Originally published in Advancing ASEAN in the Digital Age Book, 14 November 2017.


Digital Asia has the Power to Transform Lives


Around the globe, digital advances are permeating almost every aspect of our lives. Digitalisation is influencing all areas of society, but the trend is particularly prevalent in urban environments as towns and cities in Asia and elsewhere begin to see the transformative power of digital technology in action.

The rise of digitalisation is influencing everything from how we plan our cities and the way we shop to shifting the way we travel around, communicate and organise our leisure time.

Transformation at this pace and scale fundamentally challenges how we think about the future. If harnessed effectively, the digital transformation has the potential to make cities more liveable and competitive. For example, technology is already improving outcomes for citizens and businesses, delivering services at lower cost; increasing productivity and boosting jobs and growth; and connecting citizens in new ways that allow communities a far greater voice in shaping their environment.

On the flip side, the digital revolution has also brought with it a host of new challenges in terms of how we deal with issues such as cyber security, privacy, the effective utilisation of vast new stores of data and even how we think about tax collection.


One thing we have learnt is that if cities are to harness the full benefits of the opportunities available, then they need to develop a far more integrated and holistic approach to the digital world.


One thing we have learnt is that if cities are to harness the full benefits of the opportunities available, then they need to develop a far more integrated and holistic approach to the digital world. In practice, this means investing time and resources in soft infrastructure such as land use planning, skills, training and developing coherent business and procurement policies, as well as tackling the hard issues of connectivity, embedding data hubs, cables and digital tools.

Today, cities around the globe are making decisions that will influence their development for decades to come. For example, many authorities have embraced the large city operating model to address systems at scale such as transport and water. Others have focussed more on innovation, for example, investing in engagement tools that place the citizen at the heart of the urban design process. And more recently, we have seen the emergence of new business models such Uber and Airbnb, which are using the city as a ‘platform’.

In reality, of course, there is no perfect answer and a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work. To make a success of this exciting new phase of innovation, Asian cities must have a strong digital vision for the future that is intrinsically tied to the overarching aims of the city as a whole. This strategic vision must then be tied to robust governance and leadership aligned to a clear strategy for delivery and implementation.

There are a number of emerging examples and case studies of where the ASEAN region is making particularly rapid progress in this agenda. Arguably, this has been most prevalent in the masterplanning of large redevelopment schemes. Singapore, in particular, has been at the vanguard of this work in Asia, just as Amsterdam and Barcelona were at the forefront of similar activity in Europe.

In 2014, the Singapore government launched its Smart Nation Programme, which set out a vision for the government to better harness the capabilities of digital technology to improve the lives of Singaporeans. Since then, different government agencies have been developing their own smart plans to deliver the national programme.

With over 80 percent of Singaporeans living in Housing Development Board (HDB) homes, representing approximately 3.5 million people, a new masterplan was devised as a unique opportunity for digital technology to transform the living environment of many Singaporeans. Arup worked with the Singapore HDB to define a Smart Urban Habitat Masterplan in the first phase of the project.

As with experience from across Europe and North America, the team sought to establish a coherent vision and a set of goals that could be used to guide HDB’s use of digital technology. The next stage of this work will be to implement a selection of initiatives in two carefully selected HDB towns. The lessons and insights gained from this implementation will be fed back into HDB’s masterplan to shape future developments.

At the same time, one of Singapore’s leading developers and industrial estate managers, is also driving progress in this field. The Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) identified the need to develop a digital masterplan for the 110+ Ha Woodlands development in Northern Singapore. The scheme required a multi-disciplinary approach with expertise around a whole series of infrastructure assets, including Transport, Sustainability, Lighting, Security, Civil Engineering and Smart City consulting.

The Woodlands vision describes the development as ‘the gateway to Singapore’ due to the major transport hub that connects the site to Malaysia. The masterplan for the project focuses on key digital initiatives for the site, which will attract innovative businesses, shape user experience, and improve the operation of the development. The masterplan also details the core ICT infrastructure requirements for the site to demonstrate the future of estate operations, as well as the options for delivering the shortlisted digital initiatives.

As a global multi-disciplinary practice Arup has been shaping and supporting both national governments and city authorities on their digital agendas for a number of years. We value our independence highly, which has enabled us to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace, and with offices spread across the ASEAN region we are well placed to support ASEAN clients around strategy, design, operations and insight.

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About Steve Turner & LiYu Tseng


Steve Turner leads Arup’s consulting work on smart cities. His clients include city and national governments, industry and urban developments. Recent work includes strategy and policy work for UK cities and national governments including, London and Manchester as well as urbanisation policy across China.

LiYu Tseng is a Senior Consultant in Arup Digital, where she focuses on digital strategy. She is passionate about how technologies can change the way businesses and people behave. Her recent projects include the development of a smart city and digital strategy for national governments and property developers in the Middle East and Asia.