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Smart cities vital to sustain Asia's growing urban population

With the region's urban population increasing by 44 million every year, cities will need to transform their infrastructure with better ICT application to cope associated challenges such as congestion and waste management.

SINGAPORE--Intelligent and highly connected cities will be increasingly critical to support Asia's expanding urban population, which is placing growing pressure on infrastructures and service delivery.

ICT innovation had generated significant value for global economies and would continue to have "profound impact" on the nature of jobs, viability of business models, and economic structures, said Singapore's Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran, during his opening address at Huawei Innovation Day held here Thursday.

He said new jobs, businesses, and sectors would be created, of which some might be modified or enhanced, while others would be significantly disrupted and risk becoming irrelevant. "Every country must assess the future of its economy against the backdrop of these global technological trends" Iswaran said.

The minister noted that smart-city technologies would play an increasingly integral role in mitigating challenges faced by Asian economies, especially as the region's urban population continued to expand.

Huawei's CTO of global industry solution, Joe So, said just 51.6 percent of the world's population lived in cities in 2010. By 2020, this would climb to 59.9 percent and 67.2 percent by 2050, as more sought out better quality of life, security, and prosperity, So said.

Citing figures from the Asian Development Bank, Iswaran added that Asia's urban population grew by 44 million every year, putting inexorable stress on existing transport systems, power, and utility network. This would lead to problems related to congestion, power outages, and inadequate waste management.

He noted that Asian governments also had to concern themselves with their nation's ageing population, meet citizen's growing expectation for more efficient government services, as well as ensure environmental sustainability.

"Smart-city solutions, including the adoption of ICT technologies and the embedding of intelligent systems within buildings, transportation networks as well as utility grids, will play an increasingly important role in addressing these challenges," Iswaran explained, adding that the Singapore government already had began its smart nation journey.

The country's Housing Development Board, for instance, is developing a systems modelling tool that runs 3D simulation to visualise and test building plans in a virtual environment, he said. This would enable urban planners to create designs that provide optimal living conditions.

Singapore-owned ST Electronics also developed an intelligent water management system to remotely monitor and analyse data from the country's water infrastructure in real-time, allowing the Public Utilities Board to quickly respond to incidents that might adversely affect the national water supply, he added.

According to Stephen Ezell, vice president of US-based think-tank IT and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), an estimated 300 million to 400 million people would move into China's cities over the next 15 years. In Japan, 92 percent of the population lived in cities, said Ezell, who was also a speaker at the conference.

Both countries were investing significantly in transforming their urban infrastructure, with China investing some US$320 billion in smart city development over the next decade, he noted. Japan had piloted four major smart city initiatives, including Toyota City and Yokohama, and 80 percent of its homes were expected to have smart metres by 2020. The country's smart city industry was forecast to be worth US$30.5 billion by 2020.

Ezell said: "Smart cities can create new market opportunities. More importantly, they are about delivering real-time actionable information to citizens and administrators, allowing them to change their behaviour in meaningful ways."

He added that smart cities can also help "incentivise" desired citizen behaviours to ease road congestion, for instance, as in the case of Singapore's Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), or resolve urban challenges such as waste management.

He described how Barcelona had introduced an app to help drivers find available parking, which accounted for 26 percent of traffic in urban areas--from drivers circulating the roads in search of parking. The app helped reduce the time taken to find a lot from 17 minutes to 5 minutes.

Iswaran said: "Smart cities solutions have the potential to transform cities, improve the living environment for citizens, and create new and fulfilling jobs. New capabilities and skillsets will be required to support the development of industry that creates solutions for smart, or smarter, cities."

In particular, he underscored the importance of building capabilities in data analytics, and pointed to Singapore's goal of building up a pool of 2,500 multi-disciplinary analytics professionals by 2017.

Huawei operates an R&D centre in Singapore, through which it runs joint development projects with government agencies such as SMRT and Infocomm Development Authority.

Li Jinge, Huawei's Asia-Pacific president and board member, lauded Asia's long history in science and technological advancements, adding that the region was home to some of the world's largest populations and the most dynamic.

Noting that half of the world's 7 billion mobile phones were in Asia, Li said economies such as Singapore, China, Japan, Indonesia, and Malaysia already were laying the groundwork for their smart city plans, recognising ICT development as an important national strategy.

He added that Huawei aimed to play a role in helping nations roll out such infrastructures, including in the areas of cloud and Internet of Things (IoT). The Chinese networking giant has 16 R&D centers worldwide, spending 10 percent of its revenue on research and development.