OPINION

Smart mobility for a Smart Nation: Are we nearly there yet?

The region has nailed it in some areas, such as Changi Terminal 4's impressive automation, but sophisticated travellers of the future will expect the same seamlessness when they move through cities

CONSIDER these statistics for a moment: 22 of the world's 39 megacities are in the Asia-Pacific region alone and, by 2050, 70 per cent of the world's population is expected to live in cities, a substantial increase from 55 per cent today.

The rate of urbanisation in Asia is staggering, and presents huge economic and social opportunities for the region. To sustain this pace of growth, however, Asia's cities will have to become "smarter" too.

This is by no means a new concept. But with cities now more connected than ever before - thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT) and the significant advances in automation and artificial intelligence (AI) - the potential for understanding and taking quick action to enhance the way cities operate has vastly increased.

One area that really stands to benefit from the "Smart City" revolution is mobility - how people move around in a city.

The next frontier

Gig and sharing economy services like Grab and oBike have already shaken up the transport status quo in Singapore, but this is just the beginning.

Imagine a commute in which the traffic lights can receive, collect and transmit real-time data. Or being able to check your luggage in at a city-centre location ahead of taking a flight later that day.

Far from being sci-fi fantasies, the data and technological capabilities exist to make all of these things possible today; in fact, many of these things are already being piloted in cities around the world.

In the relatively near-future, the possibilities are even more exciting - from 3D printed mass transit vehicles, to being able to commute to work in Kuala Lumpur via a high-speed Hyperloop.

Smoother commutes are an obvious bonus, but the benefits are far more wide-reaching than that. They include much-needed solutions to the growing urban headaches of congestion, delays and pollution.

In addition, Smart Mobility promises a knock-on economic benefit for the region's growing travel and tourism industry - the theory being that travellers of the future will prefer, and actively seek out, cities that offer a more seamless travel experience, whether they are visiting for business or pleasure.

By 2030, half of global air-passenger traffic will be expected to come from Asia, buoyed by its growing middle class. As this market grows, it will no longer be enough to offer world-class attractions.

In order to remain competitive, cities will need to meet the increasing tourism flows and sophisticated travellers' demands too. In short, mobility will have an important role to play in how people experience a city and whether they go back or recommend it to friends.

Private-public partnership

With so many benefits that stand to be reaped, the next question is: Are we nearly there yet? The answer is "yes" and "no".

The region has pockets of excellence, Changi's highly-automated Terminal 4 being one. But travellers should have - and are coming to expect - the same seamless experience as they move throughout a city too.

While the region's more developed countries have to grapple with retro-fitting new technologies into legacy systems, developing nations have the chance to leap-frog and integrate these new technologies as they develop new transport infrastructures for the first time, although they would, of course, have their own challenges in terms of resources and talent availability.

One thing that is universally applicable though, regardless of the starting point, is the imperative of public-private partnership.

The push to build "Smart Cities" will work only if it is led by governments, but governments cannot do it alone.

In fact, most of the new technologies critical to building cities of the future are already being used by the private sector.

Only by collaborating with the private sector can governments use these new technologies to optimise existing infrastructure and resources.

However today, many smart-city strategies are not interconnected and data sources mostly sit in silos across agencies, departments and commercial third-party providers.

Cities need to embrace new technologies that can intelligently connect people, processes and businesses, and make sense of the data that they collect.

Over the next 20 years, cities the world over are set to invest US$41 trillion on Smart-City strategies.

As a new phase of technological development emerges, bringing a new layer of connected intelligence, governments, public companies and the private sector should all be working together to design their smart cities - now.

  • The writer is vice-president of corporate strategy and business development at Amadeus Asia Ltd