Comparing digital city development in Malaysia and UK

digital city Malaysia
Birmingham, UK. Image by Madrugada Verde | Bigstockphoto

Recent market studies from Allied Market Research suggest that global adoption of smart city programmes is estimated at US$648 billion in 2020 and is anticipated to hit US$6,061 billion by 2030, registering a CAGR of 25.2% from 2021 to 2030.

Although defining what it takes to be a smart city continues to be ‘a work in progress’, government leaders already entrenched in the transformational journey share certain common challenges regarding meaningful digitalisation.

For this article, let’s adopt the suggestion that a smart city is: ‘a novel solution to make efficient use of natural resources, improve the citizens’ standard of living, and achieve economic development’. Countries in various stages of development are intent on developing cities that are ‘smart, connected, and resilient’. The road to that goal is hindered by four common challenges: limited resourcing, lack of skilled talent, inconsistent network connectivity and cybersecurity connections.

However, a smart city framework, powered by the adroit employment of technologies, is a crucible enabling the complex marriage of civic policy & planning, socio-economic advancement, infrastructure, healthcare, and overall quality of life for citizens.

Taking the examples of the UK and Malaysia, some of these challenges arise from non-technical areas: both countries are faced with balancing key factors such as privacy, safety and security to enjoy the potential benefits of digitalisation.

In the wake of the UK’s virtual smart cities mission to Malaysia earlier this year (which was detailed in the article Pushing Malaysia’s Smart City development in 2022), we will look at the UK City of Birmingham and Malaysia’s various projects to highlight certain commonalities on the path to growing smart cities and smart communities.

During the UK’s mission, we noted that Malaysia’s focus on smart cities and smart communities was gaining momentum, reflecting a global trend in today’s fragile environment.

Birmingham’s pivotal moments

First: Birmingham is a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands region in the heart of England.

Birmingham is commonly referred to as the “second city of the United Kingdom”. It is the second-largest city, urban area and metropolitan area in England and the United Kingdom, with roughly 1.1 million inhabitants within the city area, 2.9 million inhabitants within the urban area and 3.6 million inhabitants within the metropolitan area. The city proper is the most populated English local government district.

To track how Birmingham is now being seen as a digital city, Disruptive.Asia recently sat down with Raj Mack, Head of Digital City and Innovation, in his Birmingham City Council offices. The Council’s Digital and Innovation Team is at the is at the forefront of leading the city’s digital and smart cities developments under the Digital Birmingham brand.

Raj Mack

Raj has been with Birmingham City Council since 1991 in various roles before moving into business transformation around 2003/4. In 2006, he moved to Digital Birmingham, which was initially a team set up to understand the value of the internet and broadband and how to better support the city’s residents within a broad digital inclusion agenda that has steadily matured over the years.

He has led national and European projects and programmes that unlock the use of digital technologies for businesses and citizens to help drive digital inclusion and economic growth opportunities.

“With its broad remit, Digital Birmingham’s collaborative approach – involving 40 different organisations from both the private and public sectors such as British Telecom, NHS, the police, housing associations, universities and so on – included looking at people’s skills capabilities, and how digital and other technologies could support the transformation of services – both city services as well as council services,” Raj said.

This loose partnership, chaired by the deputy leader of the Council, started by nurturing many new ideas for trial runs, he continued.

After establishing that technology was now a permanent aspect of the world, the next evolution was to ask questions through a small group of cross-sector thought leaders called the Smart City Commission. “We took that step beyond just raising technology awareness to looking at how and what you can do with digital technologies and developing a smart city roadmap. To do this we set up the Smart City Commission, a small group of city stakeholders with the ambitious and knowledge to drive city transformation opportunities.”

“By working with communities in the city, Birmingham pioneered one of the first smart city roadmaps in the UK,” he said, adding that the rapid evolution of Birmingham’s smart city roadmap was held up as the benchmark for other cities to adopt, leading to many other UK cities including London to develop their smart city plans.

