO2 emissions), transport (efficiency of public transportation), governance (citizen participation), digitalisation (Internet access and smartphone penetration), and security. In countries like Indonesia or Thailand, measurements are essential to track the success across the different municipalities. Clear, consistent measurements may also make it easier to pull in future investors who would be looking for indicators to identify which cities to work with.

Buzz to business

Smart cities reaching the lofty goals they set themselves will depend on policy-makers’ commitment to establishing favourable governance frameworks, and 2019 shows signs of them doing that. In Asia, this requires up-to-date policies for new technologies and the participation of civil society and private firms — from big tech companies to local start-ups. Regional governments can take example from Japan’s approach as it starts to reap the benefits, while partnerships in Indonesia and Malaysia are laying the ground for future work.


Author: Seha Yatim, Policy Analyst, Access Partnership

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