Giving Social Innovations in Smart Cities a Public-Private Boost

At The Economist’s “Technology for Change Week Asia”, panellists including CLC’s Research Director Dr Limin Hee discussed how government, businesses and citizens can collaborate to drive social innovations in smart cities.

April 2021 | Report

Smart cities have launched various social innovations in response to societal and economic challenges as well as the recent COVID-19 pandemic. But how can these be scaled up to create more resilient and sustainable cities?


One way is through more public-private partnerships, said a panel at the recent “Technology for Change Week Asia”. At the event organised by The Economist, speakers including Dr Limin Hee (Research Director at the CLC), Mr Haruyuki Seki (Founder of Code for Japan), Mr Stephen Ong (Senior Policy Advisor at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovations of Malaysia), and moderator Mr Teymoor Nabili (Founder of Tech for Impact Asia) discussed examples of how governments, citizens and industry around the world are collaborating to boost social innovation in smart cities. These various approaches share the belief that building smart cities and social innovations are reciprocal processes which rely on one another to thrive. Moreover, social innovations are not just about meeting the needs of people, but have to be carried out in a manner that involves them too.


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Figure 1: CLC’s Director Dr Limin Hee and fellow panellists discussed the importance of public-private partnership in boosting social innovations in smart cities during a panel discussion at the “Technology for Change Week Asia”.


A DIY Smart City with Open Data


Several cities have released open data toolkits to support citizens in coming up with solutions and to catalyse social innovations. Such a “Do-it-Yourself” (DIY) smart city taps recognising that citizens know best about the issues they face on the ground and can come up with solutions which could have a bigger impact.


In Singapore and Helsinki, the government releases public datasets in a machine-readable and structured format for anyone to use freely. In 2020, Kakogawa City became the first Japanese city to leverage the open-source participatory platform Decidim for its citizens. These initiatives have given social entrepreneurs, software developers and ordinary citizens a better understanding of their cities and empowered them to propose solutions with their respective governments. While providing open data can boost public participation, it only works if citizens trust that their data is secure and private. Hence, the government plays a crucial role in ensuring robust cyber-security infrastructure and setting up a regulatory framework for data protection.


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Figure 2: In May 2020, Japan enacted the Super City Law to aid the digital transformation of cities by improving collaboration between the public and private sectors. Kakogawa City is one of the cities driving the change through its adoption of an open source participatory platform. (Image source: Metamorworks, Shutterstock)


Embracing an Experimental Approach for Innovation


Cities have also strategically involved industry partners to tap on their agile mindset or experimental approach to turn urban challenges into opportunities. They serve as living laboratories for companies to develop, test and commercialise innovative urban solutions in a real-life setting before they are scaled up for a district, city, region and beyond. To enable this, governments have drawn up regulatory sandboxes for companies to prove the potential of the technology as well as created procurement frameworks with a proof-of-concept tender. This encourages innovation while offering the flexibility of adopting the most feasible solution.


One example was how Singapore piloted an underground district cooling system in its Marina Bay. The government worked with the urban solutions provider SP Group to develop such a system to serve 23 buildings in the district, including the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort. It brought about energy savings of more than 40% and reduced upfront costs for on-site chillers. Marina Bay Sands could also free up approximately 30,000 square meters of its rooftop space for other uses, such as building its iconic infinity pool and restaurants. The success of this experiment is now being scaled up and applied to Singapore’s new public housing town in Tengah.


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Figure 3: An underground District Cooling System lies beneath the magnificent skyline at Marina Bay in Singapore. Its successful development has led to a similar system to be scaled up for the public housing town of Tengah. (Image source: Benjamin Bindewald, Unsplash)


Rethinking the Indicators for Smart Cities


Besides involving the public and private sectors more in development, cities should also expand their indicators of success to lend greater emphasis to the well-being and participation of their citizens. Every smart city has its own evaluation frameworks and goals, but human capital is a key pillar in ensuring innovation. Thus, governments have to invest in periodical cycles of skilling and re-skilling of its citizens to ensure they are well equipped to adapt to a rapidly changing world.


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Figure 4: Investing in human capital is as important as technologies in the development of smart cities. Several cities are not only exposing their youth to the latest technologies but equipping them with the necessary skills and mindsets to encourage future social innovations. (Image source: Gorynvd, Shutterstock)


In a digitally connected and networked world, smart cities also have to look beyond their borders. The ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) is one example of how cities in Southeast Asia regularly engage and collaborate to share best practices, discuss common urban issues and exchange innovative solutions.


It takes a whole society to build up a human-centric smart city, and everyone has a role to play.


Author’s Bio


Tan Yi Xuan_Photo
Tan Yi Xuan
Centre for Liveable Cities


Yi Xuan is a researcher at the Centre for Liveable Cities, focusing on Complexity Science for Urban Solutions, Sustainable Innovation Districts and Smart Cities.
She holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences in Geography with a minor in Geographic Information Systems from the National University of Singapore.