Smart thinking

26 August 2021

Approximately 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia, putting strain on the continent’s cities. But are smart cities the answer to sprawling urbanisation? Robert Shepherd investigates.

The creation of smart cities has been captivating the sector for more than a decade. As technology continues to advance at speed and humans no longer need to carry out jobs that robots can now do with aplomb, countries on every continent are planning for a very different future to the one they envisaged just 15-20 years ago.

Although this is happening on every continent, to varying degrees, it is particularly true in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. Countries like China (including Hong Kong), Japan, Singapore and South Korea have long been synonymous with advanced technology and the highest standards or more, but southern Asian countries have been working harder to keep up with their northern neighbours by investing heavily in key cities.

When you think about it, the introduction of smart cities makes sense. After all, the idea is simple - embed smart technology everywhere to make a city better and its citizens healthier, safer and more prosperous.

While adoption has been slower in some regions, such as Africa, that has not been the case in APAC. Furthermore, with recent shifts such as wider availability of low-cost internet of things (IoT) sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) and distributed hybrid multi-cloud IT architectures, smart city innovation in APAC continues to accelerate at a speed not experienced anywhere else on the planet. So, why has APAC embraced smart city technologies so quickly? There’s more than one answer to this question and to list them all would be soporific.

However, the main one is, well, people. Asia’s cities are synonymous with both large populations and high population density. Put it this way: 16 of the world’s 28 megacities (cities with population exceeding 10m) are in Asia. In fact, the United Nations forecasts that the urban population of Asia’s megacities will double by 2030 from 2010. Similarly, eight of the world’s largest cities with highest population density are located in Asia. Rapid urban growth translates to rising income growth and lifestyle changes, which are stretching the infrastructure and resources of cities, particularly in emerging southern Asian countries.

India alone has a population that’s bigger than the whole of Africa’s, which is a very sobering thought. Nations like India and many of its neighbouring (mostly developing) countries, there are so many other fundamental issues to be addressed, so why should smart cities take precedence over, let’s say, social deprivation and inequality?

Steve Hwang government and cities program lead Asia-Pacific and Japan region at Finnish tech giant Nokia says smart city solutions will be transformative for emerging markets due to their ability, if properly implemented, to help cities become more efficient and productive, which can lead to reductions in time and cost for operations.

“For instance, let us consider smart transformation in a city’s public healthcare system,” he says. “Typically, it takes a high school student around seven or eight years to become a professional doctor. However, as shown by the rapid rate of urban growth cities in Asia have been witnessing, the region’s emerging cities cannot wait for a new generation of medical professionals as demand would outpace supply. In many countries across Asia’s developing markets, this has led to the growth of the private healthcare sector while the public sector struggles to catch up. However, such a gap would only emphasize growing income inequalities (and access to paid, for-profit services) in emerging markets.”

Nokia has been working with a raft of smart cities across southern Asia, but for legal reasons the locations cannot be listed at this stage.

Nokia’s smart city solutions, which have been presented as “City-as-a-Platform” offerings based on the Nokia Bell Labs Future X architecture, are designed to comprehensively address smart urban infrastructure efforts based on the work the company have already been doing in European and North American markets.
Nevertheless, Hwang argues that with smart city solutions geared towards healthcare, more applications around mobile healthcare can be realised especially with greater use of 4th Industrial Revolution technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), big data, industry-grade private wireless networks and even 5G. Hence, smart city applications can help overcome shortages in human personnel, not only in terms of healthcare delivery but also for other essential public services.

“In many countries across Asia’s developing markets, this has led to the growth of the private healthcare sector while the public sector struggles to catch up”

It’s true that smart city applications like smart grids and buildings, air and water monitoring, smart transportation, smart waste collection, disaster response and more are helping APAC cities manage their growth more efficiently, sustainably and resiliently. Sensors paired with AI algorithms provide a real-time view of conditions and usage patterns, enabling city systems to intelligently adapt to demand and respond to issues. Fast and reliable network speeds with minimal latency are key to solutions like this that need to collect, filter and analyse vast amounts of data from thousands of sensors and other data sources in real-time.

