From the moment humans began living together in large numbers, cities have played a critical role in advancing society. And now, with technology capturing ever-increasing amounts of data each day, a new wave of transformation is sweeping some of the world’s urban environments. 

Armed with these data-driven insights, smart cities are working to solve problems ranging from waste management, traffic congestion and energy usage, to safety and housing affordability.

At a recent event, Commonwealth Bank's Institutional Banking & Markets (IB&M) team explored the role Asia’s smart cities are playing in shaping our future.

“Smart cities encourage innovation and experimentation, deploying data findings to transform their economies, improve city governance and foster social cohesion,” said panel chair Andrew Woodward, Managing Director of IB&M New Zealand.

“In the era of COVID-19, the concept of a smart city is more important than ever before.”

A common theme among the world’s smart cities is the use of technology to find efficient and affordable solutions to urban challenges. The panel agreed there must also be an emphasis on sustainability – which includes taking ambitious, strategic action to tackle climate change.

“For a city to be smart, it must be moving towards a greener future for its citizens,” said Scott Speedie, IB&M’s CEO for Singapore and Regional Head for Asia and New Zealand. “By their very nature, smart cities are also green cities.”

The Lion City goes green

Singapore may be one of the most densely populated places in the world, but the city’s exceptional urban planning sees it top Mercer's Quality of Living Ranking for Asia1 year after year.

“The city has become a living laboratory for pioneers of smart and sustainable solutions,” Speedie said. “It's no wonder Singapore is a magnet for environmental thought leaders from all over the world.”

Singapore’s public spaces and housing are designed to enhance mobility, health and quality of life, with a focus on “green commutes”. To increase its proportion of open and shaded green spaces, the government has pledged 200 hectares of new nature parks and one million trees to be planted by 2030.

“Singapore’s infrastructure is a masterplan for community-focused health: pedestrian walkways, underground carparks and outdoor areas all enhance the citizen experience,” said Speedie.

“With over 80 percent of the population living in public housing, residential spaces are characterised by vibrancy, self-sufficiency and connectivity.”

Shin Min Cheng, IB&M’s Executive Director of Real Estate and Infrastructure in Singapore, explained how the city is working to reduce its carbon footprint through the use of solar power, sustainable fuels and cleaner-energy vehicles.

“By 2030, Singapore plans to have a 30 percent reduction in landfill, a two-third reduction in carbon emissions from the school sector and a Green Mark certification for 80 percent of buildings,” Cheng said.

Singapore is backing these ambitious targets with a major expansion into green finance. In January 2021 it launched the world’s first Green and Sustainability-Linked Loan Grant scheme, helping businesses of all sizes to cover the costs of developing and implementing sustainability frameworks.

Rethinking China’s transport system

Elsewhere in the region, China is embedding emerging transport technology into its future cities and the connections between them, with a view to becoming carbon neutral by 2060.

Ming Kao, IB&M’s Chief Executive for China and Managing Director for Greater China, said the country’s use of high-speed trains was growing rapidly.

“With new train stations located conveniently close to city centres, we’re seeing a shift from planes to trains as a preferred mode of transport,” Kao said. “One of the busiest air routes in China is the 2.5 hour flight between Shanghai and Beijing, which is about 1,100 kilometres. Meanwhile, the high-speed train distance is 1,477 kilometres and only takes 4.5 hours.”

China is also embracing electric vehicles. Around 1.3 million were sold nationwide in 2020, and by 2025 they’re forecast to account for 20 percent of all of China’s vehicle sales.

Efficiency and resilience

The panel agreed that smart cities differentiate themselves by harnessing data to better manage their core functions, while at the same time exploring opportunities to enhance service delivery and drive economic value. This often involves integrating AI and other digital technologies into the city’s systems and processes to help solve its specific challenges.

Speedie said that if a city can do these things well, it will become more efficient, more resilient and more inclusive.

“We need to try different approaches, often in real time, to best incorporate these technological advancements into our lives and to test the pros and cons.

“But public and private cooperation is key: all of these initiatives are only possible through the collaboration of experts in technology, creative design and urban planning. That’s the lesson for Australia.”

To learn more from leading experts about what’s important to business and the economy visit CommBank Foresight™ – insights for future-facing businesses.

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