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11 Oct 2017 Updated 26 Mar 2021

Asia-Singapore Infrastructure Roundtable 2017

Building next-gen smart infrastructure in Asia

Panellists: Technology transforms the way cities are built and managed

$2.30. $1.80. 30 cents. When Dr John Leslie Millar saw these numbers flash on a screen during a visit to Silicon Valley last year, he immediately sat up.

The Chief Strategic Development Officer of Thai property developer Ananda Development Public Co. Ltd realised the numbers represented a real threat to his company.

“$2.30 was the cost of a taxi ride. $1.80 was the cost of an Uber ride. 30 cents is the projected cost of taking a ride on a self-driving autonomous taxi,” he said.

Should the cost of taking taxis drop to just 30 cents, his company’s business model of building near mass rapid transit systems was going to be blown apart.

This is because the company’s entire business model was based on a single premise – that people were willing to pay a premium for apartments near train systems.

“Since 2000, some 40 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies no longer exist today. We want to avoid becoming one of those which fail to survive for more than 15 years,” he said.

Dr John Leslie Millar
Dr Millar noted that in the 1930s, the lifespan of a top tier company was 90 years. That lifespan has drastically fallen to approximately 15 years today.

For companies such as Ananda Development, disruption is real and worrying. But there is no avoiding it, only adapting to the new reality, said panellists at the Asia-Singapore Infrastructure Roundtable on 26 September.

Speaking at the Marina Bay Sands, the panellists tackled topics such as the impact of technology on cities and construction, examining how companies and policy makers should respond.

In the area of smart cities, one thing was clear: Technology can help make a big difference in the way it is built, managed and maintained.

Sensors are measuring everything from the temperature to the movement of people and traffic conditions, said ST Engineering chief marketing officer Chew Men Leong.

He also noted that the cost of technology is falling but, more importantly, the benefits technology can bring to a city are huge.

“Smart LED lighting is already saving tonnes of money. Barcelona is saving 75 million euros a year by simply implementing smart meters and lighting,” he said.

In fact, even though smart technology may be costly at the start, the benefits far outweigh the costs in the longer term, said Mr Chew.

Mr Chew Men Leong
Mr Chew: Don’t look at it (smart city technologies) as exorbitant – the real objective is to completely leapfrog the problems we have.”

On the role of multilateral financial institutions in helping countries build technological solutions, Mr Takeo Koike from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said the bank has recently launched a high technology fund.

This can be used to support part of the cost of technology projects as well as for funding research, added Mr Koike, Director at ADB’s Office of Public-Private Partnership.

Harnessing the transformative power of technology

Similarly, technology is poised to transform the construction industry, catapulting the relatively backward industry up the rungs of the technological ladder, said Dr Hari Gunasingham, chief executive officer of software firm Eutech Cybernetic.

He believes that technology, powered by 3D printing, virtual construction, robotics and drones, will save the industry 20 per cent in capital expenditure. Creating virtual twins of the city is also now a reality, giving city planners freedom to map out cities down to the last detail.

“Construction has been to slow to adopt but that’s going to change. We are on the cusp of tech adoption in the construction sector,” he added.

Dr Millar agreed with this assessment, noting that construction is regarded as the second least digitised industry in the world, just above agriculture.

In fact, by relying on technology his company managed to slash the amount of time need to construct a 20 storey condominium from 24 months to just 12 months, while keeping defects low.

But while technology races ahead, policy makers and planners must not forget that the goal of technology is to help people live and work better.

Panel at ASIR2017
Instead of deliberating whether their cities are ready to embrace smart technology, planners and bureaucrats should focus on ensuring the technologies uplift the lives of their citizens.

Mr Mohammad Ramdhan Pomanto, mayor of Makassar City in Indonesia, said the key to unlocking the full potential of smart technology is to ensure that the city’s residents are ready for it.

He said Makassar City introduced a 24-hour telemedicine initiative – the first city in Indonesia to do this – a move that was aimed at helping his residents get access to healthcare more easily.

“We need to examine how each smart city programme is useful for the citizens. I think this is key.”