The present time has shown the importance of smart cities, which function to battle the Covid-19 pandemic through better connectivity while solving economic and social problems. Where smart cities are concerned, the term can be interpreted by many people to mean many different things. 

Based on the framework set by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, smart cities represent an all-encompassing, integrated area. These cities should facilitate smart mobility, extensive digital infrastructures, talented human capital with high digital skills, low carbon emission and a green lifestyle, among others.

With the pandemic developing across the country, there is a greater demand for our cities to transform into smart cities. However, this cannot be an overnight transition as smart cities require a holistic integration between all living aspects. The question is where Malaysia currently stands and if it has the necessary capacity to take on the transformation. 

On the international arena

For 2020, Malaysia took the 26th spot on the World Digital Competitiveness Ranking and the 33rd spot on the Global Innovation Index. In 2019, Malaysia was ranked 80th on the World Happiness Report, a drastic drop from its 35th spot in 2018. Speaking of 2018, the Sustainable Cities Index placed Kuala Lumpur on the 67th spot that year. Here it is observable that our nation has its work cut out for it.

According to 27 Advisory executive director Girish Ramachandran, the Kuala Lumpur Competitive City Master Plan Interim Report 2017 showed public transport usage at only 12.3%. This is followed by high numbers of solid waste generation, low recycling rates, a relatively high crime rate, low internet speed and internet access, further compounded by limited data sharing among departments. All these serve as inhibitions towards the adoption of the smart city model.

Much to be done

Girish said the key catalyst towards fostering more smart cities is innovation districts, which function as engines for healthy, human-centric economics. Here, a high concentration of people works in knowledge-intensive industries in conjunction with other related companies and institutions. 

Innovation districts tend to generate exponential benefits to their broader host cities, not just the district itself. For each innovation-intensive job, an innovation district supports, it creates an average of four to five production and service-related jobs. Roughly 50% of these support jobs are located within the innovation district itself, while the remaining jobs created are dispersed throughout the wider metropolitan area. 

Additionally, concentrating knowledge-intensive activities in an innovation district allows the new products and services developed within them to cascade through the supply chain. The products and solutions are then produced at scale to benefit other support industries and suppliers.

Girish pointed out various areas that benefited as innovation districts include Kendall Square at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Previously an abandoned industrial area, it received a facelift through smart investment in urban infrastructure. This laid the foundation for a connected, attractive and productive environment for innovators.

Another example is the Pittsburgh Innovation District in Pennsylvania, formerly a heavy industry powerhouse that suffered after the steel industry’s collapse.

The area experienced another renaissance by accelerating knowledge-based development, followed by the collective knowledge base’s diversification and sophistication.

Closer to home is the Jurong Innovation District in Singapore, which covers the Nanyang Technological University, Jurong Town Corporation’s CleanTech Park, as well as the Bulim, Bahar and Tengah areas. Girish said the 600 hectares district is yet to be completed but will focus on advanced manufacturing and engineering startups as well as urban solutions.

Cultivating innovation within districts and cities

The potential of an innovation district leans on three distinct networks. The first network comes in the form of human capital, where individuals with invaluable skill and abilities work in concert to solve complex problems.

Then there are the organisational structures they interact within that enables merit-based promotion of the best ideas. Finally, innovation is supported by keeping districts well connected, desirable and facilitating this fruitful human interaction.

Strategic investment in the early phases of an innovation district’s development will have a multiplier’s effect in the later phases, said Girish. The location, context and urban design features of an innovation district also shape its potential for human interaction and intensive knowledge specialisation.

A smart city requires three key ingredients to function on a holistic level, not unlike the three networks needed by an innovation district. Agile and future-proof regulatory planning and policy setting framework are paramount to enable existing cities to turn into smart cities or for the establishment of new smart cities. 

Girish said innovation drivers are equally important, such as technology sandbox and technology hubs that focus on research, development, commercialisation and incentives. Lastly, digital infrastructures need to be readily available to bridge the city’s different facets to enable digital and physical connection.  

Girish Ramachandran was one of the speakers in the Sustainable Urban Development & Smart Cities Forum. The one day event was hosted by the Real Estate Housing Developer Association (REHDA).