While some urban dwellers have sought temporary refuge away from cities during the Covid-19 pandemic, cities matter and are here to stay. By 2050, the United Nations projects that 68 percent of the global population, or nearly 7 in 10 people, will live in cities. Of this, close to 90 percent of the increase will take place in Asia and Africa. These are mindboggling numbers to take in.

Especially in the last decade, progress has been made in laying the groundwork for smart cities across Asia Pacific. But there is still much work to be done. Now is an opportune time for us to rethink the future of cities and their priorities as we transition to endemic living and acknowledge the urgency to make not only faster but also better progress.

The future is bright for cities that prioritise sustainable progress (not limited to environmental concerns) and that are inclusive by design (looking after the needs of residents and visitors alike). This includes bold implementation plans to deliver more sophisticated private services and greener public infrastructure, boosted by the compounding potential of modern technology breakthroughs that are coming of age today, such as 5G, multiparty systems, and intelligent digital twins. Only then will it be possible to build cities that are powerhouses of economic growth as well as better living.

Ultimately, a city of the future is an inclusive one where every person has access to essential services—physical security, public mobility, and life-enriching health care. This may sound utopian today, but we believe it can become a shared reality in the future of cities.

When Everyone Becomes a Problem Solver

When we talk about smart cities, it is usually the technology that dominates the narrative – from the Internet of Things (IoT) to artificial intelligence and automation. Ever heard the phrase "it takes a village to raise a child"? Likewise, it takes a community to plan a city. 

Involving the people who live and work in cities is vital. Engaging citizens in the creation process, from start to end, will result in a more robust outcome through a diversity of thinking and experiences. Introducing more citizens to cutting-edge technology, while embedding transparency into the journey, will also reshape people's mindset and lead to gaining their trust. This is the basis for a human-centred approach to smart city innovation. 

Governments must therefore think intentionally to ensure that the human touch and connection remain alive and well within the co-creation process. The Urban Redevelopment Authority understands this. It recently held workshops with members of the public representing various segments of the community, to learn what Singaporeans feel would make the city more liveable. 

One participant in one of these workshops shared that inclusiveness to him meant making places accessible to all. He has cerebral palsy and gets around with a motorised wheelchair. This is why future cities need to be anchored in a deep understanding of the experiences desired by their communities. And it should be done while deploying appropriate technologies with the right level of flexibility. Otherwise, urban development excludes the very people it wants to help. 

It may seem paradoxical that despite the shift to more virtual and digital interactions, the ability to connect between citizens and governments are becoming increasingly important. Creating space for citizens’ voices to be heard, for their needs to be surfaced and, for those who are able, to step forward and help build the future they desire, has never been more critical. Involving citizens in building their future city empowers ownership and enables everyone to play a role in helping to solve society’s challenges for a better tomorrow. 

The Future is Phygital

While Covid-19 has shifted most of our activities online, we envisage a post pandemic world where coexistence will take place at every level. Instead of an all-virtual meeting, we need to design a hybrid meeting experience where both virtual and physical attendees can connect, interact seamlessly and be part of discussions. 

In fact, technology should be leveraged to create phygital experiences, a seamless merger of the physical and digital worlds so that users and consumers can experience them simultaneously. 

From cashier-less shopping to augmented reality to location-based push notifications, retailers are moving to phygital options to enhance customer experience. We will see more of such phygital solutions in other industries and smart city solutions such as infrastructure and city-level planning, as well as maintenance leveraging digital twins. This phygital shift will undoubtedly provide an opportunity for cities and industries to reimagine urban spaces and how services can be delivered – redefining how we live, work and play. 

A Collaborative Space for Co-Innovation

Singapore has emerged as one of the most liveable cities in the world today. This puts the country in a position to offer itself as a living lab for urban planners to test and commercialise new ideas in a controlled setting, to build the cities of tomorrow. 

There are still hurdles to overcome. As we re-evaluate existing ecosystems and citizen experiences, a holistic approach is essential in driving nationwide movements. Cities of tomorrow need to consider the availability of a collaborative space that bring together the public and private sectors to facilitate a human centred approach to smart city innovation. 

Accenture’s Singapore Innovation Hub is built with this purpose – enabling all stakeholders including residents, communities, industry, academic and governments to participate and immerse themselves in digital possibilities and bring about innovative urban solutions that are inclusive and accessible for everyone. Through these collaborative spaces, we can also look to nurture future-ready talents and cultivate the sustainability mindset essential to true smart city success. 

Cities will play a central role in shaping how the 21st century plays out across Asia Pacific. The challenges they face vary across the region’s diverse geographies and contexts, but for all cities, taking proactive steps to becoming more sustainable and inclusive will be paramount in securing a resilient and equitable future for urban residents. 

While meaningful inroads in sustainability initiatives and inclusion programs are already underway, city leaders and ecosystem participants will need to focus on bridging the gap between planning and implementation to push through greater change in the next decade.

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The article was first published in The Business Times on 6 December 2021.

Ng Wee Wei

Country Managing Director – Accenture Singapore

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