Blog Poll: Invest in Infrastructure to Make Asia’s Secondary Cities ‘Smart’

Nighttime traffic in Melaka, Malaysia.
Nighttime traffic in Melaka, Malaysia.

By Aldrin B. Plaza

More than half of ADB blog readers think infrastructure is the key to making our secondary cities not just smart, but also more livable.

In our October blog poll, we asked our readers what Asia’s secondary cities need most to become ‘smart’ cities, that is, a city where public service delivery is efficient and all citizens benefit economically and socially from common assets like green space or cultural heritage.

Over half (52%) of the respondents said that investing in infrastructure should be the priority. Asia’s infrastructure development needs are growing even faster than the region’s cities are, and inequality and vulnerability are rising as the infrastructure investment gap widens. Relative improvements in housing and access to electricity, water and sanitation for the poor have been overshadowed by absolute increases in the number of people living in slums. We need to address this problem in a complete way to make our cities—especially secondary ones—not just smart, but more livable. This was underlined most recently in Quito at the Habitat 3 gathering.

Cities have traditionally had trouble accessing crucial financing for infrastructure. Asia’s secondary cities, or indeed major cities, committed to modernizing their infrastructure should consider joining the International Infrastructure Support System (IISS). IISS, an online platform originally developed by ADB and the Sustainable Infrastructure Foundation, that uses templates to ensure government officials provide the necessary technical and preparatory information that financiers need to assess both public and private projects. ADB staff recently conducted a training session for municipal officials on IISS in Bandung, which estimates it needs to spend over $4.4 billion on more than 90 projects to make the Indonesian city both inclusive and sustainable.

For 27% of the participants in our survey, Asia’s secondary cities need strong leadership to attain smart city status. The role of mayors is crucial, as they both represent the people and—as urban residents themselves—experience the same needs and are concerned about the same issues. When mayors work closely with citizens and businesses, they have the potential to make cities more livable, smart, and sustainable. ADB’s Future Cities Program is working closely with selected cities across Asia to help them become more livable in the future, views mayors as the key drivers and facilitators of change, as well as the active voice of urban communities and businesses.

Preserving urban cultural heritage and leveraging it to create economic and social benefits is the key to joining the smart cities race, according to 13% of people who took part in the poll. This has definitely been the case in Siem Reap (Cambodia) or Hue (Viet Nam), where heritage areas coexist with modern developments, and in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, where urban planners enforce low skylines to harmonize aesthetically with the city’s old structures. These success stories demonstrate that cultural heritage preservation can become part of a city’s economic development strategy as an investment to ‘old’ areas into assets for the local economy and help build an urban identity.

Finally, 11% of ADB blog readers chose ICT investment as the essential factor for Asia’s secondary cities to become ‘smart.’ The problem here is that most of them cannot aspire to become like Hong Kong or Singapore, so the way forward is for ICT to be not a prerequisite but rather a force multiplier for attain smart city status – especially in secondary cities in developing Asia. A good example is Yogyakarta (Indonesia), which has partnered with a large ICT company to implement its ‘culture-based’ smart city program that integrates cultural characteristics into urban development planning, building on key strengths like hosting Indonesia’s largest university.

We ran the poll throughout last month to mark World Cities Day on 31 October.