As Malaysians experience the benefits of digital innovations that simplify their lives, there is also a growing momentum to leverage technology to solve urban challenges and deliver the ‘smart city’ concept. — Photo by CK Yeo on Unsplash
KUALA LUMPUR: As a city dweller who has resided in Kuala Lumpur for almost 10 years, Salina Ahmad regularly finds herself stuck in traffic jams and often wonders why roads that used to be relatively clear are now congested all the time.
Whether she is rushing to a meeting or buying groceries at a supermarket, the 42-year-old bank officer also experiences the frustration of searching for parking space in the city. Not only that, she is also concerned about her car’s safety especially when it is parked in a dimly-lit alley at night.
And when the monsoon season comes, Salina worries about flash floods and the resulting peak-hour traffic snarls and risk of trees falling during thunderstorms that might harm road users.
These are common challenges faced by city dwellers like Salina. In a statement issued four days ago, the Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID) said floods often occur in densely populated areas with rapid development, thereby putting the Klang Valley at greater risk, especially during the northeast monsoon which is expected to last until February.
As for traffic congestion, based on data from mapping specialist TomTom, city roads have become more congested now that Covid-19 restrictions have been removed and more workplaces are requiring employees to work from the office.
“Even though we have real-time data for traffic updates and disaster notifications from local authorities’ mobile apps or billboards, it’s still not sufficient. Problems persist and we continue to face the same issues every day.
“As for public transportation, it is not always accurate. Sometimes, the bus icons are displayed on the map, but the buses don’t arrive on time. So, even with good mobile apps providing the latest data, it appears that many aspects still need improvement,” Salina told Bernama.
As Malaysians experience the benefits of digital innovations that simplify their lives, there is also a growing momentum to leverage technology to solve urban challenges and deliver the ‘smart city’ concept.
The Federal Territories Smart City Blueprint (MySmart Wilayah 2030) was launched in April 2021 with the aim of utilising digital technologies for intelligent urban planning and development, as well as enhancing the quality of life of the people.
People-centric smart cities
While the features of a smart city are already visible in and around Kuala Lumpur, experts view there is still a need for improvement because the smart city concept does not always equate to cutting-edge technology but rather focuses on creating human-centric and people-first cities, as well as achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
(The SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of people everywhere. The 17 goals were adopted by all member states of the United Nations in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.)
European smart city consultant Stephane Pean, who is in Kuala Lumpur regularly, said like in many other countries, the smart city approach in Malaysia certainly began with a technology-pushed mindset, which seeks to foster the digital economy (via innovation), improve public safety (cameras) and support urban sustainability and resilience policies.
He told Bernama part of these initiatives can contribute to meeting some of the SDGs such as SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and SDG 13 (Climate Action).
However, he added, a true smart city approach should comprehensively integrate “urban requirements” to help achieve all the 17 SDGs as they are all interconnected.
“Therefore, the outcomes depend on public policies in place and not only the technologies that are used,” he pointed out.
“For instance, in the Klang valley, mass transportation infrastructures are now well deployed but in order to bring people on board, modal shift policies must be engaged and smart mobility solutions are the key.”
The former town planner believes Malaysia will be able to build genuine smart and sustainable cities in the near future by integrating with urban sustainability, which requires a more people-centric governance.
Head of Solutions Mapping at United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Accelerator Lab Malaysia Chong Yin Wei agreed that building smart cities does not always equate to utilising “cutting-edge technology or bigger, shinier tech”.
“More appreciation can be shown for people’s involvement,” she stressed, adding that this includes incorporating nature-based solutions, grassroots innovations and low-tech but high-impact interventions that can resolve local issues while leveraging indigenous knowledge and empowering people.
Pointing to China, Chong said the so-called sponge cities across that country use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater. Another good example of a nature-based solution is the passive cooling and ventilation system employed by a shopping centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. The building was designed to be ventilated and cooled entirely by natural means.
“In Malaysia, efforts to prevent soil erosion through the planting of bamboo and indigenous plants are among the nature-based solutions that have been used effectively, moving away from the traditional heavy infrastructural interventions to prevent flash floods,” she said.
Chong said through a bottoms-up approach, city planners can engage with communities and stakeholders at the local level to identify their needs and priorities and develop solutions that address those specific issues.
“This approach can lead to more inclusive and effective solutions as it empowers communities to take an active role in shaping their own cities,” she said, adding another crucial component of this is to ensure women, children, the disabled and indigenous groups, and people with lower socioeconomic status are also involved in the design of smart cities.
“It’s essential that these groups are not hampered by their lack of access to digital platforms or digital skills.”
She said globally, there are many good examples of how data and technology can be used to improve citizen participation in the development of a liveable and sustainable city.
“In Madrid (Spain), for instance, the citizen’s voice is factored in for the selection of projects in the city through the consul platform that offers an open and transparent manner for the project application and selection process.
“Similarly in Amsterdam (Holland), its city web platform facilitates smart city ideas and project collaborations between public and private institutions including startups, universities and government agencies… the input from the citizens is a critical success factor for their city,” she added.
Chong, meanwhile, also cautioned that the implementation and creation of smart cities over the next decade will present an “increasing number of data privacy and security concerns”.
“With the vast amounts of data generated by smart city technologies, there is a risk that personal information can be compromised or misused, leading to privacy breaches and security threats,” she said.
She said it is, therefore, crucial that app creators and technologists be aware of the practice of humane technology, an ideal that aims to shift the focus to creating socially-responsible and ethical technology that does not exploit the user.
“They (app creators) need to understand how each technology affects our decision making, emotions, social cohesion and attention span… they must do no harm and create a product that enhances our quality of lives as humans,” she said.
Chong said to ensure new technologies are used effectively, efficiently and ethically, the UNDP Digital Standards were created to help provide guidance on best practices when creating digital solutions that support the SDGs.
“The digital standards provide a robust framework for innovation and improvement in our work, including our work in smart cities,” she said, adding that when considering data protection measures, the 10 principles of the UN Data Privacy Standards – which include legality, consent, transparency, purpose and loyalty – are useful in striking a balance between the different conflicting interests in personal data and the right to privacy in the global and digital era.
She said the duration of data storage should similarly be limited and that the authorities should only electronically intrude on a personal device as a last resort to prevent or investigate a specific act amounting to a serious threat to national security or a specific serious crime.
“Human-centredness must form an important tenet in our navigating new technologies for smarter cities: from influencing resident behaviours to the regulations that shape technologies, putting people at the forefront of our decisions is what will truly revolutionise it,” she said.