Now, let’s see how smart city infrastructure has made a difference in southern Asia.

In 2012, the now Motorola-owned IndigoVision rolled out its IP video solution to be used as part of a surveillance system with more than 3,700 cameras in the new terminal three at Delhi International Airport (DIAL). At the time, the project was believed to be the largest single installation of an IP video system in Asia. The new terminal was built as part of the massive infrastructure development for Delhi ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Delhi is India’s second largest airport and with the recent expansion can handle north of 34 million passengers per year.

Then, in 2017, India’s STL (formerly Sterlite Technologies) helped Gandhinagar to become the country’s first smart city. The company was enlisted to deliver the end-to-end smart city solution for Gandhinagar, made up of Wi-Fi, smart lighting, environmental sensors, smart help desk/call centre and a control room.

While India’s smart city plan is still in its infancy, the Narendra Modi government is encouraging cities to forge public-private partnerships to accelerate the pace of project implementation. What’s more, the Modi administration has also started to rank the smart cities under an Ease of Living Index, using certain minimum standards for cities to compare and evaluate their progress. Under the program, India’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has developed a set of Ease of Living Standards. A total of 78 indicators, 56 core indicators and 22 supporting indicators are covered. These have been grouped under 15 thematic categories, which in turn form the four pillars of urban development: institutional, social, economic and physical.

More recently, this year in fact, American network software provider Mavenir joined forces with Thai state-owned telecommunications company National Telecom, 5GCT, a local business specialised in delivering end-to-end 5G smart cities and Cisco Systems (Thailand), a networking company, to launch the first 5G Open RAN Smart City in Ban Chang, Thailand.

The launch of the 5G smart creates synergies between public and private sectors for a fully functional smart city. Ban Chang is connected to a motorway linking Thailand’s two largest cities: Pattaya and Bangkok. What’s more, the Ban Chang Smart City 5G Private Network operates on Millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, spectrum which is ideally suited for a network operating Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, drones and smart poles, all applications which require fast data uplink to the core for real-time analysis and city management.

Mavenir’s Aniruddho Basu, general manager of Mavenir’s emerging business Unit, says the company is particularly proud to be part of an “ambitious 5G project” which sees a whole city connected on a series of 5G applications running in parallel. “Connectivity is at the heart of this deployment connecting people, communities, government services, and private sector services through local government data combined with new data acquired through Internet of Things (IOT), sensors, drones, and external collected data, to fully analyse it for proper city management and citizen knowledge,” he adds.

Smart cities have become such big business that IDC, the global market intelligence specialists, runs the Smart City Asia-Pacific Awards (SCAPA), now a staple event.

At the 2020 (virtual) awards, a total of 19 smart city projects across APAC, excluding Japan were recognised across 14 functional e-service categories.

In case you missed it, among the winners were Malacca City in Malaysia (Economic development, tourism, arts, libraries, culture and open spaces), New Delhi in India (Sustainable infrastructure) and Sentosa in Singapore (Transportation – connected and autonomous vehicles, public transit, ride-hailing/ride-sharing).

Talking about the dominant themes, Gerald Wang, head of public sector at IDC APAC, notes that further automation of city operations, creating better accessibility to digital ecosystems and tools for residents, and enhanced government services, all dominate the “transformation themes” of smart city projects in SCAPA 2020.

He adds: “This year, many Asia Pacific smart city projects focused on agile public policies and initiatives for social inclusivity, intuitive and innovative city services, sustainable critical infrastructure revolutions and global engagements.”

The Malaysian city of Malacca won at the IDC’s Smart City Asia-Pacific Awards (SCAPA) 2020

The Malaysian city of Malacca won at the IDC’s Smart City Asia-Pacific Awards (SCAPA) 2020

Nevertheless, IDC notes that the current global Covid-19 pandemic further strengthened cities’ resolve to create cutting edge “live, learn, work and play” digital ecosystems.

“With the direct impact of Covid-19 halting day-to-day activities to the bare essential services, the race to digital for socioeconomic resiliency and survivability is much more exigent than ever before,” Wang continues. “City governments would do well to accelerate their digitalisation plans and learn swiftly from the investments and innovative projects of our SCAPA 2020 winners.”

