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Towards smart cities in ASEAN

The real payback from the digital revolution is to expand opportunities for ordinary people - individual farmers, hawkers or handicraft makers.

Dr Balakrishnan says it is the hope that assembling the Smart Cities Network will help to secure funding and support from ASEAN's external partners.

SINGAPORE'S 2018 ASEAN Chairmanship themes of "Resilience" and "Innovation" recognise that we are living in a very special inflexion time in our history, when we have to prepare ourselves for a time of both opportunity and challenges.

There are two key mega-trends that all of us in ASEAN are facing. The two key trends are first, the process of urbanisation, and second, digitalisation.

Ninety million more people within ASEAN are expected to urbanise by 2030. If you look beyond ASEAN at a global level, for the first time in human history, about five years ago, more than half of all human beings lived in the city as opposed to the countryside.

Within ASEAN, what we call "middleweight cities" - these are cities with a population of between 200,000 and 2 million - these are the cities that will drive 40 per cent of our region's growth. This process of rapid urbanisation will proceed, and in fact, will accelerate.

Urbanisation proceeds not because the government says so, but because our citizens are voting with their feet. They choose voluntarily to come to the city, and you have to ask yourself why.

They come to the city because the cities are a focal point of opportunities, of jobs, of education, of interaction, of mobilisation.

The fact that people are voting with their feet and gravitating to the cities also means immediately that all cities, especially those within ASEAN, are confronting multiple challenges: congestion, water, air quality, the urban-rural divide, security of citizens and safety. These are common challenges that all of us throughout ASEAN will face.

In addition, transport, transportation systems, housing and IT networks are already feeling the strain of this migration into the city.

At the same time, the other trend that we are all aware of is that we are still in the early phase of a digital revolution.


The buzzwords you hear nowadays - Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, robotics - these are not just buzzwords that the IT companies are using to sell or to market to us. These are fundamental platforms that are going to transform the way we live, work and play.

We need to get ahead of this curve, primarily because we need to ensure that our citizens will continue to have access to good jobs, good pay; that they will be able to feel that this revolution benefits them, benefits families, benefits their children for the future, and is not a marketing ploy by the IT companies alone.

The key challenge that all of us as societies, as countries, and as cities will face, is that we have to identify the key technological platforms - the solutions that will help us resolve the current challenges we have in dealing with urbanisation; that will help us improve the delivery of public services; that will improve the quality of life of our citizens in a very real way - at home, in the marketplace, in the job sites - and at the same time create new opportunities, including preparing our citizens to harvest these new opportunities that will arise.

Our region's online population is expanding by 124,000 new users every day. We believe that this pace will continue for the next five years. What all this means is that there is extra urgency for us to cope with this challenge and to roll out our digital agenda.

In fact, there have been some estimates that the implementation of the digital agenda will add US$1 trillion to our region's GDP over the next 10 years. To put that US$1 trillion in context, ASEAN's combined GDP now is US$2.5 trillion. So we are talking about a substantial expansion in ASEAN's GDP, just driven by technology and the digitalisation process alone.

The other key characteristic of ASEAN that gives us a comparative advantage is that 60 per cent of our population is below the age of 35. So we live in a region with many young people, and almost all those young people have, or will have, a smartphone in their hands or in their pockets.

We therefore need to seize this opportunity to pioneer the development of new digital services, new digital jobs; and to equip both young and seniors within our society with the necessary digital skills.

For Singapore's ASEAN Chairmanship, we realised very early on that we needed to find the right recipe to make all this happen - and to make all this happen not just within Singapore.

Singapore is just a city state with a single layer of government, so in a sense, that's easier to achieve. But I wanted to focus specifically today on the paradigm which we offer to this approach for digitalisation within ASEAN.

I wanted to make two points within the ASEAN context. Two keywords - the first word is interoperability; the second word is integrated services.

Finding the right recipe is essential, especially in a unique association and organisation like ASEAN. We are not the US, we are not the EU.

We are a voluntary association consisting of 10 countries, with great diversity in size, in developmental potential, in infrastructure, in financing capability, in economic and political models.


This diversity within ASEAN is a key distinguishing feature of our association compared with other regional groupings.

Therefore, finding the right recipe to allow us to move forward together, and yet recognise our diversity, is crucial. That is why we believe that these two points of interoperability and integrated services should be defining characteristics of the ASEAN Smart Cities Network.

Let me try to put this in context, because the launch of the ASEAN Smart Cities Network actually represents an unprecedented approach to the way we usually do things in ASEAN. Let me give you three ways in which our pursuit of the ASEAN Smart Cities Network is unique.

First, we are building a regional ecosystem that will synergise the efforts of individual ASEAN Member States in this development.

The second thing that is different about our approach is that this is the first time ASEAN is using a cities-level mechanism. Traditionally, we have operated on the basis that ASEAN has 10 member states, and we operate government-to-government. This is the first time we are looking at cities within ASEAN directly engaging one another in order to pursue the ASEAN agenda.

The third way this approach is different is that usually, within ASEAN, we talk about the three pillars: the political-security pillar, the economic pillar, and socio-cultural pillar.

This time, when we talk about cities, and especially when we engage governors, mayors and city planners - the difference often between a mayor and say a president or a prime minister, is that the mayor, to use a Singapore dialect colloquial term, is 'bao kah liao'.

