Navigating Asia’s Smart Cities

Navigating Asia’s Smart Cities

Intelligent technology is assisting cities to merge their digital and physical landscapes. But what does this brave new urban world mean for business travellers in Asia? 

For many travellers, the holy site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia and Oudomxay, the eighth-largest city in Laos, may not seem to share much in common. But both have recently announced they are joining the global race to become Smart Cities. 

Bolstered by the impending roll-outs of 5G networks, cities on all continents are using Internet of Things connectivity, intelligent interfaces and machine learning to reboot urban planning and management. Two key objectives are to enhance the quality of life for residents, and optimise the shifting flows of traffic and tourists. 


Beyond Digital Payments and Drone Taxis 

Business travellers are becoming acquainted with data-driven technologies that makes trips more manageable. We board planes and trains using QR codes rather than physical tickets, and pass through customs thanks to biometrics and facial recognition.  

At the hotel, we may check-in via a voice-activated kiosk. Exploring the city, we ride driverless subway trains and pay for products and services by swiping our phones. Tests are currently underway for us to fly to meetings in autonomous drone taxis. 

Each of these interactions generates unique, invaluable data. But, at present, these data points operate in isolation from each other. Travel-related information collated by an airline, train company, hotel or payment services provider is mostly proprietary.  

But imagine an alternative scenario.  

Smart Cities are designed to unlock the various data blockages encountered during our travels – and reinvigorate the delivery of services that we choose to use. 


But how do Smart Cities actually work? 

Smart Cities will use the ‘next-level connectivity’ provided by 5G networks to digitally transform the urban environments in which we live, travel and work.  

With 68% of the global population expected to live in cities by 2050, Smart Cities are being designed to integrate, coordinate – and hopefully, improve – urban transport, public services, tourist attractions and entertainment venues. And the key that opens the gateway is: connected data. 

Definitions vary, but in 2018, the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed a neat summary: “Smart Cities identify digital solutions that can relieve the pressures of rapid urbanisation, deliver integrated responsive public services and maximise job opportunities.” 


This sounds very futuristic? 

Not really. In Asia, the Smart City race began in 2010 in Japan, with the launch of four Smart Communities. Since then, urbanisation rates have spiralled across the region, and road, rail and airport traffic has become more congested. In response, governments, city planners, airports and urban transport networks throughout Asia are investing large resources into Smart City solutions. For example: 

  • Over 500 cities in China had tendered Smart City proposals by the end of 2018. 
  • In India, 100 cities with a combined population of 99.6 million people have been approved to join the nation’s Smart Cities Mission. 
  • In South East Asia, 28 Smart City projects are being developed, both in mega-cities, like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and emerging cities, such as Mandalay (Myanmar), Cebu (Philippines) and Da Nang (Vietnam). 
  • By 2021, South Korea plans to complete its first two smart cities, in Busan and Sejong. 


So what may Smart Cities mean for business travellers? 

The dynamics of business travel are shifting as cities become larger, denser, more commercially diverse – and, of course, more visited.  

From the start of the 2020s, numerous Smart City pilot projects will gradually reveal the full scope of urban-digital transformation. For business travellers , this should mean data touchpoints become ubiquitous and contactless throughout each trip. 

If the modelling proves correct, Smart Cities will analyse the vast flows of information they generate to balance travel flows in mass spaces, such as airports, train stations and convention centres. Optimised data flows will also enable service providers to tailor experiences in a personal context, such as at a hotel or while exploring the city. 

Here are five potential benefits: 

  1. Large airports are already combining human behavioural science with sensors and AI to predict passenger flows at peak, shoulder and low periods. This could be used to automatically redirect passengers to areas of the airport experiencing lower foot traffic – and alert connecting services, such as airport-city rail operators and limousine and taxi providers.  

  2. The real-time integration of road, railway and airport systems data should make travellers better informed, and make route planning more seamless. 

  3. Hotels would know the exact moment your passport is swiped at the airport, enabling them to customise the welcome experience depending on whether your arrival is early, on-time or delayed. 

  4. Intelligent buildings, such as offices, hotels and convention centres, will effortlessly interact with smartphones and wearable devices to provide access to range of information and services without needing to open an app.  

  5. Smart Grids will streamline the management of precious resources like electricity, fuel and water and help reduce the environmental impact of travel. 


Critics argue that relying on automation renders travellers more vulnerable to system failures and cyberattacks. Huge investments are being made to prevent such eventualities. However, some glitches may occur, so patience will be crucial – because we will all be travelling to, around and from Smart Cities in the near future.