Although resources have limited progress compared with others in the country, recognition of Birmingham as a leading smart city includes consecutive listing in Huawei’s Smart Index Cities Index. “The pandemic has brought home the importance of digital technologies to the city.”

Digital City Programme

Raj outlined the current aspects of their new roadmap behind the Digital City Programme (DCP). This city-wide initiative aims to bring together city partners and stakeholders to equip Birmingham’s institutions, communities and businesses with the digital infrastructure, data, technology platforms and enablement programs.

His recent Digital Leaders Week video (below) outlines various facets of Birmingham’s community of practice – the Digital City Programme (DCP) and roadmap.

This city-wide initiative aims to bring together city partners and stakeholders to equip Birmingham’s institutions, communities and businesses with the digital infrastructure, data, technology platforms and enablement programmes required to thrive in this new digital world in both the short and long term and builds on the lessons learned from the initial roadmap.

He said that key pillars of the roadmap, which include , digital infrastructure,  net zero commitments, community led innovation, urban food systems and most importantly developing an approach that will enable multi-sector organisations to share and exchange data through a set of agreed principle encased within a Data Charter  “An important aspect of this is that the roadmap was co-designed with City stakeholders. It opens up the opportunity for  Communities and businesses  to be part of the delivery mechanisms of the City and to make these sustainable and help fill the gaps that the Council can’t respond to.”

He added that an important aspect of building the proper roadmap is taking in Birmingham’s complexities and maintaining and building future digital infrastructures that will accelerate digital investment and inclusive economic growth opportunities for all.

The DCP is even considering niche projects such as vertical farms as part of its urban food systems as a way of minimising the carbon footprint of foods that are commonly imported and well as developing its circular economy by linking this project with local waste management systems and our energy generation park.  Raj said that using digital mechanisms such as IoT (the internet of things) will play an integral role for developing our circular economy.

Birmingham is developing  physical masterplans for major developments across the city and we want to augment these with digital masterplans in order to future our  development to address not only today’s needs but to be at the forefront of adopting new technologies as they emerge.  Having a full fibre digital infrastructure and the rapid rollout of 5G, will enable the City to accelerate its economic growth potential as secure its position as a leading digital city.

Regarding data management, Raj said the City is working with universities and different organisations to create a data charter. “We already have an open data portal, but we want that portal to be interoperable and accessible and able to exchange and share data with other private and public sector data platforms.  We are also exploring ways,  working with universities and private sector organisations to  create a smart digital twin for part of East Birmingham.”

Digital inclusion

“We have about 65,000 social housing with the City, and as part of our net zero ambition we are exploring how  the installation of  smart devices and IoT devices can support  people to manage their energy usage more effectively  and how the local authority can use the information to be more proactive in the maintenance and monitoring of smart devices reducing both our carbon emission as well as repair costs.”  He also emphasised the importance of local communities, and outlined the opportunity to establish  crowdfunding platform  for communities to share their ideas and boost CSR (corporate social responsibility) funding from the corporate sector and boosting community led innovation.

Speaking again about inclusivity, Raj said a digital inclusion report, including a strategy and action plan, has already been produced following collaboration with many organisations. “In there, we recognise the economic value and softer benefits for our citizens such as staying connected, social inclusion, better mental health, the ability to access information when needed, be part of the wider community – all those are the type of things are really a key part of what we’re doing.”

The digital inclusion plan is being implemented by many organisations, each taking ownership of their aspect of the plan. “This is a rolling programme and is a first step to building the right structure and governance. Small sets of activities delivered successfully before moving on to the next step.” This approach is aligned to a rapidly changing, often unpredictable world.

His online talk lists multiple other pioneering examples in what is a wide-ranging digital agenda.

Essentially, the programme has two thrusts: one is a council strategy to drive the transformation of Birmingham City Council and its citizen services for Birmingham; the other is Digital Birmingham to encourage sustainable economic growth using the smart city roadmap.