Everything is your problem. You can't say "No, this is not my problem". Whether it is cleanliness, environment, jobs, traffic - everything is your problem.

So the mayor or the governor of a city or a region, by definition, has to take an integrated approach to solving challenges and to fulfilling the expectations of the people.

In the launch of our ASEAN Smart Cities Network, we are eschewing the traditional pillars by which ASEAN approaches and assesses initiatives, and we are taking an integrated approach by working directly with the cities concerned.

We hope that this mechanism - if we can execute it properly - will facilitate cooperation between smart cities through the sharing of best practices and developing action plans.

Apart from sharing best practices, we should also share mistakes, because there is more to be learnt from other people's mistakes and avoiding them, than from just looking at and admiring successes. We also hope that this effort will help to catalyse bankable projects in order to attract private sector finance. Equally, we also hope that assembling this Smart Cities Network will help us to secure funding and support from ASEAN's external partners.

When Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first proposed the ASEAN Smart Cities Network initiative during the 31st ASEAN Summit in November 2017, many of our partners - both within and outside our region - were very supportive, and were very enthusiastic very rapidly.

The ASEAN Member States quickly nominated multiple pilot cities, and we settled on an initial batch of 26 cities. We are not going to stop at 26; we will expand with time.

We want to encourage each of these 26 to develop their action plans and to set out their own priorities. These 26 pilot cities came together in Singapore within a month of the establishment of the Smart Cities Network, when we convened an ASEAN Smart Cities Governance Workshop. There were robust discussions, and one of the key things which we needed to settle was to establish a framework. It may seem trivial, but even arriving at a definition of a smart city is not an easy task because there is no globally accepted definition of what constitutes a smart city.

At the same time, we don't want "smart city" to just be a label that everyone just sticks it on and uses it as a marketing tool. We wanted some serious discussion within that framework to define what we believe is a real, functional smart city.


We also made good progress during the workshop on developing city-specific action plans, and these will guide our plans until at least 2025.

Like all plans in the digital age, you can have a five-year plan, a 10-year plan, but this plan needs to be reviewed. Just as importantly, it has also been an opportunity for us to network. So far, we have networked with over 60 global partners to discuss potential partnerships as we launch these projects.

Today, just two months after the Leaders' agreement, the network is close to finalising the framework that I talked about just now, and also the city-specific action plans of the 26 pilot cities.

The action plans reflect the inclusive nature of our network, and one of the project proposals I want to highlight is the idea of a 'smart kampung' by Banyuwangi in Indonesia.

It aims to improve access to public services for villagers and encourage them to sell their products on the digital online market.

The reason why I wanted to highlight their project is that many times, when you think about the digital revolution, you think in terms of IT companies; you think in terms of large MNCs; you think in terms of the big megalithic, monolithic companies.

But in fact, the real payback from the digital revolution is to expand opportunities for individual farmers, hawkers, handicraft makers; people in every village being able to access a global market and similarly consumers in all cities to be able to access organic, safe, unique, wonderful and customised products.

In the last Industrial Revolution, it was the age of mass production. Competitive advantage was derived by economies of scale.

Today, in this new age of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D manufacturing, and complex logistics chains, we may be ending the age of mass production and entering the age of mass customisation.

In a sense, for a region as diverse, as talented, and as culturally well-endowed as ASEAN, this is an age which should give all of us many new opportunities; as we exit the age of mass production and enter the age of mass customisation - where culture, language, art, craft and all those other aesthetic skills become even more valuable, rather than commoditised routine products where everything looks the same all over the world.

What is also exciting, I wanted to highlight, is that not only has there been passion and enthusiasm within ASEAN, but we have also seen very rapid and encouraging support outside ASEAN.

For instance, in March this year Australia announced a A$30 million ASEAN-Australia Smart Cities initiative.


Today's event was developed in partnership with Temasek Foundation Connects. This partnership serves to kickstart the sustainable development of our regional ecosystem.

I'm very grateful for their support for this cross-sectoral collaboration and involvement in the ASEAN Smart Cities Network. I want to encourage our ASEAN external partners, including especially the private sector solution providers, the academics and all relevant stakeholders, to continue to engage with this network.

This is going to be an exhilarating ride. Developing the right partnerships is not necessarily an easy task, but it is an essential task. I want to commend the National Representatives and Chief Smart City Officers - I know you can't do this alone, but by working together we can make something happen, and make something that is relevant and timely take off.

Interoperability is very much an ASEAN concept. Because we are diverse, we will not impose a monolithic system on everyone.

Whether you talk about e-payments, or planning, or logistics, I do not believe that there will be a single dominant system across ASEAN. Each of us will have our national systems, but our national systems will be interoperable.

Similarly, when you deal with the needs and demands of our citizens, they want integrated services. They don't really care exactly how or who or which channel is delivering it; they want products and services which meet their needs on a daily basis, in a comprehensive and integrated way.

I believe if we can set our agenda right, implement our plans well, bear in mind the unique competitive advantages of ASEAN, continue to integrate our services and yet ensure that we continue to have unique, relevant national plans that allow us to interoperate with one another, I think we will be well-poised for the future.

  • Vivian Balakrishan is Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister and Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative.
    This is an edited transcript of a speech he delivered at the Inaugural ASEAN Smart Cities Network Meeting in Singapore on July 8, 2018.

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