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EXCLUSIVE: Unlocking Citizen-centric Smart Cities in Asia

Attributed to Manish Prakash, Regional Business Lead, Worldwide Government, Microsoft Asia

Asia’s city leaders are among the world’s most forward-thinking when it comes to smart cities. In fact, the Asia-Pacific region is set to account for 40% of the global smart city spending, or $800 billion by 2025 and 80% of all economic activities is expected to shift to cities in the years to come.

Rapid urbanization, demographic shifts, climate change and advancements in technology have all been drivers for disruption for a need for smarter cities. This transformation has been further accelerated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which revealed vulnerabilities, but also prompted cities to seek out new technologies to help them deal with COVID-related disruptions.

Digital transformation will be high on the agenda at the upcoming World Smart City Expo (WSCE). Ahead of that, I share my reflections and observations from across the region on post-crisis efforts in innovation, and how they are transforming cities in Asia. More crucially, how we can stay on track to unlock the realization of smart cities in Asia with our learnings from the pandemic.

Thinking differently

During the World Cities Summit 2021, where government representatives and industry experts discussed livable and sustainable city challenges, Randeep Sudan, former World Bank executive and Board Advisor of analyst firm, Ecosystm, shared about how city leaders need to “think ahead, think across, and think again to build resilient and sustainable cities of tomorrow”. This includes having strategic foresight to plan and think ahead, thinking across projects to leverage synergies, and thinking again to stay innovative.

I couldn’t agree more. Faced with sudden disruption and a need for continuity amid the pandemic, cities have been forced to think differently like never before.

Microsoft has been a trusted ally for many of these cities in their pandemic response, especially in helping them think differently to overcome challenges and drive business continuity. When IT staff at the city of Kobe, Japan were overwhelmed with more than 40,000 calls a day from citizens seeking information about crisis-related assistance programs and volunteer opportunities, they leveraged Microsoft’s Power Platform to develop an application that could respond to all but the most complex issues. This reduced call volumes by 90 per cent, while reassuring citizens that their needs were being met.

Also in Japan, the City of Osaka embraced cloud and remote working shortly before the pandemic began. With Microsoft Teams, about 2,000 workers—nearly 10 per cent of the entire city staff – were able to work remotely and could remotely train 518 new recruits and transferees.

In Sydney, the New South Wales government and the homelessness sector used the By Name List app, powered by Microsoft’s data collection tool, to help 1,000 rough sleepers to find accommodation. The government’s COVID-19 task force continues to make plans to use the app to plan for citizens’ exit from temporary accommodation into permanent supported housing.

For the public transportation industry specifically, the need to “think differently” could not be more apparent – people avoided mass transport options and public places almost overnight, following necessary lockdowns imposed in the early months to contain the virus spread. Did you know that with more people opting to travel in their own vehicles, public transport ridership has fallen by an average of 62% since the start of COVID-19? Some cities in Asia are seeing a more severe drop, like Kuala Lumpur (76.1%) and Tokyo (77%).

To drive business continuity while ensuring public safety amid more crunched budgets, Kuala Lumpur’s Mass Rapid Transit Corporation was able to continue building massive rail line extensions through the pandemic with Bentley software hosted on Azure. This has enabled more than 1,500 users to collaborate, while reduced errors and design conflicts, improving collaboration efficiency by 35 per cent while ensuring the completion of the project on time and within budget.

In Mr Sdan’s words earlier, city leaders need to do more than think differently, but also think across, think ahead, and think again.

This means working toward a more sustainable future and reconsidering current processes and infrastructure. For instance an India-based startup, SUN Mobility accelerates mass electric vehicle usage with cost-efficient, cloud-connected swappable batteries, in New Delhi and beyond.

The road ahead

We see a rise of a new economy that is powered by intelligent data and real-time insights for policy development and decision modelling. The generation, distribution and consumption of such data over the past few years have resulted in massive technological advancements in AI and ML models – that cities leverage not only to deploy connected and autonomous electric vehicles but also to provide safe living environments, create smart energy and utility options and deliver micro health and other welfare services. This data economy will hence help foster innovation, create jobs, and build new industry paths to accelerate growth in these cities.

We were encouraged to see many cities making plans to build off the progress over the past year with digital transformation. Osaka, for example, is already looking to involve more AI and IoT solutions to enhance work efficiency, design apps for single tasks within each municipal organization, and to use public-private sector data to help realize evidence-based policymaking, we should expect challenges ahead with an increasing number of smart city solutions.  While these solutions could potentially make our streets safer, public spaces more appealing, and roads less congested, many will depend on AI to analyze data from connected devices.

For this reason, cities everywhere need to put security and trust at the centre of their smart city ambitions. While we are committed to the democratization of data, we are doing so in a way that protects individual privacy. Microsoft expects to be involved in 20 new collaborations built around shared data by 2022, including initiatives in our region. Many of the collaborations already underway focus on fostering data collaborations at the city level, from monitoring air quality in London, to improving accessibility of sidewalks, to improving local data on policing in the United States. The Open Data Policy Lab—an initiative by The GovLab and Microsoft—has recently established the City Incubator, a first-of-its-kind program to support data innovations in cities.

As per the UN, cities consume 70 per cent of natural resources produce 50 per cent of global waste and emit 80 per cent of global greenhouse gases every day. With nations committing to climate control and the UN’s sustainable development goals, governments will have to take decisive actions and drive strategies to significantly reduce their dirty energy footprint in their cities. Microsoft’s platforms such as digital twins have helped model usage data of buildings, factories, energy networks, IoT data in a live environment to generate quick efficiencies towards achieving some of these goals.

Finally, it is important that we never forget to put people first. The success of new technologies will not solely be measured by their level of innovation, but also by their ability to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve.

After all, what makes a solution resilient isn’t just the technology itself. Rather, it is the degree to which the technology gives citizens better lives, helps businesses thrive, and governments provide great services. Keeping all this in mind, we look forward to unlocking resilient and citizen-centric smart cities of tomorrow.


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