‘Focus on citizens, not tech’: Why smart towns can help ASEAN realise their bigger smart city ambitions


Can the complexity of smart city planning be tackled from the township level? Especially in Southeast Asia, smart towns may serve as building blocks that can help make smart city projects more actionable and sustainable, says Marko Kanadi, Head of Business Incubation, at NEC.

Instead of tech for tech's sake, smart towns focus on the citizen needs that these technologies actually serve. Image: NEC. 

“Liveable and lovable” is what Nusantara, Indonesia’s future capital city strives to become, according to the Indonesian government, as efforts are currently underway to make the city smart, green, inclusive and resilient.


The ideal stands in contrast with the reality of Jakarta, the country’s main business hub which has the same aspirations to be a global smart city, as reported by GovInsider previously.  However, the latter has been plagued by a slew of issues, including pollution, a lack of green spaces, vulnerability to floods, and traffic congestion - many of which are faced by its other Southeast Asian counterparts as well.


Likening smart city to a command centre – a central place for carrying out orders and implementing tech solutions, we need to start focusing on the citizen needs that these technologies actually serve, says Marko Kanadi, Head of Business Incubation, NEC to GovInsider.


With Nusantara, the Indonesian government is prioritising sustainable development, as it seeks to position itself as the “world’s first sustainable capital city,” previously reported by the Business Times.


Examining lessons learned from Indonesia’s smart city move, GovInsider speaks to Kanadi to find out why Southeast Asia needs to now shift its focus on a smart towns approach to realise its bigger smart city visions.

Smart Towns Avoid Tech for Tech’s Sake


Smart towns focus on citizens and services, rather than putting in place technologies for the sake of a smart city’s branding, says Kanadi.


This was illustrated in Sidewalk Labs’ failed attempt at a smart city at Toronto’s waterfront in 2017.


Despite its grand plan to incorporate emerging tech in a smart town, including heated sidewalks and smart mirrors with built-in sensors and cameras, it was scrapped altogether due to “worries about privacy and the potential over-collection of data from people within their own homes,” reported CBC previously.


In the case of the new Indonesian smart capital city, green technological projects are taking precedence, reflecting Nusantara’s sustainable development priority.


For example, last December, President Joko Widodo launched a number of construction projects in Nusantara with a focus on green infrastructure and facilities, reported the Antara news agency. The president has also explicitly called for private sector participation to accelerate the process.


NEC's Kanadi says the Indonesian government is increasingly focusing on citizen-centric needs via six basic services: education, healthcare, public works, spatial planning, public housing, and public order. Image: NEC.

In tackling current problems with urban planning, the Indonesian government is also shifting its focus of the smart city – to focus on citizen-centric needs via six basic services: education, healthcare, public works, spatial planning, public housing, and public order, Kanadi says. 


To maximise the value of spaces, Kanadi is noticing the growing trend in mixed-use and transit-oriented developments across Southeast Asia.


The former refers to properties that integrate multiple land uses, such as residential, commercial, and communal spaces, while the latter refers to mixed-use developments located within walking distance of public transport, which usually aims to promote public transport ridership.


A UK architect previously wrote a commentary about how mixed-use developments are contributing to cities, and are centred around the needs of communities.


“Every city is different, depending on their demographics,” he adds. In towns with a significant university-going population, the housing and other facilities built for students would be different than those intended for an ageing population. A focus on healthcare facilities might be more relevant for the latter, he explains.

Smart Towns Help Break Down Smart City Visions into Actionable Initiatives


The problem with tackling smart cities head-on is that the concept tends to be vague and difficult to execute because much of it is government-driven and has too many stakeholders. It ends up becoming a very slow process, Kanadi shares.  


As smart towns operate on a smaller scale than smart cities, they can function as building blocks that support city-level initiatives, he explains. In turn, smart towns can quickly build services that directly address citizen needs while generating revenue for larger initiatives.


Beyond just implementing solutions, smart towns are driven by societal needs and its related outcomes, says Kanadi.


For example, residents living in a town in the east of Singapore can utilise a single app where NEC has integrated municipal services offered by six government agencies, instead of having to use multiple platforms for a service request.


The smart towns approach is not new to Southeast Asia either. Smart towns include satellite towns located in greater Jakarta, such as Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi, as well as the North Hanoi smart city project, and Iskandar Malaysia.


The bottom-up approach is evident in Vietnam where national smart city development efforts are led by individual municipalities with a municipality-level masterplan. Local communities in the municipalities can select private market players to run their smart city initiatives, as highlighted in NEC’s smart towns e-book titled “From Smart Town to Smart Society: Four Pillars to Transform.

Open Data Platform Enable for Plug-and-Play


“For the last decade, we see that many smart city projects failed because they have a high dependency on a single vendor – whether government or private company – and are locked down by it. The function of a smart city is to scale up activity,” Kanadi says.


Traditional, closed-source technologies may not provide interoperability between platforms, leading to vendor lock-in. This can lead to high costs and difficulties in scaling up.


According to Kanadi, NEC provides an open data platform and expertise to integrate existing assets for governments that already have a smart city framework, as well as references for other governments to kickstart their smart city projects.


“Every time governments want to expand [their smart city initiatives], they are not locked into the complicated integration stuff. So, they can really focus on scaling up activity, as the platform makes it much easier.”


With 60 years of experience in Southeast Asia, NEC has positioned itself to be able to help governments create a framework that accounts for the unique needs of its citizens. NEC capabilities also span different sectors and technologies, including biometrics and digital IDs, waste management, smart traffic control and more, Kanadi adds.


NEC is also a founding member of the FIWARE foundation, an open-source platform for both the public and private sectors to develop smart solutions globally.


<Download NEC's smart towns e-book here>