Nature and Biodiversity

How can we ensure Asia's future cities are both smart, and sustainable?

People walk on a pavement at Hong Kong's financial Central district during sunset May 11, 2011.

Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Todd Ashton
President, Ericsson Malaysia and Sri Lanka
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on ASEAN

A quick online search on the current most populous cities in the world will reveal a list where half, if not more, of the top 10 cities are in Asia. If you were to walk down the busy streets of Jakarta, Tokyo, Manila or Seoul, you may find yourself thinking that everyone in these countries have moved to the city, and you wouldn’t be far from the truth. We are undergoing a major rural to urban demographic shift. There are already more people living in cities than in rural areas, and the United Nations estimates that by 2050, almost 70% of the world’s population will be city dwellers.

With so many people moving to cities, how cities are structured will impact the lives of billions of people. In some respects, this elevates cities above nation states as significant incubators of innovation, enterprise, and social progress. At the same time, the required pace of change, especially now where we face global economic, environmental, and social uncertainty – creates a raft of challenges to sustainable development.

Connecting the city

It’s crucial that cities adopt smart, sustainable development practices. Harnessing the potential of ICT and connectivity will enable cities to thrive without their development taking a major toll on already-scarce resources. ICT allows people, knowledge, and devices to be networked in new ways, and cities that embrace ICT’s potential can create new value, operate efficiently and benefit from significant return on investments. All this adds up to more livable, more attractive, and ultimately more competitive cities, as well as the potential for people to pursue a more sustainable urban future. It is also addressing sustainable urbanization which includes the dynamic between urban and rural areas.

The significance of cities is well recognized in the UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 - sustainable cities and communities. If we go back to considering the most populous cities in Asia, each city faces many complex problems that require different types of action - but we see that a common enabler across the board is Information and Communications Technology. A paper published in 2015 by the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Ericsson, states that ICT can accelerate the achievement of the SDGs. This is in line with our own research and beliefs in Ericsson about ICT and its potential to help create the cities of our future. Higher ICT maturity levels for cities are associated with more opportunities to transform lifestyles and economic prospects.

For ASEAN countries, broadband, based on a combination of both fixed and wireless technologies, can help significantly accelerate sustainable growth in cities. Therefore, there should be a national agenda when it comes to broadband and concerted efforts to improve the business case for these investments. By releasing more spectrum with sustainable economics to the key players in the market, governments will better enable broadband investment from private industry. Education in terms of digital literacy and new technologies is also needed. This combination of infrastructure and capability will help create smart cities.

Can smart cities also be sustainable?

So what of sustainability? ICT projects alone won’t necessarily make cities sustainable.

Our experience has shown that to successfully transform into a smart, sustainable city, five critical considerations are necessary:

  • Defining an agreed vision, strategy and targets
  • Creating informed networked governance structures
  • Developing organizational capacity
  • Engaging with all relevant stakeholders
  • Forging and fostering long-term partnerships

Partnership, planning and engagement can make all the difference between a city that owns and controls its transformation, and one that is a victim of a fragmented, unsustainable change.

Forming strong partnerships with ICT companies and NGOs with a global presence and high levels of expertise, particularly in systems integration, can allow cities to accelerate their transformation journey.

Early last year we announced our partnership with Arup, an independent firm of planners, designers, engineers, consultants and technical specialists working across the built environment, to transform a pilot district in Hong Kong to become its first smart and sustainable neighbourhood. The feasibility study focuses on transforming 488-hectare Kowloon East into an additional Central Business District of Hong Kong, to further support economic growth and strengthen its global competitiveness.

The scope of the study spans a wide range of subjects that include formulating a smart city framework, an implementation strategy and a business model that later can be expanded to cover the rest of Hong Kong. It will also advise on centralized digital infrastructure and cyber security to support the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data applications.

While Hong Kong’s ICT maturity more easily enables ICT based transformations with social, economic and environmental benefits, ICT-based solutions can be created to match cities’ levels of development, as long as the right partnerships are in place.

The use of Internet of Things (IoT) technology to enhance bike-sharing in China is another example of how technology is transforming cities. Our partnership with China Mobile Shanghai and Mobike, the popular bike-sharing service, gave us the opportunity to trial the latest cellular IoT technologies on a live network. The trial provided a more convenient and enhanced bike-sharing experience to Mobike users via new cellular IoT technologies, allowing users to locate bikes more accurately and extending service to areas that traditional coverage could not reach, such as basement parking spaces. In a country such as China where cities are more densely populated compared to other cities in Asia, the convenience of bike-sharing - powered by mobile and IoT technology - will help not only to decongest roads, but will also help to address challenges from the pollution that heavy road traffic brings.

These are just two examples of how ICT can help transform cities into becoming smarter and more sustainable, but the possibilities are endless with public and private sector collaboration, broadband infrastructure and the right investment in capability.

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