“The Digital City Programme has four objectives: to accelerate digital investment in Birmingham; about making the city seen as a centre for digital innovation and experimentation; thirdly, is about council transformation including pure and external facing services; and finally, it’s about promoting ourselves as a leading digital city under the Digital Birmingham brand.”

He admits that “while Birmingham may realistically never be the top but we want to be recognised as one of the leading cities pushing the digital and smart city agenda that is setting the world alight.”

Ramping up the roadmap

Raj also cited the championing of the City’s digital agenda by Peter Bishop, Director, Digital & Customer Services for Birmingham City Council, who, in a presentation in mid-2021 (below), said that 2014 was another defining moment for the City. A new review acknowledged several challenges on the road to delivering a digital agenda fit for its citizens.

With the Commonwealth Games in 2022 as one of many motivating milestones, he said that 46% of the city’s population were under 30, while a culturally diverse mix of populations added to the complexity of planning a clear path ahead.

Social challenges included finding 89,000 new homes, added Bishop. Admitting that “Covid-19 has had a huge impact leading to job losses and the suspension or closure of a third of its businesses. Unemployment has risen by 68%, which is almost twice the national average”.

Such challenges are not unique, he admitted. “Our digital challenge is a substantial one. 1.9 petabytes of data through 650 applications. Reaching a stable and well-managed local government service.”

Poor customer service and old ways of thinking were addressed by several strategies in 2016 to standardise and improve the strategic use of data and security of personal data in the period leading to 2021.

Two phases of the journey have been successfully implemented, he said.

Peter’s online presentation details the journey Birmingham has so far taken and forthcoming plans.

Malaysia’s digital city vision

Many pivotal moments in Malaysia’s more dispersed smart community and smart city aspirations have been well documented.

To an extent, Malaysia’s smart city aspirations were seeded much earlier. In 1996 the unveiling of the country’s digital economy vision included Cyberjaya, which was then positioned as the country’s smart city, and an important aspect of a national vision to become a digital economy hub starting with the MSC Supercorridor (MSC Malaysia) platform, which has since been refreshed as the Malaysia Digital framework to encourage greater inflow of innovation and investments.

Cyberjaya, as a smart city zone, focuses on the growth of emerging technologies, according to Najib Ibrahim, Managing Director, Cyberview Sdn Bhd, in a December 2021 interview – Actualising smart communities in Malaysia: CEO interview – with Disruptive.Asia.

Najib goes in-depth into Cyberjaya’s role in Malaysia’s digital revolution to build smart cities. n 2019, Cyberview was mandated by the government to develop Cyberjaya and further strengthen its technology ecosystem.

“We took on the role of a tech hub developer and designed a new master plan for the city that will focus on the development of five key elements: facilities, community, activities, experience, and incentives,” he said.

The master plan was expected to contribute around RM250 billion to the GDP accumulatively, provide up to 87,000 job opportunities, and attract 1,200 companies by 2045.

Admittedly, this has been a long revolution of mostly sporadic dots of development, most showing much potential for the broad benefits of applying digital technologies to a smart community.

In July 2021, I noted that Malaysia experienced a refresh of its smart city aspirations with the Smart City Outlook 2021/22 (MSCO) report, soft-launched after the technological partnership think tank Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT) ‘s 26th AGM.

As Telekom Malaysia’s enterprise and public sector business solutions arm, TM One has a long track record of pioneering smart city and smart community projects. While Birmingham is ahead in some respects of the smart city journey, Malaysia shares many of the main challenges, and somewhat similar innovation development cycles, in addition to grappling with complex social issues.

Furthermore, one of TM One’s findings is that the factor that will make the most significant difference to the success of smart city programmes, in the eyes of survey respondents, is not technology or funding but visionary leadership.

5G as a smart community accelerator in Malaysia

Announced in the same week as the Smart City Outlook report last year cited earlier, the government appointed Ericsson as a 5G development partner to build an end-to-end network in Malaysia at a total cost of RM11 billion ($2.65 billion), according to a statement by DNB (Digital Nasional Berhad), – the government entity overseeing the rollout of MyDigital.

