Top 10 Smart Cities in ASEAN

Smart cities are flourishing across Southeast Asia. Here are ten of the most promising ones

Kuala Lumpur skyline and traffic light trails at dusk, Malaysia, Southeast Asia
hadynyah / Getty Images

By 2025, the number of inhabitants in medium-sized cities of Southeast Asia is expected to double.

To face the urban challenges brought up by the population growth, governments in the region are resorting to technological and digital solutions that can improve public safety, environmental monitoring, water treatment, transportation, and energy generation and consumption.

The technologies used in smart cities often include geospatial databases, automation and monitoring systems (IoT), data analytics (big data), broadband networks and electronic payment.

Many cities in ASEAN now have a backbone of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure in place and have begun the process of digitising some government departments and public-facing services.

During the 32nd ASEAN Summit which took place in March 2018, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed an ASEAN Smart Cities Network initiative (ASCN) - a proposal which was approved by all members of the bloc and has then been in place.

ASCN is envisioned as a collaborative platform where 26 cities from the ten ASEAN member states work towards the common goal of smart and sustainable urban development. The primary goal of the ASCN is to improve the lives of ASEAN citizens, using technology as an enabler.

Although most of the cities featured still have a way to go until they can achieve full smart city status, there’s a strong determination to make this happen sooner than later, as the ASCN demonstrates.

It should be noted that a smart city is not only one that uses smart bins, automated cleaning robots or driverless trains but also those which invest heavily on its social infrastructure.

Here, we look into 10 cities of the Southeast Asian region which are already or are in the process of becoming smart cities. Apart from New Clark City in the Philippines, all feature in the ASCN initiative. 

By 2025, the number of inhabitants in medium-sized cities of Southeast Asia is expected to double.

To face the urban challenges brought up by the population growth, governments in the region are resorting to technological and digital solutions that can improve public safety, environmental monitoring, water treatment, transportation, and energy generation and consumption.

The technologies used in smart cities often include geospatial databases, automation and monitoring systems (IoT), data analytics (big data), broadband networks and electronic payment.

Many cities in ASEAN now have a backbone of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure in place and have begun the process of digitising some government departments and public-facing services.

During the 32nd ASEAN Summit which took place in March 2018, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed an ASEAN Smart Cities Network initiative (ASCN) - a proposal which was approved by all members of the bloc and has then been in place.

ASCN is envisioned as a collaborative platform where 26 cities from the ten ASEAN member states work towards the common goal of smart and sustainable urban development. The primary goal of the ASCN is to improve the lives of ASEAN citizens, using technology as an enabler.

Although most of the cities featured still have a way to go until they can achieve full smart city status, there’s a strong determination to make this happen sooner than later, as the ASCN demonstrates.

It should be noted that a smart city is not only one that uses smart bins, automated cleaning robots or driverless trains but also those which invest heavily on its social infrastructure.

Here, we look into 10 cities of the Southeast Asian region which are already or are in the process of becoming smart cities. Apart from New Clark City in the Philippines, all feature in the ASCN initiative. 

For this list we have used research from GovInsider, The ASEAN Post, McKinsey Global Institute ‘Smart Cities in Southeast Asia’ 2018 report, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and the ASCN project profiles.

Jakarta (Indonesia)

As part of its smart city development, Jakarta launched Qlue - “the smart city app”.

Qlue is an AI-powered social media app which allows users to report problems directly to the local government and businesses, as well as sharing information with other citizens.

The local government receives an average of 1,400 messages per day via the app. On top of this, Jakartans send an average of 130 SMS messages per day to the governor’s mobile phone, and many more through social media and email.

Qlue promotes civil participation and bottom-up engagement, encouraging citizens to complaint about poor or lack of services, bring suggestions forward or share data through different platforms, including Smart Government Dashboard, Smart Environment, Smart Mobility, Smart Media Analysis or Smart Safety.

Other smart city apps used in Jakarta include iJakarta, a public digital library, and Jakarta Smart City Portal (JSC), a portal with city data and information that can be accessed by the general public. For example, users can access footage from the 7,300 CCTV cameras installed throughout the city to monitor crime, traffic congestion, flood and waste problems.

JSC is one of the government's efforts to improve transparency by centralising and integrating all data in one place. 

Hanoi (Vietnam)

Hanoi has been working on its smart city planning since 2016. With a population of 7.6 million, Vietnam’s capital aspires to be a green, culturally rich, civil and modern city with sustainable development to create a better life for its inhabitants by 2030.

A thriving city, Hanoi has one of the fastest gross domestic product (GDP) growth indexes in the world.

On the technology front, that the country will be adopting 5G within two years, something which would give a huge push to the development of Hanoi’s smart city infrastructures.

Hanoi’s Smart City Action Plan includes the establishment of a Smart Operations Centre which will contain a number of functional hubs, including a support centre for the city’s IT staff, a data analysis centre and a centre for traffic supervision, traffic control and crime prevention.

