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Collaborative Pathways: Shaping Urban Future through Smart Cities

Urbanisation continues to be one of the defining trends of the 21st century. Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. United Nations (UN) projections show that urbanisation could add another 2.5 billion people to cities by 2050, with close to 90% of this increase taking place in Asia.

This movement towards urbanisation, if done right, can contribute to sustainable growth with increased productivity and innovation. However, the speed and scale at which it moves may bring about unique challenges. For example, the hurdles faced by Asian cities include environmental degradation, lack of affordable housing, and growing socio-economic inequalities. Yet, they remain key drivers of new opportunities as economic powerhouses and dynamic hubs of innovation.

To accommodate Asia’s urban growth, many city planners and policymakers are turning to transformative urban solutions that leverage advanced technologies to create more resilient, sustainable, and liveable urban spaces – or smart cities. These cities optimise city functions like transportation and social services, while also improving the quality of life for their citizens.

Merging Technology and Well-being

Smart cities are not new – ancient civilisations like the Indus Valley, Inca and Roman empires used technology to improve citizen lives, as seen through innovations like aqueducts and drainage systems. What’s more, these civilisations adopted sustainable development methods to ensure infrastructure had positive effects on both people and the environment.

Unlike their ancient counterparts, today’s smart cities rely on cutting-edge technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), social platforms, and big data. Through various electronic methods and sensors, a smart city collects and analyses data to optimise resources and improve operational efficiency across key city functions and services.

But “smartness” is not just about installing digital interfaces in traditional infrastructure or streamlining city operations. More importantly, it is about using technology and data purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life. Smart cities must be people-centered, with systems that respond to the needs and priorities of citizens.

Cities across Southeast Asia, in particular, are primed to leverage smart solutions to improve urban quality of life. Research by McKinsey Global Institute estimates that smart solutions could remove 270,000 kilotons of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; create 1.4 million new jobs; and deliver US$ 16 billion worth of savings on the cost of living across the region.

The city state of Singapore for example is considered to be one of the front-runners in the race to create fully smart cities, with IoT cameras monitoring the cleanliness of public spaces, crowd density and the movement of registered vehicles. The country also utilises smart systems to monitor energy use, waste management and water use in real-time.

Meanwhile, the city of Da Nang, which sits along a low-lying coastline in Vietnam where it is exposed to flooding and storms, has developed models that employ data to monitor and predict potential climate risks. Insights from these models inform urban planning efforts to build more resilient housing units for low-income residents.

Pioneering Malaysia’s Smart Cities

In Malaysia, the government has long been focused on setting up the country’s digital infrastructure and technology capabilities to bring its ambitious smart city aspirations to life. Back in 1996, the unveiling of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) as Malaysia’s pioneering digital economy vision seeded Cyberjaya as the nation’s first smart city.

Jumping ahead to 2019, the formulation of the Malaysian Smart Cities Framework by the Ministry of Local Government Development (KPKT) was another leap forward in the planning and development of smart cities in the country. Continued major smart city developments include Smart Selangor and Smart City Iskandar Malaysia.

In fact, the Smart City Handbook Malaysia 2021 inventoried about 100 smart city projects that have been implemented or are in progress, in cities all across Malaysia. Recently, the Ministry of Economy announced at least five new cities are targeted to be recognised as smart city early adopters by 2025 during the remaining 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP) period.

Recognising that smart cities are built on effective collaboration, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MOSTI) established the Malaysia Smart Cities Alliance Association (MSCA) to bring together all relevant stakeholders from government and its agencies, smart cities’ services and solution providers, industry players, and academia.

The MSCA serves as a cross-sector platform for key stakeholders to engage in profound discussions about smart city challenges and opportunities. This strategic alliance enables the convergence of resources, insights, and expertise to foster an ecosystem where innovation thrives – in ways that fuel both financial and social growth for businesses and communities.

More than a networking platform, the MSCA focuses on coordinating resources for multiple development areas in sync with national and global smart city objectives. This includes the MySmart city pilot project in Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, and Kulim for urban observatories, smart environment projects, and mobility enhancements.

Smart Energy for Smart Cities  

Given that up to 87% of Malaysia’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050, urban areas will become key contributors to national energy consumption and GHG emissions. Smart energy approaches are therefore a critical feature of smart cities, ensuring they are powered by energy sources that are both carbon-efficient and energy-efficient.

As Malaysia’s national energy utility, Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) is committed to futureproofing Malaysia’s power grid as an integral first step to powering Malaysia’s smart cities. Since 2016, TNB has been actively embarking on Smart Grid initiatives to grow the national grid to become one of the smartest, sustainable, and digitally enabled grids.

For instance, TNB’s rollout of more than 2 million smart meters nationwide to date has empowered urban consumers to gain more control over their energy use and consumption. With a better understanding of their individual usage, consumers can make more sustainable energy decisions based on their household needs.

Recently, TNB has also undertaken an exciting endeavour to develop a  Smart City Sandbox that showcases how new urban solutions can further enhance quality of life. Covering an expansive 600-acre land area, the Sandbox leverages TNB’s existing smart infrastructure and solutions to create a dynamic experimental ground for future smart cities.

Within the Sandbox, TNB intends to spotlight a range of forward-looking advancements – from green mobility, public transportation, open green spaces, vertical farming, to a net-zero carbon ecosystem.  It underscores TNB’s vision for city environments that are primed to tackle health, financial, and climate-related challenges.

At the same time, TNB’s focus on sustainable energy solutions, efficient building designs, renewable energy generation, and smart systems harmonises with the Sandbox’s objective to stimulate local industries, encourage versatile real estate usage, and foster recreational spaces that encourage greater community engagement.

Co-creating the Future of Urban Living

By leveraging advanced technologies to create more efficient and liveable urban environments, smart cities have the potential to improve quality of life for millions of people across Malaysia and beyond. They are more than just innovation hubs – smart cities are the answer to global challenges including climate change, resource scarcity, and urban expansion.

Smart cities have the potential to improve quality of life for millions of people across Malaysia and beyond

But while the benefits of smart cities are clear, collaboration across all sectors will be essential for success. There are many blank canvases for government agencies, the private sector, industry players, and civil society to fill – and above all, individual citizens should be empowered by new technologies to co-create the future of the cities they call home.

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