Indeed, governments are often cited as being key to the delivery of smart city projects. They are also criticised for not stumping up the required cash to take their country to the next level.

While that may be true, smart cities require leaders who can drive a vision forward through to implementation. Leaders do not have to necessarily come from local governments. More often than not, smart cities are a collaborative effort that brings together the public and private sectors and can be driven by individuals from any sector. Take the likes of Cisco, Google and Siemens, all of which have “smart city” initiatives to promote fibre networks, big data, and the “Internet of Things”. IBM hosts the annual Smarter Cities Challenge, which rewards the most innovative cities in the world with grants.

There’s more data if you can stomach it. In its 2019 report, “Smart Cities: Shifting Asia”, Swiss multinational investment bank UBS projects that APAC will account for 40% of the global addressable market growth for smart city projects, or US$800bn by 2025. What’s more, according to the second annual Global Interconnection Index (the GXI), APAC will be the second fastest growing region for interconnection bandwidth, with a projected 51% CAGR from 2017 to 2021, reaching 2,220 terabits (Tbps) by the end of this calendar year.

That said, smart cities mean something different to different regions and people, because each has different needs.

As far as Asia is concerned, the smart city generally, but not always, consists of six key areas: smart connectivity, smart governance, smart services, smart automation, smart health and smart mobility with varying levels of digitalisation. Of course, we mustn’t forget cybersecurity, which underpins every smart city regardless of location.

As far as Hwang is concerned, how smart cities are defined and interpreted depends on the urban stakeholder in question, be they smart infrastructure players, application developers, device manufacturers, telecommunication operators, equipment manufacturers or cloud service providers. He also says there can also be variations depending on each country in southern Asia, or the rest of the world for that matter.

“Yet, what smart cities as a whole can do is more commonly understood it is to bring improvement to the lives of the city’s citizens and businesses via innovation,” adds Hwang. “Such improvements can be measured in different ways, whether it is the ability for people and organizations in a city to access key public services, improved safety or a cleaner urban environment. Although the understanding of smart city aims is clearer, there remains no set, comprehensive definition of what they encompass; however, we feel such a definition will become clearer over time and with the emergence of more smart cities around the world.”

Based on Nokia’s own research and experience within this space, Hwang said it observed that many growing cities in emerging markets share several commonalities.

“Firstly, emerging cities have been seeing continuous economic growth,” adds Hwang. “Many of these cities – especially across Asia are already leading contributors to their nation’s economy, but they are also projected to take on greater roles as centres of education, technological development and innovation to attract more people to reside in urban centres.”

Hwang also pointed to the fact urban populations are continuously rising. “In 1950, only around 17% of Asian populations lived in cities but that figure has since risen significantly to over 50%,” he says. “By 2050, Asia’s urban populations are projected to double but such growth will also entail demographic challenges. Finally, a seismic demographic shift is happening. Since 2000, due to advancements in healthcare and lower fertility rates, the average life expectancy in the region’s emerging nations rose by six years (as compared to four years in the region’s more advanced countries).”

It’s clear APAC is punching above its weight when smart cities are concerned. After all, the evidence is overwhelming.

However, it’s been said that smart cities can only make sense if put in the broader picture of giving every citizen the right to basic services. Is that a fair comment?

Hwang says that “contentions to such comments boil down to the many different solutions geared for various urban applications – which tend to be grouped under the overarching, umbrella term of ‘smart cities’”. He adds: “As such, we believe that there is, if not should be, freedom in referring innovations in terms specific to their use case, i.e., ‘smart mobility’, ‘smart factories, or ‘smart buildings’. Understandably, this can cause confusion as any one of those specific use cases may not directly address contributions to the lives of daily citizens as a whole. However, even if certain applications are geared towards even a single section of the population, they must be viewed as working in concert with each other as components to drive holistic smart city developments. Essentially, even if certain applications are geared towards even a single population segment, they can stimulate snowball effects and build upon other applications to stimulate long-term innovation in smart cities.”

Southern Asia has its challenges like any other part of the world, but the fact it’s various smart cities projects are leading the way can only help.