ASEAN Smart Cities: What About the Governance Issues?

As the ASEAN Chair this year, Singapore is proposing an ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) framework that will create a set of normative guidelines to inform a member state’s smart city development. Seha Yatim reflects on governance issues that may arise as ASEAN member states pursue their smart cities initiatives.

As the ASEAN Chair this year, Singapore is proposing an ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) framework that will create a set of normative guidelines to inform a member state’s smart city development. The process is moving fast, with a concept note adopted in April at the 32nd ASEAN Summit and the first ASCN meeting held at the World Cities Summit last Sunday that saw five agreements being signed between ASCN cities, solution providers and external partners. By November, member states plan to formally adopt the Smart Cities Framework at the 33rd ASEAN Summit and the upcoming ASEAN Chairs, Thailand and Vietnam, are likely to continue pursuing the ASCN during their chairmanship.

This is the right time to discuss smart cities; the United Nation’s 2018 Revision of World Urbanisation Prospects report, produced by its Population Division, predicts that nearly seven in 10 of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. For populous ASEAN countries, the pace of urbanisation is expected to be rapid: 90 million more people are expected to move into urban centres by 2030. When cities become denser, governance issues such as congestion, increased housing demand, and rising inequality, among others, will become a challenge for the authorities.

However, while potentially helping solve some of these issues, the individual smart city initiatives launched by ASEAN member states risk bringing their own governance issues. Data governance, privacy, and security need to be addressed in order to take advantage of the benefits of smart cities, as well as to grow public trust.

The ASCN framework creates an opportunity for member states to coordinate their efforts at the regional level. It’s particularly encouraging that private sector engagement has been initiated early, with a list of public-private projects to be published at the ASEAN Summit in November. The 26 cities identified for the ASCN’s initial phase will be partnering with ASEAN’s external partners and private sector players for its projects.

It is critical that policy-makers develop a clear and transparent public-private partnership mechanism. Clear criteria and procedures facilitate the bidding process for companies, encourage wide submissions, and help ensure high-quality offerings. Procedures need to be in place as well to prevent bidders from offering low bids to win the project so that they can negotiate the terms later, such as requiring public and open submission.

Once the project has kicked off, one of the key issues is ownership and responsibility for problems that may arise. For smart cities to work, governments need to shoulder the burden alongside private sector players. While the private sector brings its expertise and technologies, governments can facilitate projects by giving access to public infrastructure, creating an enabling environment for innovation, and minimising financial risks for the private sector.

However, open data and coalitions between the public and private sectors, while crucial for the success of smart cities, also bring cybersecurity risks. It is up to the governments to set guidelines and standards that ensure privacy and information security is maintained, while not stifling the ability of the private sector to create innovative solutions.

Governance issues related to smart cities are not limited to the ones discussed above. ASEAN member states could learn from countries that have done this before, such as South Korea which has created the Songdo Smart City. Like the smart cities themselves, ongoing data and information-sharing among ASEAN member states will build the knowledge and skills needed to deal with the challenges of increasing urbanisation.

Author: Seha Yatim, Policy Analyst, Access Partnership

This article was published in The Business Times on 10 July 2018.

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