In the education sector, 2,700 schools and universities are being integrated into an online system where school reports and enrolment data can be easily accessible online by students and teachers.

And when it comes to transportation, the city is working on a digital traffic map to ease traffic congestion. Hanoi, together with Ho Chi Minh City, is using the iParking app in some districts. Thanks to this app, drivers can find free parking spaces and pay from their smartphones easier and quicker.

Singapore (Singapore)

No top smart cities list would be complete without Singapore on it.

Named the “smartest city in the world” at last year’s IMD Smart City Index, Singapore is at the forefront of the digital economy, digital government and digital society. The city-state has also received the Smart City of 2018 award at the Smart City Expo World Congress 2018 in Barcelona.

Singapore is ahead of major global cities such as New York, San Francisco or London, and with its autonomous vehicles, smart sensor platform and use or artificial intelligence (AI), there’s barely a week when the city-estate doesn’t make headlines in technology news.

One of the elements which places Singapore ahead of its neighbours when it comes to smart city development is the government’s strong commitment on tech-friendly legislation and a massive investment in its smart city infrastructure. According to IDC data, Singapore leads the way in government IT spending among ASEAN countries.

However, the city-state still has obstacles to overcome. During her tenure as director of adoption and engagement at Singapore’s Smart Nation Digital Government Group, Rebecca Lim identified two key challenges for driving adoption of technology in the smart city: helping citizens understand the benefits and opportunities of the ‘Smart City’ initiatives, and encouraging them to participate in this effort.

“Most citizens are aware of Smart Nation and feel, in general, that it is an important initiative to secure Singapore’s future. But when it comes to being able to articulate tangible benefits and value, fewer are able to, and there are pockets of the population that are more fearful than hopeful of the transformation that technology will bring,” Lim said.

Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)

2020 is a landmark year for Kuala Lumpur’s smart city development.

Last May Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) began a pilot test of an intelligent traffic management system using proprietary technologies of Alibaba Cloud and Sena Traffic Systems Sdn Bhd, a local traffic control and management system company.

The pilot test, which revealed that travel times could be reduced by 12 percent with proper implementation of the system, is part of the Malaysia City Brain initiative developed on Alibaba Cloud’s cloud computing infrastructure. It aims to support Malaysia’s digital transformation with cloud technology and artificial intelligence.

Among the governmental initiatives to make the Malaysian capital smarter is the outlining of the Greater Kuala Lumpur area as one of the twelve National Key Economic Areas of the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP).

The main objective of the ETP is to transform the city by using technology and developing digital skills and related areas towards smart city development.

In 2016, Kuala Lumpur’s City Council was named finalist in IDC’s Smart City Asia Pacific Awards (Scapa) in the Public Works category due to its Heavy Vehicle Classification System (HVCS) initiative, which was implemented to address traffic problems during peak hours.

Mandalay (Myanmar)

Myanmar’s last royal capital and its second largest city - after Yangon - with 1.25 million people has experienced rapid urbanisation and population growth in the recent years.

To promote itself as a smart and green city, the Mandalay City Development Committee (MCDC) and the Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development (DHSHD) have prepared their first major 25 year urban development plan.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the French Agency for Development (AFD) are providing technical and financial support to help the city achieve its vision through the Mandalay Urban Services Improvement Project, which aims to improve the city’s water supply system, wastewater treatment and solid waste management.

In addition to the above initiatives, the International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has also been providing technical assistance for developing a waste management strategy to help the city achieve a zero waste, zero emissions and a resource-efficient society.

Mandalay is already seeing the benefit of implementing technology on its streets: Internet of Things (IoT) sensors are being used in the city to help officials keep track of water issues; drones are helping to map the city to plan drainage systems; and traffic congestion is monitored and planned through automated control centres.

However, as Chief Smart City Officer Ye Myat Thu points out, Mandalay still needs to work on its infrastructure in order to unleash its full potential as a smart city.

Phuket (Thailand)

The Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA), which is working with the government to create smart cities in Thailand, chose Phuket as the first city to lead the initiative because of its reputation for being one the biggest tourist cities in the world and also because of its existing technology infrastructures.

Phuket has outlined a multipronged Smart City Action Plan covering tourism, safety, the environment, the economy, governance, education, and healthcare. The plan allows the city to prioritise applications against the intended outcomes. If it can manage to grow in a smart and sustainable way, the island could serve as a potential blueprint for other ASEAN cities that are dependent on tourism but in danger of being overrun by it.

The Thai government has injected US$13 million - and a possible addition of US$30 million in the coming years as the project expands - to the island’s pilot programme and is expected that it will make Phuket’s economy grow by 4.5 percent in the next five years.

So far the Thai government has been employing big data analytics to keep track of and improve tourism delivery services. For that, it has leveraged on several startups, companies and events like hackathons to study the various types of tourists that visit the island annually.

Phuket is already using 1,000 free WiFi hotspots which, when combined with CCTV driven vehicle licence plate recognition systems, help to map out the city’s population density and tourist movements.

