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Asian tigers bid to become ‘street smart’ super cities

Asian hub

Asian tigers bid to become ‘street smart’ super cities

Published 29 July 2021 in Asian hub • 5 min read

The capitals of the four original Asian Tiger economies should be turning more towards citizen involvement in smart city development, Waltraut Ritter, founder of Knowledge Dialogues, tells I by IMD.


Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul and Taipei have long been four of Asia’s leading cities. How do they shape up as smart cities? 

Generally, Asian cities are much more tech aware than other parts of the world. They have higher tech literacy rates and greater acceptance of tech. People also tend to be less afraid of data sharing and have fewer concerns about data privacy. 

 These four cities, which have long been among the region’s richest, all started their smart city planning about the same time, around 2010. But since then, their trajectories have been quite different. Singapore and Hong Kong both have big, top-down master plans set by their governments – Singapore with its Smart Nation master plan, Hong Kong with its Smart City Blueprint. Taipei and Seoul, in contrast, from the very start put their focus on involving citizens in their smart city schemes from the planning process onwards. 

Seoul has a Digital Mayor’s Office, a giant screen showing real-time information. Singapore (main picture) works hard to involve its citizens in its development as a smart city

That’s interesting. You tend to think of Korea and Taiwan as more technology focused places, certainly than Hong Kong. 

Both Taipei and Seoul are also more advanced in terms of the smart city applications and technologies that citizens use. Seoul, for instance, has its Digital Mayor’s Office – a giant screen that can show what’s happening in the city with real-time information about transport, air-quality, accidents and disasters drawn from nearly 300 monitoring systems and 1,200 CCTV cameras. But this isn’t just for the mayor: all that information is also now available to everyone. Taipei ranks high in the Global Open Data index, and runs a Smart City Living Lab – a place where anybody can go to discuss, test and prototype ideas for the city. 

The Lab gets several hundred suggestions each year for projects each year. The best ones go through fast prototyping and are then tested in a neighborhood or housing estate to see if they work. The successful ones will be implemented in the whole city.  

How about Singapore? 

Singapore’s great strength is the way its government is intent on spreading its smart nation message to citizens ensuring all citizens that technology can enhance their everyday lives. It certainly wants to have them involved in its projects. It’s also been good at involving universities in future applications of smart technology.  

Hong Kong, in contrast, has always had the most leadership-heavy set up. As the word “blueprint” suggests, it tends to see its smart city development as being some kind of masterplan – a scheme for something big. Although the blueprint is not fixed, its direction comes from a steering committee set up by the Innovation and Technology Bureau and headed by the city’s chief executive. 

Hong KongHong Kong’s Smart City blueprint is a more 'top down’ approach

Do these differences matter?  

There’s no single, standardized “smart” city approach. Every city is unique, with its own history, culture and political development that we need to understand, that is the basis of how people develop ideas and how cities are governed. If you don’t understand a city’s history, you will never understand how a place is managed. Smart city is about mediating technology and data spaces, how citizens are relating to these new spaces, and they experience it.  

Yet a key point about smart cities is asking who they’re smart for. Is it their citizens, helping everybody have a better life? What are data-driven cities optimized for? 

The more technology we have in cities, the more important it is to ask “Do we want this?” and “How can I opt in or out?” That means having more conversations about what technology people want and what technology they are more hesitant about using. Citizens are not only concerned about data privacy, but also about dignity – are technologies respecting people or just seeing them as data points? 

This also goes back to the governance process. Control in the management of all (urban) data is what ultimately tells you how a city is governed. Both Taipei and Seoul have laws giving citizens rights to information. Neither Singapore nor Hong Kong has such rights. That’s a big difference particularly as we don’t know about the unintended and unanticipated uses of some types of data, such as machine generated sensor data. 

What we’re talking about here is inclusiveness. The UN highlights this in its Sustainable Development Goals, calling for cities that are “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.  

Inclusive also means that we need to develop new practices of collaborative urban development, new transformative practices and partnerships.  


Taipei has introduced laws giving citizens a right to information

Is there any advice you would give to city governments in Asia to help them advance their smart city goals? 

In Asia, discussions tend to highlight technology as driver for urban development rather than “smart” thinking. In many European countries, the term smart city is not used so much anymore. Instead, people are talking more about resilient, responsive cities – ones  able to cope with the challenge of the climate emergency.  

Such readiness for sustainable urban transformation requires new ways of thinking about government-citizen relationships. For a long time we’ve had had PPP – public-private partnerships. Now we’re aiming for PPPP, public-private-people partnerships.  

But regardless of what we call it, what’s crucial is involving citizens and their ideas at every level of decision-making. So many things can be solved at a neighborhood or even street level that it has been suggested we should be calling for “street-smart” cities. 

The sooner cities in Asia leave techno-deterministic models behind, the more likely it is, that human-scale technologies and participatory models of “co-response-ability” creates more livable cities in the region.  

Learn more about smart cities with the IMD World Competitiveness Center’s Smart City Indexreleased in collaboration with Singapore University for Technology and Design (SUTD). 


Waltraut Ritter

Founder of Knowledge Dialogues

Waltraut Ritter is Founder of Knowledge Dialogues, specializing in applied research at the intersection between technology, science, and society. She works across the Asia‐Pacific region and Europe and is a founding member of the New Club of Paris, a knowledge‐economy do-tank.


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