A young boy squats on a rusty motorbike against a fading red door, watching people pass by him – one of the famous street murals in George Town on Malaysia’s Penang island. The city and its historic streets are now world famous thanks to Dato’ Maimunah Mohd Sharif. In 2008, she helped list George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and led its preservation for the next three years.

Today Sharif works from an office on the mainland, across a narrow strip of the Malacca Strait. She is the President of the Municipal Council of Seberang Perai, a cluster of towns along the western coast of Malaysia. Penang island and Seberang Perai together form the state of Penang, one of the smallest but most developed states in the country.

Sharif was appointed the head of Seberang Perai’s government in 2011 and her vision is to make it “a beautiful, comfortable and cleaner place to live, work and invest”. The city is in the midst of two massive infrastructure projects that could transform the way it works and looks.

A new low-carbon town

The Penang state government plans to develop Seberang Perai into a new manufacturing hub. Penang island has one of largest industrial zones in the country, but this is saturated and has become more costly. Costs are lower in Seberang Perai because there is “ample land”, Sharif said.

HP, Sandisk, Seagate and Bose have already announced plans to set up manufacturing facilities in Seberang Perai. Factories will be set up around a new low-carbon town in Batu Kawan in the city’s south.

The state government has started building infrastructure to support this new town – the 24km Penang Second Bridge to the airport and housing estates with help of consultants from the Singapore Government’s Housing Development Board. Two university campuses are also being built – one by the Kolej Damansara Utama and another by UK-based University of Hull.

The government has carved out 6,000 acres of land for the new town and will double this by 2020. Half of this land is still used for palm oil cultivation.

To keep pollution low in Batu Kawan, the municipal government has set environmental rules. For instance, there are guidelines for the size and density of buildings, type of commercial development, amount of open space, sewage disposal, and water and electricity use. “For any development to be in this ecocity in Seberang Perai, they have to follow our policy and guidelines,” Sharif said.

But the government does not want to stifle innovation with strict policies, she noted. It sets goals and wants businesses to be creative in how they achieve these. Seberang Perai is a young city started in 1973 and is still learning, she added: “If we are very rigid, we might limit the creativity of people”.

Reviving the old

As a new city is being built, Seberang Perai is also reviving its oldest town – Butterworth. It was once the city’s administrative centre, but became a dead town after government offices moved to the outskirts, Sharif said.

She wants to “bring back the people to the city and create a sense of belonging for the residents”. The municipal government surveyed residents to find out what they would like to see in Butterworth. More art and culture, they said.

So last year, the city launched the Butterworth Fringe Festival featuring local and international artists. This will be made an annual event with the next one to be held in May, Sharif said. She herself is no stranger to art and culture, having helped start the annual George Town Festival in 2010.

But another reason for people to come back to Butterworth will be the state’s new transportation hub, Penang Sentral. “We look at this as a catalyst [for Butterworth] because it is a convergent of buses, trains and taxis, and will be connected to Penang island,” Sharif explained.

An undersea tunnel and cable car will link Butterworth to George Town. The tunnel will cost RM6.3 billion (US$1.4 billion) and will be ready in 2025, while the cable car will be completed in 2018. The projects are part of the Penang state government’s RM27 billion (US$6.1 billion) masterplan to overhaul transport.

The transport hub in Butterworth is crucial for the whole of Seberang Perai. The city wants to cut traffic congestion by encouraging people to use more public transport. “Seberang Perai is not that bad in terms of traffic congestion compared to Kuala Lumpur and Penang island, but we would like to start early,” noted Sharif. “I believe that if we have reliable and comfortable public transport, people will switch.”

For this move to work, transport routes have to be part of the city’s urban plans, Sharif said. And her own experience as head of Penang island’s planning department will be useful here.

Bus and train routes have to be planned through densely developed areas to make public transport accessible for residents and economical for the government, she said. This approach, called Transit-Oriented Development, is used by Hong Kong and Singapore where most daily commuters use public transport.

Getting citizens’ feedback

The Batu Kawan ecocity and public transport projects will take decades to show results, but Sharif must also improve municipal services in the next few years.

She relies on her citizens for feedback to do this. Every year Seberang Perai surveys a sample of its residents, businesses and tourists to understand which services are performing well, and which need to be improved.

The survey asks citizens about their satisfaction with seven areas: cleanliness, public infrastructure, traffic and safety, flood control, beautification and greenery, community involvement, and law enforcement. One question also asks citizens to play mayor and suggest how they would use RM1,000 (US$226.8) to improve their city.

Data from this survey is used to identify priorities for the government every year. “The needs of the community change over time, so we must be responsive,” Sharif said. For 2016, her focus is on cleanliness, flood control and public amenities.

Sharif’s experience in town planning has also helped her focus on priorities, she said: “As a town planner, I am trained to look and to think in a bigger perspective and then zero down to the action plan. You have to look into the physical, social, economical and psychological aspects.”

But Seberang Perai residents don’t have to wait a whole year to give feedback on municipal services. Citizens can use an app called #BetterPenang to submit complaints at any time with a photo and location. The complaints are assigned to municipal departments which respond to citizens directly on the app.

The app was built by volunteers and launched in 2014. Last year, it received 6,309 complaints.

Some residents have even telephoned Sharif to complain about rising flood waters. “They call me personally and say, ‘Look the water has entered my house’,” she said. “They can call me any time. Our website has all my heads of departments’ handphone numbers.”

Sharif is the first female head of Seberang Perai after 19 male leaders, and she wants to ensure that the city is inclusive to men and women, as well as the young, elderly and disabled. Officials must ensure that all public amenities including parks, markets and toilets have to be accessible to all genders and ages.

In one case, this approach helped reduce vandalism in playgrounds. There were no facilities for older children who used the playground, who then resorted to vandalising the equipment. To cater to the teenagers, the government built an outdoor gym in the playground. “When we put this up, surprisingly it tremendously reduced vandalism,” Sharif said. “Now we are also looking at exercise equipment for the elderly”.

Cross government work

As the city uses new approaches to plan and deliver services, officials are also using new ways of working across departments. Sharif keeps an iPad at hand to give instructions to officials through WhatsApp, SMS and email. All department heads, deputy heads and senior officers also get iPads.

Sharif also wants to use data from across departments to better plan and manage the city. She setup a Big Data Taskforce to link departments with each other and bring the data together.

This could also help officials work more efficiently, she said: “We are trying to reduce duplication in work across departments and hope that we can use our human resources more productively.”

Sharif’s past as a planner has helped her shape an ambitious future for Seberang Perai. But she also keep an ear close to the ground to keep improving services for citizens.