Since then, plans to roll out 5G have undergone various changes. Currently, a government special purpose vehicle of a single wholesale network to guide the industry’s rollout of 5G is holding to its push-driven strategy of covering 40% of the population by year-end and 80% coverage by 2024. An Economic Impact Report suggests this network could create Rm122 billion in GDP and 148,000 jobs in 2030.

Whatever the path is finally chosen, Malaysia needs to push the deployment of 5G to enhance its citizens’ quality of life and catalyse growth and compete in the region and the wider arena.

The speed of transformation globally is hampered by talent and skills gaps, resistance to change, and lagging connectivity infrastructure. The challenge of managing and unlocking value from the ongoing explosion of data in a digitalised economy also requires a more significant commitment to the inclusivity of people.

An earlier probe by Malaysia into the potential of 5G cellular technology in 2019/2020 saw Telekom Malaysia (TM) setting out to demonstrate how Malaysia’s Langkawi archipelago could be digitally transformed by using a 5G testbed. This demonstration was part of an industry-government collaboration triggered by the national regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission and involved several technology leaders.

This initial round of smart digital economy testbed cases also included Celcom Axiata, Digi Telecommunications, Edotco Malaysia, Maxis Broadband, U Mobile, Petroliam Nasional, and YTL Communications held 5G Malaysia Demonstration Projects (5GDP) in six states involving an initial investment of RM143 million.

At the time, Malaysia aimed for 100 use cases across nine verticals – agriculture, education, entertainment/media, digital healthcare, manufacturing and processing, oil and gas, smart city, smart transportation and tourism.

TM’s use of AI smart cameras, alert buttons, geolocation apps, My Smart City mobile app, smart helmets and other solutions – powered by real-time data analytics – demonstrated multiple use cases spanning smart city, smart tourism, smart traffic, smart agriculture, as well as crime prevention and citizen safety.

Shazurawati Abd Karim

In an in-depth Disruptive.Asia 2022 outlook interview with Shazurawati Abd Karim, who, as Executive Vice President, is at the helm of TM One, emphasised the company’s people-first approach, which has invigorated much of the company’s aims to contribute to the growth of Digital Malaysia. The interview further detailed many initiatives being championed by TM One to advance the national digital agenda.

Shazurawati added that Malaysia’s adoption would need to embrace solutions beyond CCTV, such as drones, to cover larger surveillance areas such as ports, platforms and refineries.

“During the pandemic, we learned to use drones to deliver medical supplies to remote areas,” said Shazurawati, adding that “TM One has worked with several council municipalities with surveillance, smart traffic, smart lighting, smart building projects are part of the matrix to enhance the quality of life, to use technology to raise happiness levels of a city – to develop happy cities.”

“Safety and convenience of the community is a high priority: For example, using AI and smart service solutions, we believe that integrated smart city surveillance such as using CCTV is only really useful with the use of analytics and AI through an integrated operations centre. Beyond public safety, we can use it as a tool for cohesive disaster management, which will be enhanced with the coming of 5G. The volume and required speed of 5G will be part of the perfect recipe for smart city developments.”

Last year, Malaysia unveiled its national 4IR policy also serves as a supporting framework for smart city programmes. The national Smart City Framework, under the 12th Malaysia Plan 2021-2025, of which MyDigital is a component.

“The technological impact on Malaysia with technologies through smart city adoption is rightly balanced with sustainable – green technology – considerations. Malaysia is blessed with a lot of ongoing development from an infrastructure perspective,” commented Shazurawati at a leadership panel during the aforementioned UK Smart Cities Mission.

Using IoT (the internet of things) sensors to predict and mitigate local climate challenges such as haze, regular flooding, soil erosion, and traffic management is linked to societal benefits. “Safety and convenience of the community is a high priority: By using AI and smart service solutions, we believe that integrated smart city surveillance such as using CCTV is only really useful with the use of analytics and AI through an integrated operations centre. Beyond public safety, we can use it as a tool for cohesive disaster management, which will be enhanced with the coming of 5G. The volume and required speed of 5G will be part of the perfect recipe for smart city developments.”

