Bright ideas to 'seize the urban moment'

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The Straits Times | June 11, 2015
By Parag Khanna

WITHIN the past decade, Asian cities have become the centre of the world's urbanisation trend.

Today, 36 cities have populations exceeding 10 million. Twenty of these mega-metropolises are in the Asian region, including three in South-east Asia: Jakarta, Manila and Bangkok. As new challenges emerge daily, what are the key strategies being implemented by South-east Asian cities to ensure their success into the next century?

Asian cities are experiencing a population growth that is more than double the size of the urban migration in Europe and America. Population surges of this magnitude are causing cities to explode in size and density. Cities are expanding into urban corridors, patches and clusters that cover over 5 per cent of the world's surface area, creating hubs of inter-city movements and inner-city innovations that extend beyond national borders.

In past decades, the pace of South-east Asian urbanisation has been slow when compared with Asian giants Delhi, Beijing and Seoul. However, the tides are quickly turning.

While South-east Asia's urban population is just reaching the 50 per cent mark, there is now a mass urban immigration so rapid that it is said that Indonesia's urban population will reach 82 per cent of total population by 2045, 12 per cent higher than the global average of 70 per cent estimated by the United Nations for 2050.

Megacities lead immediately to urban sprawl that is unlikely to be confined into tight controllable areas. Reactive policies to population growth and climate change are proving inadequate. However, in response, South-east Asian cities are taking charge with flexible governments, resourceful citizens and local infrastructure innovation.

Flexible governance

ASIAN city leaders have demonstrated that flexibility and adaptability are core attributes for efficient governance needed in fast-growing metropolises.

In Jakarta, a new era of proactive urban governance has emerged, creating a city administration that is more open to citizen participation. QLUE, a crowd-sourcing mobile app, allows every Jakarta resident citizen to report immediate local concerns, such as flooding, waste collection and traffic, to the government.

Meanwhile, a similar mobile solution, Cepat Respon Opini Publik, notifies the nearest and most relevant government officials to the QLUE reports and allows them to respond directly to the public. Undergoing its first evaluation, the mobile feedback loop mechanism has already gained popularity in Jakarta, with over 30,000 users and 100 daily reports.

Self-service in cities

THE sheer size of megacities can cause complex challenges for local governments when delivering basic services such as housing, water and efficient transport.

Jakarta is said to be the world's most congested capital, Manila struggles to provide sufficient housing for the growing population and Bangkok is facing severe water and air pollution.

Despite these difficulties, citizens of South-east Asian cities have proven to be resilient and innovative. Singapore, for example, has launched Beeline, a data-driven, personalised bus service, where citizens determine the routes private buses will take by indicating demand to bus service providers. The service, accessible through a mobile app, is easy, quick and reliable, ensuring the best fit for citizens' needs.

Jakarta residents are also contributing to crowd-sourced information via real-time flood alerts with Peta Jakarta. This innovative start-up collaborates with BPBD DKI, Jakarta's disaster management centre, and Twitter to allow citizens to report on floods in their area, informing fellow urban citizens about potential dangers long before the government is able to disseminate this critical information.

Generative cities

IF SOUTH-EAST Asian cities truly want to seize the urban moment, they need to become generative. Generative cities do not only invest in infrastructure but also utilise it to produce disruptive new business models that create growth in the economy.

These cities will need to think beyond solely "smart" features and make large-scale investments that encourage creative economic potential, investing both in digital and physical spaces.

The Philippines is implementing the physical infrastructure needed for digital connectivity by deploying free Wi-Fi in 997 cities by November.

Meanwhile, Jakarta has renewed efforts to rejuvenate open green space in the city by pledging to create and renew urban parks. The Indonesian capital is also placing value in cultural creativity by investing in Kota Tua, the city's historical district. Sixty buildings will be a part of a 20-year project to rejuvenate the area with theatres, galleries and creative spaces.

These long-term investments made by cities are bound to build a lasting generative legacy on urban productivity.

South-east Asian cities are proving that their potential is greater than the challenges they face. Embracing global ideas but working within their local context, they are fast becoming a model of urban development in the 21st century.

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