Finding smart ways to build smart cities

This blog post was authored by Vivek Puthucode, general manager, Public Sector, Microsoft Asia Pacific


Does anyone remember the movie series Back to the Future and those mind-blowing technologies Marty McFly encountered when he time-travelled to 2015 from 1989? I, for one, certainly do. And as I reminisced about one of the scenes where Marty was asked to electronically donate $100 via a tablet, I thought: Wait a minute, isn’t that what we can do today?

Digital disruption is unstoppable. Indeed, smart technologies are transforming the way we live faster than ever. In fact, more nations across the region are rolling out plans to transform themselves into smart cities.

MIT Technology Review, in collaboration with Dentsu Aegis Network, recently published a white paper that provides insights on the progress of cities across Asia Pacific. Some of the key findings showed common themes, such as IoT and sensor-based platforms, and the emergence of cashless economies. The white paper made me consider more deeply the key characteristics of a Smart City – what makes a smart city successful, and what doesn’t.

Discussion on how consumer habits in the digital age and ubiquitous technology are driving smart city development across Asia Pacific. Panelists from left to right: Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau, CEO and Publisher, MIT Technology Review; Arvind Sethumadhavan, Chief Innovation Officer, Dentsu Aegis Network APAC; Vivek Puthucode, General Manager, Public Sector Business, Microsoft APAC, and Uptin Saiidi, CNBC Asia Multimedia Correspondent.
Characteristics of a smart city

In my opinion, a smart city has these three distinctive characteristics:

  • It is a place where productivity and economic growth are emphasized;
  • Quality of life is constantly improved;
  • New skills and capabilities are built or reinvented to prepare the younger generation for future challenges.

A smart city is also where new technologies are developed with a clear goal in mind. Creating “greenfield” projects that showcase what is possible but serve no practical purpose to an existing infrastructure not only wastes precious public resources, but also significantly hinders a city from becoming “smart.”

Finding a balance

Knowing what the problems are and how to solve them are therefore key to finding a balance between investing in R&D and not squandering public funds. Technologies should only be applied when there is an actual need.

A smart city is one that considers the usability of its technologies. If it’s difficult to use, the way email can be difficult for, say, my parents, then people aren’t going to use them.

Smart city technologies need to not only be easy to use, but also natural, such as biometrics and chatbots. Some of these can easily win consumers’ hearts, because they recognize individual profiles to create personal touchpoints that make the user experience seamless.

A nation-wide agenda that connects all communities

We often see smart technologies making progress in smaller countries or a handful of so-called tier one cities. But in order to develop a “smart nation,” initiatives must be able to connect all communities with a nation-wide agenda. It is almost impossible to significantly improve a country’s economy by concentrating the development on only one city, as we see in some of the most rapidly developing markets in Southeast Asia.

In recent years, Microsoft has supported several projects in Asia that aim to connect benefit different sectors in the society such as healthcare and education. Examples include Doctor2U in Malaysia, which leverages Microsoft’s intelligent cloud services to deliver more effective treatment plans for patients; and Universitas Terbuka in Indonesia –  world’s 3rd biggest open university, which taps on Microsoft Azure to enable its 406,000 distance learning students to enjoy fast, problem-free access to their online course material.

To summarize my thoughts, I would like to stress the importance of inclusion in a smart city. It is crucial for smart technologies to provide opportunities for everyone in the society. ConnectedLife in Singapore is an example of how Microsoft Azure cloud platform is used in eldercare. ConnectedLife’s solution learns the daily living patterns of users and sends intelligent alerts to their family members and approved caregivers.

Such solutions not only recognize the needs of changing demographics, they are also a manifestation of an inclusive society where no one gets left behind in the process of becoming a smart city.

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