New thinking in healthcare

New thinking and ways of providing information together with new ways of engagement, including new technologies, have enabled benefits and sorting out legacy issues and are transforming other significant aspects of daily life.

For example, in partnership with Siemens Healthineers Malaysia, TM One’s Shazurawati recently touched on the impact of 5G on healthcare and smart hospitals, which are important aspects of building smart cities in Malaysia.

Speaking during the inaugural 5G in Healthcare Symposium organised by the Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia (APHM), she commented: “5G will positively impact the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) and enable life-saving medical innovations that reflect the needs of a post-pandemic society. This includes remote medical learning and remote patient monitoring, among others. Together with our partners, which includes global technology companies and leading local companies, we are primed and ready to help Malaysia’s private hospitals co-create solutions that will save lives and bring value to their stakeholders.”

Delivering the best outcomes

Coming back to Birmingham’s journey: Digital Birmingham’s Raj, who has been charged with implementing many of the initiatives, confirmed that the pandemic had accelerated the adoption of fresh concepts of digital, and the importance of connectivity and customer contact and data have been put into the spotlight and pointed the way to the next strategy.

Recently published insights from industry observers such as John C Tanner and Jouko Ahvenainen point to innovating from a holistic framework and employing a multi-disciplinary approach.

Jouko, for instance, said while collecting data featured high on the objectives of developing smart cities: “Smart cities should be focused more on the needs of residents. There are many ‘nice’ and ambitious plans to make cities and the lives of residents better, but nice plans are never enough. The real questions are who are the actual customers, who can decide which services to use and who will control the data.”

He writes in another piece that often, the missing element in smart city projects is: people. “There’s more to smart cities than piling tech on top of them. Someone shared with me a good observation about smart city projects: how many times do the plans include UX and UI for citizens? Often, they are smart tech stacks, while ordinary people in the city are just objects, not subjects, in plans or implementation.”

Meanwhile, citing an article in MIT Technology Review, John C Tanner opined that “Smart cities sound like a great idea, but what we really need are smarter cities that understand the complex ecosystem of people who live in them. And we can’t get there by simply layering next-gen technologies on top of them”.

In the MIT Technology Review, Riad Meddeb and Calum Handforth of the UN Development Program (UNDP) Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development warned that smart city initiatives were in danger of becoming more next-gen technology showcases rather than meaningful solutions for cities.

An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) paper in 2020, released as part of the organisation’s programme on smart cities and inclusive growth, points to the timeliness of leveraging the benefits of smart cities as “particularly critical to help cities and countries manage and rebound from this unprecedented global crisis.”

In 2021, COVID-19-related challenges inspired Malaysia’s public authorities to refresh and fast-track smart city initiatives with digital technologies to upscale service levels and citizen well-being and especially important at this time – to forge the space for sustainable economic growth and recovery.

TM One and Digital Birmingham’s Raj Mack point to their prime motivation of smart community initiatives delivering greater quality, safety and opportunities for citizens: a human-centred focus for digitalisation.

TM One’s Shazurawati expressed the following during the UK Smart Cities Mission panel: “We need to be open to explore new business models with a human-centred, integrated approach geared towards raising happiness levels. A strong, sustainable digital foundation with collaboration and new ways of working is the way forward,” she said.

“Citizens deserve a one-stop service with single-sign through a digital ID on for services as part of an effective smart city model, Shazurawati added. “Public and private partnership platforms will certainly accelerate development.”

Benefitting humankind and closing the digital divide were two standout themes in a recent interview with UN agency ITU (Telecommunication Standardisation Bureau) director Chaesub Lee, whose comment about the role of emerging technologies included: “We bring someone having problems they need to solve, and we bring someone who wishes to provide the solution, and then we have them meet to facilitate how to utilise AI [artificial intelligence] and ML [machine learning] to help humankind.”

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