Smart city projects flourish in Asia-Pacific amid uptick in public interest

In the Taiwanese city of Taichung, the local tax office has developed a tax services and payment system that has transformed the process of paying up when tax bills arrive.

The project, known as the Intelligent Unmanned Tax Service Pioneer Plan, has an artificial intelligence chatbot to answer people’s questions in real time, a taxation checking system to calculate taxes in advance, and a centralized platform that ties in banks, automated teller machines and mobile applications.

The initiative is one among 22 that won first place honors at the IDC Smart City Asia-Pacific Awards, which recognized smart-city achievements in 15 categories.

The awards are in their eighth year, drawing considerably more interest than previous editions, both in terms of project nominations and votes for the nominees. IDC, the market intelligence and advisory firm that runs the awards, received 336 project nominations from across Asia-Pacific and almost a quarter of a million public votes on the projects – nearly double the number it attracted last year.

The uptick in interest may be a reflection of the way in which governments have used digital tools to address some of the challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Gerald Wang, former Head of Public Sector Research at IDC Asia-Pacific, appears to believe so, telling GovInsider: “I’d call [the pandemic] a golden period of digitalisation for the public sector.”

Wang said governments had taken a new approach to pandemic management with Covid-19. “In previous pandemics, governments would push funding down through large corporations and hope that it would trickle down into citizens and local businesses. But this time, many disbursements went directly to citizens themselves,” he said.

That’s what pushed governments to think critically about the digital means they possessed to go about doing that, he added.

Smart city cluster

More than 330 smart city nominations were received across Asia-Pacific for awards in 15 electronic services categories. The winners were selected based on a mix of 50 percent analyst votes, 25 percent public votes, and 25 percent votes from an advisory council.

By region, East Asia secured the most awards (11 of 22), with Taiwan taking home five, China four, and South Korea two. Singapore bagged six of the seven awards given to Southeast Asian cities.

“From a smart city perspective, Singapore, Taiwan and China are very far ahead in pushing ahead the local government innovation movement,” Wang said.

He said China had a keen focus on developing critical infrastructure such as intelligent transportation and government administration technologies.

A digital twin system developed for the Beijing district of Zhangjiawan by the city’s Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design, for instance, was named this year’s Outstanding Smart City Project for Urban Planning and Land Use.

In contrast, Australia and New Zealand contenders placed a greater emphasis on reimagining residential, commercial and industrial spaces to enhance city livability. “People are starting to realize that they don’t need to be in the city, and can still get their work done from a cheaper location,” Wang said.

Digital assist

Singapore and Taiwan focused on projects that advanced social welfare and engaged citizens, he said.

The Singapore Government Technology Agency’s (GovTech’s) eCanvas project, whose development began four years ago, is a voice-controlled assistive technology that allows people whose disabilities render them unable to hold paintbrushes and pencils to dabble in art independently of assistance from others.

ECanvas shared the 2022 Outstanding Smart City Project for Digital Equity and Accessibility spot with Taichung’s Intelligent Unmanned Tax Service Pioneer Plan.

Dr Ong Lay Teen, a Senior System Engineer at GovTech and the eCanvas project lead, said each team was finding approaches to expand the project, despite the challenges of a small pool of potential users and their varying requirements.

The eCanvas team has also developed other assistive prototypes for people with special needs, such as the ePAD system, a digital photography and videography system developed to allow those with limited upper-limb mobility to shoot photographs and videos.

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Wang said a more “seamless cross-collaboration of public agencies” had taken root in Asia-Pacific.

He said that it had been made possible by real-time data-sharing technologies and an increased willingness to share information across agencies, and that it was a trend that had been given additional momentum by Covid-19.

A Singapore project designed to accelerate collaborations won the award for Outstanding Smart City Project for Administration. Asynchronous Data Exchange (Adex), developed by GovTech, aims to catalyze seamless, secure whole-of-government data sharing.

Gary Wong, Lead Delivery Manager at GovTech, said: “With Adex, agencies can now browse datasets across the whole of government and use them collaboratively. This enables easy exchange of data across the government, aggregating data collection for richer insights that will help develop evidence-based policy and monitor operations.”

He said it helped to address the problem of data being “everywhere, but often … in silos” and also uncertainty about what real-time data was available.

At future Smart Cities awards, Wang said he hopes to witness previously nominated projects reach full bloom from their pilot phases. “For many government agencies, the struggle is to move from a pilot to full-blown citywide, statewide or nationwide programs,” he said.