Cities are people: How technology can breathe life into urban areas #FOI2024

By Sol Gonzalez

Experts at GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation highlighted that strategic smart city planning must address citizens’ needs and concerns.

Experts noted that technological advacements must be purposeful and beneficial for all citizens to make cities both smart and liveable. Image: GovInsider.

South Korea’s Songdo City is one of the smartest cities in the world, with sensors on the streets that monitor traffic flow and waste management. Yet, the city is empty for the most part as the population remains almost half of its desired target of 300,000.


This shows that even though a city may be smart, it may not be liveable. Making a city both smart and liveable was the key challenge highlighted by speakers at several smart city panels at this year’s Festival of Innovation hosted by GovInsider.


Smart city experts and urban planners spoke on how to use technology to build citizen-centric cities that are responsive to the climate crisis while meeting growing urban needs.


McKinsey Global Institute reports that smart technology can improve quality of life by 10 to 30 percent in cities.

Letting cities think for themselves 


Panellists across sessions agreed that strategic smart city planning must address citizens’ needs and concerns.


“Each city has specific needs and challenges,” said NTU Asian School of the Environment Assistant Professor, Dr Perrine Hamel. She was presenting in a panel titled Urban Transformation Panel: Rejuvenating and Revitalising Cities. Dr Hamel spoke on how technology can help public service officers to identify and address these challenges.


Such was the case in Nakhon City, Thailand, where technology helped tackle the recurrent floods that plagued the city. The Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA) designed a “citizen-centric app” through which citizens could report issues directly to municipal authorities.


Dr Non noted the importance of engaging citizens in smart city transformation. Image: GovInsider.

The app uses submitted data to create heatmaps, helping authorities allocate resources efficiently. As a result, residents returned to Nakhon City as the floods receded, and 70 per cent of them now use the app to communicate their needs and revitalise the city, shared Thailand’s Smart City Promotion Department’s Senior Expert, Dr Non Arkaraprasertkul.


Dr Non emphasised that to improve cities, governments should “think big and act small.” Giving an example, he noted that installing 5G poles in Thailand was unproductive, as most citizens lacked the resources to use such infrastructure.


Cutting-edge technology must be implemented purposefully to benefit citizens, Dr Non stressed. He was speaking as part of a series of smart city presentations.

Data-driven innovation to build resilience


Beyond addressing immediate concerns, cities should be designed to withstand long-term challenges to ensure residents can continue to enjoy a high quality of life.


For a city like Singapore that is especially vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, data-driven projects can boost resilience and promote sustainability, according to experts.

Shermaine Wong presented the Open Digital Platform (ODP) as the operating system for the future of smart cities. Image: GovInsider

JTC Corporation’s Smart District Division Senior Manager, Shermaine Wong, spoke about the Open Digital Platform (ODP), which will be the operating system for the Punggol Digital District (PDD) that goes live this year.


The ODP will integrate real-time data to help facility managers optimise energy use, with the operating system connecting to the district cooling system, smart lighting, and smart facility management tools. Office tenants will also track their energy consumption in real time and adjust energy consumption.


On a larger scale, data-collection and historical monitoring can help cities meet sustainable development goals by monitoring traffic and guiding public transport planning, said Malaysia’s Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Urban Development Research Expert, Dr Jamalunlaili Abdullah, in another session on urban transformation.


Likewise, data is necessary to monitor and scale up nature-based solutions (NbS) given the limited information currently available on the effectiveness of this approach in tropical environments like Southeast Asia, reported the Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore.


“You can feel the city [Kuala Lumpur] is getting hotter,” said Malaysia-based Think City Institute’s Lead, Duncan Cave. The institute is implementing NbS like green corridors in Kuala Lumpur to revitalise the city and increase resilience, he shared.

Citizens at the core


The panellists agreed that to bring life back to cities, citizens must be active participants in urban transformation by having access to information and platforms to share feedback. This helps governments understand and address key trends.

Experts highlighted that technology is essential for urban revitalisation. Image: GovInsider.

Governments can use data and technologies to map objectives that address the different concerns of people in each city, Indonesia’s Rebana Metropolitan Management Agency’s CEO, Bernardus Djonoputro, pointed out.


This is because technology facilitates information sharing and collaboration sharing between agencies, which allows for holistic measures to tackle different interests in the city, added Dr Jamalunlaili.


Although rapid urbanisation trends put pressure on cities to adapt, abrupt transformations often yield unproductive results.


In a world that is increasingly digital, “talking to people positively” about technology is essential to revitalise cities, said British Institute of International and Comparative Law’s Honorary Senior Fellow, Dr Mark Findlay.


Cities like Songdo show that not every city thrives with cutting-edge technology. Smart city transformation should be tailored to address the specific needs of each community, recognising that technology is not a one-size-fits-all approach. This ensures that technological advancements are purposeful and beneficial for all residents.


To watch the videos recapped in this piece, do head to the following links:

Urban Transformation Panel: Rejuvenating and Revitalising Cities

Hot Debate: Should Urban Transformation Be Gradual or Disruptive?

Smart City Project Spotlight Presentations - Shermaine Wong

Smart City Project Spotlight Presentations - Dr. Non Arkaraprasertkul