The ASEAN Smart Cities Network: Singapore’s legacy as ASEAN chair

Photo: Nicolas Lannuzel/CC BY-SA 2.0

Singapore’s year as chair of ASEAN has come to a close. While tensions in the South China Sea dominate headlines, the island state’s most ambitious initiative as ASEAN chair has gone largely unnoticed. 


The ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) is an ambitious project to use technology and urban planning to improve the quality of life in 26 cities across all 10 ASEAN states.

ASEAN estimates that 90 million more people will move to its cities by 2030 and it’s crucial to ensure that urban planning solutions and smart, sustainable development are equally accessible and to all.

Source: ASEAN

Singapore’s initiative has laid the groundwork for equitable urban development – through the language of the ASCN Framework and its focus on locally-driven projects.

There’s already significant funding behind the initiative from the US, Japan, Australia and multilateral lenders. A key feature of ASCN is its public-private financing partnerships, between ASEAN cities or governments, and with external partners.

As Southeast Asian leaders work with the private sector and foreign governments, all sides have a responsibility to support urban planning that works for all.

Southeast Asian leaders are backing well-intentioned smart city principles but it’s still unclear who will determine what gets implemented

ASEAN leaders have agreed to focus on two key types of projects for the ASCN: integrated master planning and development; and dynamic and adaptive urban government.

Both planning and governance projects will focus on digital infrastructure, including tech-savvy ways of delivering services. The framework prioritizes civic and social projects, health and wellbeing, safety and security, quality environments, built infrastructure, and industry and innovation.

At this point, there are few specific plans for projects under ASCN and it remains to be seen how ASEAN leaders will move from the language of the framework to concrete initiatives. Last year, Kendra L. Smith of Stanford University authored a piece in Scientific American that asked a key question of our current infatuation with smart cities: “Who decides what the city really needs and will operate going forward?”

The project’s architects claim to take a “no-one left behind” approach, but there have been no indicates as to what this will look like and who decides whether ASCN projects are equitable. As the project moves forward, governments will develop City-specific Action Plans for Smart City Development. But there are a few examples already on the table.

Singapore laid the groundwork for ASEAN member states to build out their own city-specific ASCN plans, but it’s up to member states to create locally-tailored initiatives and few have put forward anything specific.

Thailand is one of the few nations that have laid out concrete plans. The Digital Economy and Society Minister Pichet Durongkaveroj said that the initiative will include projects to use real-time data to improve traffic flow in Bangkok.

Pichet also said that another project will work to ensure the safety of tourists in areas like Phuket. While this is a vital step towards boosting tourism revenues, it raises questions over how much the ASCN initiatives will improve the quality of life for ordinary residents.

To be sustainable and equitable, smart development projects should be locally-driven

According to Tan Chee Haw, Singapore’s chief Smart City officer, ASCN focuses on three pillars: the digital economy, to create jobs and new business opportunities; digital governance, to shift government services to a “citizen-centric” model; and digital society, to improve digital literacy and work to make sure that the benefits of “smart” urban development are equitably distributed.

If ASEAN leaders follow these guidelines, the ASCN projects may provide equitably distributed economic benefits and access to technology. But leaders must connect with local communities in these cities and work with them to develop projects that meet their needs.

Indonesia has already launched a citizen-centric project with its Smart Kampong program in Banyuwangi. “Kampong” means village in Indonesian, and the project aims to help connect local residents with government services and resources, in order to give them the same quality of life as urban residents. It has already produced some tangible results. Under the project, most of the area’s one million residents have received free internet accessThe project has been running for two years and is now part of the ASCN initiative.

The framework for ASCN specifies that the projects will address “poverty, rising inequalities, [and] urban-rural divide.” The specific reference to inequalities is a vital step, and while Singapore has helped to garner buy-in on the language from fellow ASEAN states, it will be up to individual ASEAN leaders to ensure that project designs match these goals.

Crucially, the framework also makes reference to mitigating climate change impacts. But it’s crucial to ensure that the ASCN develops climate mitigation tools that can be implemented across the region.

Thailand has already announced the Amata Smart City Chonburi project, which will work with the Yokohama Urban Solutions Alliance to build a smart grid – a responsive, controllable and adaptable urban power grid. As Amata City Chonburi contributes US$40 billion annually to Thailand’s GDP, initiatives that can lower its carbon footprint will have significant environmental impacts.

ASCN projects must also offer climate mitigation measures that work for “second cities” – the smaller cities in the region – that aren’t necessarily economic and industrial heavyweights. The surest way to create effective climate mitigation solutions that work in each specific context is to partner with local residents and ask them what can work and what won’t.

Singapore’s ASEAN Chairman’s Statement has great language calling for contextualized, locally-tailored development around smart cities. But city and national leaders must think critically about how to make sure that City-Specific Action Plans embody these principles.

As international financiers move to support ASCN, Southeast Asia’s leaders must stay true to the initiative’s principles

The money to drive ASCN projects is already coming together, but ASEAN leaders shouldn’t move too fast to create projects just because the financing is there. The framework lays out plans to approach the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Global Infrastructure Hub for financing.

In March, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pledged to create a US$30 million investment fund to finance smart city development in ASEAN. At the inaugural ASCN meeting in July, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) signed on to support ASCN initiatives.

This funding is coming from sources that have a track record of backing top-down development. It’s up to Southeast Asian leaders, civil society and ASCN partners to push these funding sources to back projects that stay true to the aims of the ASCN – notably using technology as a means to improve quality of life in these 26 Southeast Asian cities.

Singapore’s themes for its ASEAN chairmanship were innovation and resilience. It has provided both in abundance in crafting the principles of ASCN. The initiative raised significant capital under Singapore’s leadership – more than enough to transform Southeast Asia’s cities.  Now it’s up to Southeast Asian leaders and ASCN partners to work with urban residents to build innovative domestic initiatives that bring equitable benefits to ASEAN’s cities. If ASCN cities can now move forward with concrete plans, it will be a monumental step forwards towards resilient cities and socially just, sustainable growth.