Malaysia can show how to build a smart city from scratch but it’s not without its challenges, writes Skymind CEO Shawn Tan.
Iskandar is a proposed city utopia on the southern tip of Malaysia and embodies the country’s vision for a sustainable and socially diverse and inclusive city of the future. The city is three times the size of Singapore and plans to triple its population to three million by 2025 by attracting residents with its promise of lower pollution levels through green energy, IOT technology and better transport, housing and recreation areas.
Building a clean urban utopia with a stable digital future comes at the right time. Overcrowding, traffic congestion, and high levels of pollution remain persistent problems in many of Malaysia’s existing cities. So too are the devastating effects of global warming. If these issues go unchecked, it will have a negative impact on the country for generations to come.
This is why the decision for the Malaysian government to launch a new, sustainable metropolis is justifiable and necessary. The proposed city will be built in the southern state of Johor, a region more famous for its lush rainforests, historic architecture and beaches than for its nod to modernity.
"Think practical, not fantastical"
But to get things moving in the right direction what needs to be prioritised is what makes a city great and truly smart. Think practical, not just fantastical with some cool tech thrown in to improve city living.
If you look at the core foundation of Malaysia’s new smart city - currently referred to as Iskandar Malaysia , it aims to provide a launchpad for initiatives that drive environmental, emotional and commercial prosperity for generations to come - with help from the greatest inventors and urban planners and the use of the most progressive technologies to bring their ideas to life.
The blueprint for the new city includes a big push towards the development of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, big data, advanced analytics and autonomous vehicles.
This all sounds exciting, with a good balance between what people want and what technology can deliver, but citizens have to be involved from the start of the design process.
Traditionally, the idea of ‘smart cities’ has focused too much on the deployment of new technologies, big data and computing, and less on whether any of these things help people overcome the problems that blight their daily lives.
While superfast internet connectivity and innovation will be vital requirements, Malaysia should also focus on what catapults cities to the top of the quality of life index rankings. Things like good transport links, efficient waste management, safe and clean public spaces, affordable housing, energy efficient buildings and environmental sustainability.
Technology can have the biggest effect on people’s lives if it solves these kinds of urban challenges but prioritising these challenges effectively requires active engagement and collaboration between citizen, state and enterprise.
Forest City, an eco-friendly development in the same Johor region where Iskandar will be built, designs its complexes through the guidance of what tenants want and build around that priority - while also preserving the biodiversity around them, in line with government guidelines.
Smart cities must also practise good governance and maintain a robust checks and balances system to ensure transparency is found across all levels of the country’s administration so that technology is not used to commit crime, stifle human rights and impede social progress. Without this integrity a smart city will pose a threat to citizens because there will be no escape from the “big brother effect” of tech, which uses IoT sensors and technology to connect every level and aspect of the metropolis we interact with, from the services we access to the infrastructure we use. This will be achieved by pairing devices and data that is managed in real time by enterprise and government.
"Smart cities must maintain a robust checks and balances system"
IoT driven technologies, focused on the core building blocks for urban wellbeing: mobility, health and environment, have already been tried and tested by some of the most progressive and robust governments. Malaysia has a great opportunity to examine and replicate what works - and to use this knowledge to design its own smart city blueprint, with transparency and integrity.
Malaysia’s utopian vision has the potential to become a successful, world leading smart city of the future, The groundwork for the new city in Johor already aligns with the vision underpinning the 12th Malaysia Plan 2021-2025, which focuses on economic growth, environmental sustainability, and social equality for the nation.
But in order for the country to create the city it truly wants, those in charge will need to prioritise transparency and integrity - and to look to its population to design something that reflects the needs, diversity and beauty of the people it’s meant to serve.