After more than a year since the emergence of the Covid-19, our modern world faces unprecedented threats to our public health, economy, and society. The lockdown measure across the world to curb the spread of the virus effectively means the suspension of civic and commercial activities, yet it also poses major disruption to nearly all aspects of life. With countries rolling out mass vaccination, the pandemic will eventually end, though the impact it brought about will continue to stay with us for a long period of time. Facing such trying time, on 23 June 2021, the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (ACCCIM) and ANBOUND Think Tank co-hosted an online forum on “Digital City Development in the Post Covid Era” with the aim of gathering a number of internationally renowned experts to share their views and insights on the opportunities and challenges in our current and future world. The forum was moderated by Dato’ Ong Chong Yi, ANBOUND Regional Chief Representative in ASEAN.
In the opening speech of His Excellency Dato’ Sri Dr. Mustapa Mohamed, Malaysia’s Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Economy) in this forum, said that the diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China have strengthened, with China being Malaysia’s largest trading partner since 2009. He has witnessed massive transformation of China, which is at the forefront of digitalization and modern technology. Growing at a steady pace, Malaysia too is enhancing its digitalization and the development of smart cities, to offer its citizens quality job and fulfilling life. Covid-19 has accelerated Malaysians’ reliance on technology, which is particularly true in the cities, and it has redefined the way urban people work and live. This should be used as an opportunity for Malaysia to embrace change and transformation of its urban center. He noted that Chinese megacities like Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing are rapidly scaling up their smart city projects by heavily invested in ICT infrastructure, and they are now reaping the benefits. Malaysia, which has already outlined its plan in the digital economy blueprint can take a page from China in digitalization, which is to accelerate the roll out of smart cities. With this, Malaysian government hopes that by the year 2025, there will be at least five smart cities established in the country.
Keynote speaker Tan Sri Ter Leong Yap, President of ACCCIM believes that the current time presents us unique opportunity to rethink the role of digital technology in our lives. In this Covid-19 era, digitalization has shown great potential in terms of transferring urban activities and interactions from the physical space to digital environments. These changes are here to stay, and it is clear that facing challenges related to health, society and the environment will be crucial in the coming years to help shape the future ‘digital city’. He pointed out that businesses need to examine the balance between what appears to be a lasting shift towards remote working, and the advantages of a physical workplace. Citing real estate as an example, he noted that there is the need to determine the role of digital technology in helping bring back tenants, where new operating and business models are required. Tan Sri Ter believes it is highly likely that a hybrid model featuring being in the office for important physical meetings and remote working, will become the new ‘normal’.
Mr. Chan Kung, Founder of ANBOUND, has also presented his keynote speech, focusing on China’s urbanization experience and what the world can learn from it. He noted that much of the researches on urbanization based on the world’s experience of small-scale urbanization. In contrast, the value and position of the Chinese experience of urbanization has not been universally and sufficiently recognized and accepted by the academic community at large. On the other hand, many Chinese scholars have also not positioned the study of Chinese urbanization in a global framework. This leads to the fact that the Chinese experience of urbanization has not been widely accepted and studied to form a systematic academic theory for the world to refer to and learn from. The Chinese experience of urbanization is not only an achievement and a feat for China, but also a valuable asset for all mankind. With its many success stories and failures, China’s experience deserves to be studied in depth as an important direction and an area of public policy research.
Dr. Richard Voith, Founding Principal of Econsult Solutions, stated that Covid-19 has created fear of density, in addition to reinforcing isolation and segmentation, yet it has also created opportunities that are often productive. The future of post-pandemic urbanization, according to Dr. Richard Voith, has three possible scenarios. The first scenario sees declining density, consequently there would be diminished value of existing public infrastructure, as well as land and built asset value, yet there would be increases in value of new locations. In the second scenario, there would be the return to normal with economic recovery after mass vaccination rollout. Yet, cities are constantly changing and there is no “normal” per se, and it would be more of adjustments in multiple dimensions. The third scenario sees then expansion of policy and tech savvy cities, where remote work technology allows greater freedom of locations for both people and firms. In terms of future investment, the highest return public investment would be more concentrating on investment in high tech and high-quality transit, smart city technologies that ensure safe and high-quality urban environments as well as in education, human capital development, and affordable housing. The highest private investment return on the other hand, would be on investments to adapt existing infrastructure, highly flexible urban workspaces, logistics facilities, as well as non-innovation oriented business facilities and residential units.
The Chinese government is a strong advocator of the digital city initiative to resolve those critical issues due to rapid urbanization. Ms. Yi Wang of ANBOUND noted that China’s urban planning legislation is based on its five-year plans, where the government supports are needed for cities. Chinese smart city projects are characterized by the overall objectives, supporting city management, providing public services to citizens, promoting well-being and economic growth. So far, most successful practices concentrate on transportation, public safety, education, healthcare, and environmental protection. At the same time, the large population base is a good reason for technologies widely applied in China. Ms. Yi Wang cited three examples of smart cities in China. The first being Shenzhen, generally considered to be the leader in China’s smart city movement. Shenzhen’s transformation is equipped with a digital brain; Shanghai creates 15 minute “life circle” in building livable community; Suzhou focuses on digital manufacturing and industry community. The development of smart cities requires right vision, strategy, plans, and resources that are in place, as urban planning is a comprehensive policy issue which integrates economics, industry, space, sociology and other disciplines. Importantly, people-oriented development should be part of smart city design, as serving people’s needs allows us to better address many problems in real world.
In answering the question on Malaysia’s smart city development in the post-Covid era during question and answer session, Dr. Richard Voith stressed that smart city designers need to understand the need of the people, and it is crucial to have the technology, funding, and diverse talents.
On the question of digitalization of government services, Mr. Chan Kung shared China’s experience, in which digitalization of technology in smart city is mostly by the government, where larger proportion belonged to government services and investment scale, and show obvious results. Other parts of digitalization are focusing on services provided to the citizens, which are harder to evaluate. Concerning the question of human interaction and technology. Mr. Chan Kung stated that there are certain interactions and relations that can only be done face-to-face, particularly family and community interactions that require human touch and cannot be replaced by technology, though digitalization can provide convenience in this aspect. There should be a fundamental line that digitalization cannot cross in the human-to-human interactions, and this is also China’s urbanization experience. On the opportunities brought about by digitalization, Mr. Chan Kung noted that fuel cell is a promising sector developing countries and regions like China and ASEAN. He also noted that parts production and development, and those of automobile is a classical example, and these sectors provide opportunities that developing countries should grasp.
Concerning the acceleration of post-pandemic smart city development, Ms. Yi Wang stated that China has 20 years of smart city development experience that other countries can learn from, though she cautioned that every city has its own characteristics and resource allocations, and the lesson provided by China should be adjusted and modified based on the need of the city.
With the imminent and permanent changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic to the global economic landscape will be long lasting, yet they also present us with new opportunities and new lessons, making it crucial for institutions and individuals to grasp these changes, so as to navigate through the waves of uncertainties and to build a better post-pandemic world.