The seven characteristics of Asia’s best mayors

This blog post was authored by Stefan Sjostrom, Vice President of Public Sector Asia, Microsoft

Stefan Sjostrom, Vice President of Public Sector Asia, Microsoft
Stefan Sjostrom, Vice President of Public Sector Asia, Microsoft

As I travel around Asia meeting city leaders, I’m increasingly struck by what I will dub ‘The New Mayors’. They are a breed of public servants who share common cause and approaches. Their cities could well leapfrog the existing regional hubs over the next decade.

I will contrast them with what we can call ‘The Old Mayors’. These figures have reached the top and lost their burning desire to create change. They have handed technology responsibility over to their CIO, and are simply managing their existing systems.

The New Mayors, however, understand the opportunities that they have right now. Rising cities have the potential to reinvent themselves – without the regulations and restrictions of their established counterparts.

Here are the seven key characteristics that set the New Mayors apart:


1. They have a strong vision

New Mayors set out a bold vision for the future. They are ambitious for their cities to take their place amongst the global leaders, and are courageous in the targets they set.

UIN Alauddin Makassar team, the first winners of the Makassar CityApp Appathon
Mayor Pomanto and Stefan Sjostrom with with the winners of the first Microsoft CityApp Appathon in Makassar, Indonesia

The Mayor of Makassar, Indonesia, is a good example. He has elevated the conversation in his city by setting out an ambitious Smart City plan for the next decade.

Mayor Pomanto has set out clear priorities, focussing on small business growth, housing and education. By having a long-term plan, he can inspire others with his vision. He can also track progress along the way by using performance indicators and data analytics.

2. They build a coalition

These long term plans require a coalition of supporters. Mayors can only build this if they demonstrate that their plan will work.

Immediate victories are vital for showing the power of innovation. For example, a city could digitize a service that was previously slow and difficult to use, like the issuing of permits. Citizens would see how technology can improve their lives, and will want to be included in the journey.

3. They include everyone

Inclusion is crucial. The New Mayors don’t try to do everything themselves. They invite in the economy around them, particularly software developers, hackers, and students.

The Bupati of Sidoarjo, Saiful Ilah, recently hosted a hackathon where he set out the key challenges his city faces, and encouraged students to help find answers. This raised citizens’ appetite for changing things.

Team Thor from Universitas Kanjuhuran Malang won the Microsoft CityApp Appathon in Sidoarjo, Indonesia
Team Thor from Universitas Kanjuhuran Malang won the Microsoft CityApp Appathon in Sidoarjo, Indonesia

Inclusion can be continued on a more strategic level. Cities must publish their APIs and Open Data, allowing software developers to become a part of the solution. Helsinki did this five years ago, and saw huge progress where developers at Nokia spent their free time finding new ways to solve city problems.

The New Mayors must have the vision, but they don’t need to have all the answers.

4. They are transparent

Citizens will only get involved if they trust the government, and transparency is key to this. I was struck by the example of Mary Jane Ortega when she was Mayor of San Fernando City in the Philippines. Her approval rating was over 90% because people trusted her. They would come out of the shops to greet her, saying ‘that’s my Mayor!’.

This trust matters, because citizens and businesses are increasingly mobile. Mayors must make their cities a place where people see their taxes spent responsibly. Otherwise, the best talent will simply move elsewhere.

There are plenty of ways to increase citizen trust. Mayors can stream their townhall meetings in the cloud so that anyone in the city can watch them at any time. If people can see how decisions are made, they are more likely to trust their leaders. They could also publish their tendering decisions, as is happening in Jakarta.

Equally, Mayors can involve citizens in their decision-making. They can host online consultations where people vote on their smartphones. This secured interaction has happened for over a decade in Estonia, and is possible thanks to the cloud.

Cloud-based services are crucial infrastructure now in a world where everyone has access to a tablet or smartphone. Governments must keep up.

5. They ask others for help

City administrations can’t be the best at everything. Some cities will excel at creating a new permits system; others may have the best digital transport services.

The New Mayors are not afraid to learn from others, or share their successes. For example, the CityNet forum has long provided a way that leaders can meet with one another and discuss their approaches.

using smartphones

Cloud-based services mean that they can take this a step further, by adopting the approaches of other cities. We have seen this on a federal level in digital services, with Australia taking the design of the UK’s digital platform. Cities can do this too, with everything from waste management to tourism systems.

Cities mustn’t forget to benchmark themselves so that citizens see the progress they are making. The International Standards Organisation has released ISO18091, which allows cities to measure themselves against 39 economic indicators. The Mayor of Makassar recently benchmarked his city against these measurements, allowing citizens to track progress against an internationally-recognised set of criteria.

6. They radically improve internal processes

Change must also come from within. The Mayor of Makassar has created a set of teams with clear responsibilities for delivering the key parts of his plan. He expects a daily update from each.

Most tough problems require more than one agency, so collaboration between them is key. Mayors can use internal social networks like Yammer to bring different groups together. Singapore Government uses an internal social network to encourage the sharing of innovative ideas.

If internal processes are allowed to stagnate, then radical changes cannot be made. Agencies must be able to share data with one another; collaborate on projects; and communicate quickly. Cloud is the enabler for all of this.

7. They are leaving a legacy

The New Mayors are making their cities able to cope with the future. They are transforming their infrastructure; including software developers; inspiring students; enabling their officials to collaborate; and increasing citizen trust.

Any leader could be the mayor who brought their city to the cutting-edge. And if they don’t, it’s a competitive world: other cities will take this opportunity instead.


Microsoft is a sponsor in the year’s World Cities Summit 2016 which takes place on July 10–14 in Singapore. Discover how Microsoft and its partners are accelerating transformation at the conference here.


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