Despite having various connotations depending on the growth requirements of a region, a smart city can be broadly defined as a city that provides an urban environment that delivers a high quality of life to residents while also generating economic growth. Information and communication technologies are deployed to increase operational efficiency, share information with the public and improve both the quality of government services and citizen welfare. At the Sixth ASEAN Smart Cities Network Annual Meeting, Muhammad Tito Karnavian, Minister of Home Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, discussed the need to continue pushing the implementation of smart cities by building a strong foundation to face urbanisation challenges. Excerpts…

Economy and urbanisation

The International Monetary Fund claims that global economic growth in 2023 is estimated at 2.8 per cent. This is a decline from 2021, when the economic growth stood at 6 per cent. The decline in growth can be attributed to both the outbreak of the pandemic and the geopolitical tension in Northeast Asia and between Russia and Ukraine. In the past decade, the average annual economic growth in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has reached 3.98 per cent, which is above the global average of 2.6 per cent. Further, Indonesia has an economic growth of 5.3 per cent.

“Indonesia has been trying to maintain a balance between urban and rural areas to prevent urbanisation”

Urbanisation has become a major phenomenon in urban development worldwide, including ASEAN countries where 54.44 per cent of the total population of 668.61 million people reside in urban areas. The rapid rate of urbanisation without the provision of basic urban services such as housing, drinking water and sanitation, public transportation, etc., has led to many negative effects, such as congestion in cities, strained infrastructure, pollution, lack of affordable housing and socio-economic inequality.

Indonesia’s approach to developing a smart city

Indonesia has been trying to maintain a balance between urban and rural areas to prevent urbanisation. This idea helps the country in two ways – it reduces urbanisation, and it promotes the growth of rural areas to prosper economically and become excellence centres. The Indonesian government allocates a specific budget for village development every year to the tune of IDR 70 trillion. Since 2015, the cumulative allocation has reached more than $35 billion for nearly 75,000 villages. The right policies have implications for the development of rural areas.

Indonesia aims to innovate and develop not only smart cities but also smart villages. The idea is to eventually transform the villages into smart cities. Thus, villages can be developed to form new urban areas in the future by capitalising on technology and information at the right time.

Importance of information and technology

In order to build a smart city as an integrated, managed and accessible urban centre, organised information and technology are key. Technology deployment helps in delivering effective and efficient urban services. The use of information and technology is needed to create smart cities, which include planning, financing, design, environment, distribution of goods and people, transportation system, etc. Singapore stands as one of the models and is more advanced as a country compared to other countries in Southeast Asia (SEA). It has ideally digitalised public services and government.

Challenges associated with digital deployment

Each country in ASEAN has specific characteristics, in terms of both population and geographic terrain, and their associated challenges. The challenges in innovation and digital deployment differ from country to country. In Indonesia, for instance, the biggest challenge is the sheer difference in societies. The country has an informative society, an industrial society, and an agricultural society. Apart from this, the country is also home to a tribal or pre-agricultural society, which lives in complete isolation from the rest of the societies and still follows age-old traditions and customs. Introducing digitalisation and creating awareness amongst this section of people is difficult. While the implementation of innovations and digital technologies can be easily carried out in digitally sound cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya, in areas where citizens refuse to get internet connections, digital deployment becomes very difficult. There are still some areas in the country that use a hybrid approach, in which the majority still rely on manual means of public services. It is essential to educate these societies by following a step-by-step approach. A comprehensive plan of action is required to introduce concepts of digitalisation for the digitally illiterate category. For the time being, Indonesia prefers to use the manual system for these societies.

Apart from the advantages of digitalisation, it is also important to take into account the possible fallouts and the disadvantages of digitalisation, which come in the form of cyber robbery. If the systems are not secure enough, they can be hacked, which can lead to a citywide cloud blackout. Further, the deployment of complete digital technology would also lead to reduced human employment.

Based on the study “Smart City Solution for a Riskier World”, the fast pace of technological change is the main challenge for 67 per cent of cities in SEA. However, all SEA city leaders have already invested significantly in technologies like cloud computing and artificial intelligence and plan to continue to invest in the coming years. Further, 50 per cent of the SEA smart cities have trouble finding suppliers, consultants and partners to cater to their growth.

The way forward

Despite all the challenges associated with the development of smart cities, it is important for countries in SEA to create smart cities. While half the population in ASEAN already resides in urban areas, an additional 70 million people are expected to live in urban centres by 2025. Investment in digital infrastructure and solutions will provide cities with a robust technology base. Meanwhile, promoting and adopting appropriate digital infrastructure will support local governments in their decision-making and improve the provision of public services, which is very basic. ASEAN countries also intend to provide opportunities for smart cities to play an active role in offering ideas and solutions for the benefit of peace and prosperity in the region. The crisis that arose with the onset of the pandemic demonstrated the importance of sustainability and operational agility, which can be achieved with development of smart cities.

The ultimate aim is to strengthen economic recovery and make SEA an engine of sustainable world growth. It is important to discuss and frame recommendations on how to build a strong foundation for the future of ASEAN smart cities. A long-term vision and a stronger capacity to enable ASEAN smart cities to face future challenges and shine as the epicentre of growth. Forums and discussions can be platforms for mutual learning, exchange of information and cooperation, which will help collaboration between the countries. The recommendations should not be confined to sharing best practices but should delve deeper into gauging mutual benefits such as creating sister cities. The idea is to not only to create sister cities within the country but between countries in SEA as well.