How Asia has made its cities more age-friendly

By Ng Wee Wei

Inside the tech and strategies for building inclusive cities where all can thrive.

Picture this scenario: An elderly man is taking a stroll alone in a Singapore neighbourhood when he suddenly clutches his chest in pain, gripped by a cardiac arrest. Gasping for breath, he collapses to the ground.

But a passerby spots the man in distress and quickly calls the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), which activates an alert on its myResponder app to users within 400 meters of the incident. A trained volunteer, known as a Community First Responder, who is nearby, receives the alert. He rushes to the scene and quickly resuscitates the patient, saving the man’s life.

In the past, this senior might not have been so lucky. But today, mobile applications like Singapore’s myResponder and India’s Arvi have drastically reduced the time required for emergency responses. In serious events like a cardiac arrest, each minute can mean the difference between life or death.

Ageing well with tech
Such innovative technology has been key in making cities across Asia Pacific safer and more age-friendly. In countries facing the ‘silver-tsunami’ of an ageing society such as Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, this is especially imperative.

These technologies are a small step in the right direction towards achieving a modern, inclusive city of the 21st century. And more needs to be done not only for the elderly, but for different and all segments of the population, from the less abled to women – all valuable and crucial components of society.

Cities need to respond with a tune-up to meet the unique needs of these diverse groups. If we are to build thriving communities for the future, it is important that these sprawling urban developments are inclusive and progressive for all.

An inclusive city is a better city

The advantages of building inclusive cities are multifold.

Inclusive cities are typically more livable thanks to better infrastructure. When cities move to upgrade their public transport systems, for instance, they can boost convenience and safety in commuting for women, seniors and the disabled. One example is how Korea’s Seoul city has introduced train and subway cars that are nearly flush with the platform so wheelchair users can easily roll on and off as they move around.

An inclusive city also makes for a prosperous city. Consider the talent landscape where the aged and less abled were once seen as less productive workers. With the advent of technology such as artificial intelligence, remote work and cloud computing, these segments of workers can continue to make valuable contributions to society. This is particularly important in smaller Asian economies such as Singapore, where the tight labour market can pose problems to companies.

Most importantly, inclusive cities bring communities together. Singapore’s Dementia Friends app, a national platform used to spread awareness about the affliction, and Japan’s “Are You Ok?” app, which helps senior citizens to stay connected with their families, are all testaments to these networks that are dedicated to supporting and strengthening the social fabric.

Leave no one behind

Building such cities requires policymakers to go back to basics and ensure that a city’s public services are accessible to everyone. This is where universal urban design comes in.

This concept is centred on having a user-friendly built environment for all. In Singapore, for instance, public bathrooms are fitted with large pictographs to help the visually impaired locate them better.

Elsewhere in South Korea’s capital city of Seoul, public washrooms feature foot switches and automatic doors that minimise contact at high-touchpoint areas. These have come in particularly useful in these pandemic times.

While inclusive design is often largely tied to better infrastructure, we also should expand it to encapsulate other areas. Digital technology, as highlighted earlier, is another useful tool to maximise the potential of an inclusive city.

Covid-19 has now accelerated this digitalisation trend. Across the region, the pandemic has been game-changing for e-payments where contactless transactions have risen exponentially, with everyone seeking to minimise physical contact.

But there is a catch to using these modern, ever-evolving technologies. Some, especially the elderly, may find it difficult to keep up with the constant software updates and patches. To ensure that no one gets left behind, public services and the private sector will need to work together to ensure the adoption and accessibility of technology across different segments of the population.

For instance, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) in Singapore has assisted hawkers in adopting e-payment platforms, establishing an online presence on platforms like Facebook, and facilitating consumer demand through group buys.

Likewise, Thailand’s Krung Thai Bank has successfully garnered over 30 million users with its Pao Tang mobile application, a multipurpose digital wallet. It has been used to implement various government economic stimulus schemes, extending government aid to all groups of people during the pandemic.

Using it as a safety measure is yet another example. Worldwide, there is a worrying trend of women feeling unsafe on the streets at night.

Mobile apps offer a solution to this issue. Apps such as Safetipin, the brainchild of the eponymous social enterprise based in India, crowdsource data from three apps and collate it into safety audits to make cities safer for women.

Lastly, we will need to provide more opportunities for active citizenry to foster more inclusive cities. A recent study by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy found that while most people are often willing to help in times of need, they are often held back by a lack of knowledge on how to help. For instance, many are not trained in performing CPR, reducing them to becoming bystanders when a medical emergency occurs.

To that end, we will need to deploy more resources to spread awareness and provide training courses. This way, everyone has the chance to help keep a city safe and secure.

More broadly, it is about building a smart, human-centred society that uses technology to satisfy the needs of different segments of the population while maintaining meaningful connections. Citizens can tap on each other for help, even organising themselves as communities to barter trade for services or whatever they may need. This in turn strengthens the sense of community and solidarity for a more inclusive society.

By deploying digital technology, providing opportunities for participation, and eliminating barriers, inclusive cities can be beacons of possibilities where all can thrive.

Photo of Wee Wei NG by Accenture.

Wee Wei NG is currently the Country Managing Director in Singapore and the Public Service Growth Markets Industry Lead at Accenture. Prior to that, Wee Wei led the Health and Public Service Client Service Group in Southeast Asia for 6 years and is a leading voice in Accenture, shaping thought leadership for public service delivery in a new era.

Wee Wei joined Accenture in 1995. She spent the majority of her career in Accenture working with government clients. Wee Wei’s first project was to enable the corporatization of the Public Utilities Board. Her other significant government projects include the development of the New Financial Systems for the whole of government in Singapore, the development of School Cockpit which is a central system used by all pre-tertiary schools in Singapore and the development of E-HR as part of the HR Transformation program with the Singapore Ministry of Defence. She is also the sponsor for several iconic Singapore national projects, including the Next Generation NS Portal and the whole-of-Government Workday implementation.

Outside of Accenture, Wee Wei has served as the Honorary Secretary of the IT Management Association, a Singapore-based association of IT leaders, and is currently sitting on the board of the Institute of Systems Science (ISS).