The city intends to build a closed-circuit TV network with “eagle eyes” over the metropolis. For this, it has already deployed 700 of 1,300 “publicly owned” CCTVs from police and local agencies.

Makassar (Indonesia)

Mayor of Makassar, Mohammad Ramdhan “Danny” Pomanto, wants to make his city the smartest in Indonesia.  

Under the motto “Sombere [kind hearted] and Smart City”, Makassar is combining technology and local wisdom to offer a sociotechnical solution to the city’s development.

As today, the technology developed in Makassar City include Telkomsel 4G LTE service with 1800 MHz frequency, CCTV cameras, smart card and a broadband network infrastructure. 

The city is also developing a public transport system called Petepete Smart, consisting of a modern float of mini-buses equipped with WiFi, GPS, air conditioning and a capacity of 12 seated passengers, 4 stands, and 1 passenger with a disability. The vehicles can be monitored centrally through a command centre.

In 2016 Makassar partnered with the Singaporean government to build smart city solutions and digital services.

The partnership gives Singaporean companies opportunities to work with the Makassar government on its smart city plan. This include building digital service platforms, smart cards, intelligent transport systems, pre-emptive flood detection systems, and smart street lighting.

Mayor Pomanto also wants to collect data to cut traffic congestion and persuade motorbike riders to use public transport instead.

Danang (Vietnam)

Vietnam’s fifth largest city, Danang aims to achieve fully smart, liveable and sustainable city status by 2030.

According to an EIU survey, 84 percent of Danang’s residents consider their city smart today, citing improvements to the environment as the main benefit. This is reflected in practice as Danang seeks to develop into an environmentally-friendly city within two years by raising awareness and enhancing local environmental protection and urban management, in part by working closely with industry.

Danang is also seeing initiatives in e-government, low-cost online access and administrative and operational management in various areas.

Several international companies have also been involved in the city’s ongoing infrastructure development efforts in electricity, telecommunications, fibre optic cables and cloud-based solutions, among other areas.

The city has developed models that employ data to assess climate risk and shape its strategies through the Climate Change Coordination Office. The office has devised innovative solutions, including early flood warning systems and hydrological data to project water levels and areas that would be affected. These projects use and collect data to monitor and predict potential risks, which informs urban planning as the city’s various agencies and entities partner to build more resilient housing units for low-income residents.

This type of integrated effort allows for the kind of scale that makes projects viable and attractive to investors—and it enables them to use new materials and incorporate smart, energy-efficient technology.

As McKinsey Global Institute report explains, Phuket’s Climate Change Coordination Office has worked with global insurance company Swiss Re to develop an open data–driven flood risk map to increase awareness of problem areas. Open data maps help inform communities of potential storms and disasters, and they are accessible to low-income households, whose houses are most prone to disasters.

Other initiatives include the launch of free public WiFi and the country’s first ever e-government platform in 2014. The system hosts 1,196 online public services and 498 other services covering the issuance of certificates for land use, management of public infrastructure like roads, water quality and drainage as well as the issuance of driving licenses.

In the transport sector, Danabus, Danang’s public bus company, recently launched a smartphone application which allows users to monitor local bus routes from their smartphones.

Bangkok (Thailand)

Thailand’s capital and largest city still relies heavily on cars as the main way of transport, making traffic and pollution one of its most pressing problems.

As part of its smart city action plan Bangkok is focusing on building an infrastructure and achieve a quality environment that could ease its transport issues.

Plans are underway to grow Bangkok’s still nascent network of public transport so that 60 percent of the city’s residents could rely on public transport for their daily commute as opposed to just the 40 percent that do it today. The rapid rail network in the greater Bangkok area is also set to expand to more than 500 kilometres by 2029.

In terms of sustainable living conditions, the One Bangkok “city-within-a-city” district will be an integral part of the smart city development. It will be driven by elements of IoT spanning an area of 16.7 hectares. With eight hectares dedicated to green and open spaces, the project is set to be a prime example of people-centric and environmentally sustainable smart city living.

When it comes to energy efficient buildings, Bangkok is home to the Park Ventures Ecoplex, which houses the Okura Prestige Hotel in the capital’s Central Business district. The hotel is the first building in the city to be accorded the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum rating.

New Clark City (Philippines)

100 km north of Manila, in the province of Tarlac, there’s a planned community which started to be built in 2016: New Clark City.

The smart city project is planned to be a high-tech green city with autonomous vehicles, drones and robots, making it the first of its kind in the Philippines. It’s expected to alleviate the congested capital of the country and set a precedent for future smart cities.

According to its lead developers, the project is mainly funded through public-private partnerships. The project is expected to house up to 2 million people and contribute US$30 billion to the Philippines’ economy on an annual basis.

“New Clark City has tremendous potential, and we are committed to be long-term partners in the city’s growth,” said Surbana Jurong Group CEO, Wong Heang Fine.

Surbana Jurong is a Singapore-based urban, industrial, and infrastructure consulting firm that signed an agreement with the Philippines’ Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) and Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation for Transport and Urban Development (JOIN) to develop the city.