Roll out the smart cities

TWO-THIRDS of the world's population will live in cities by 2050. This is due to rapid urbanisation, particularly in cities in Asia and Africa. Cities of the world will need to prepare for future social, political and environmental challenges.

In view of this, a forum on smart cities was organised by the Malaysia Biennial 100YC in October in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the future challenges of Malaysian cities. The theme of the forum was "Shaping Smart Cities and Future Lifestyles".

In his opening speech, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Seri Panglima Wilfred Madius Tangau said: "As we move towards 2050, our cities will be a reflection of the country's aspirations, and we must ensure that we put our best foot forward if we were to reinforce our place in the world."

The forum was held in conjunction with the five-day National Innovation and Creative Economy 2017. It was attended by about 300 academics, representatives of local authorities and property developers.

The idea of "smart cities" in Malaysia goes back at least to November 2011, when the World Bank released the Malaysian country paper on development. It proposed that Malaysia develop 35 such smart cities to spearhead economic growth. About half of the 96-page report is devoted to smart cities and what can be done to realise them.

According to the report, smart cities are those that are innovative, sustainable and resilient. It also provides recommendations on what can and must be done to develop smart cities.

Features of innovative cities and regions include having world-class universities and the facilities to lure and retain skilled professionals like computer scientists and engineers. They need to be hubs of creativity and innovation. Think, for example, of Silicon Valley in California, which has Stanford University, one of the best universities in the world, and San Francisco, a city known for its culture and creativity, close by.

To go green for sustainability, there is an urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as improve the efficiency of municipal systems. This requires a more compact urban form so that transport infrastructure, energy networks and city systems such as solid waste and water management can be as efficient as possible.

For the development of resilient cities, the report suggests that cities take ambitious steps to prevent or minimise the occurrence of natural disasters like floods and landslides, as well as providing ways to mitigate social and economic consequences when these happen.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. Suggesting that Malaysia develop smart cities as the engines of growth is easy, as long as there is enough political will and economic resources. There is already an example of this in Putrajaya and Cyberjaya. There is also an ongoing effort in Iskandar near Johor Baru, although the result of this is not fully clear yet. These are cities developed from the ground up to have smart technology and green infrastructure.

But the real challenges are turning our existing cities into smarter cities. More research and planning is needed to understand how Malaysian cities can make either small, incremental changes, or dramatic, rapid changes to address urbanisation and environmental challenges.

One important issue in continuing the development of smart cities is attracting and retaining young, creative professionals who are trained to work in the new information technology, culture and knowledge industries.

Many highly educated young Malaysians who studied overseas are enjoying lucrative opportunities in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. Cities in China are also attracting Malaysian professionals such as computer scientists, architects and engineers.

Of course, it is a good thing to send our young Malaysians to the best universities around the world to learn the most up-to-date and innovative practices. What we need to do now is to attract them back to our country after they have finished their studies. We can do this by providing livable, vibrant and healthy cities that young people want to live in, with parks and open space, cultural centres and entertainment options.

We must also continue to invest in our local universities to focus on information technology and sustainable urban development. Cities in Southeast Asia will face their own unique challenges in the future. It makes sense to have the innovative research on the smart and sustainable cities of the future take place here at home, in our own cities, where researchers and professionals can learn from local knowledge and implement solutions directly.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: