Challenges and Opportunities in Smart Cities

By Faizal Ali (CEO & Co Founder – Vectolabs) & Ikhwan Ayub (COO & Co Founder – Vectolabs)

Welcome back to an all-new Head’s Up. This week we have Faizal Ali (CEO & Co Founder – Vectolabs) & Ikhwan Ayub (COO & Co Founder – Vectolabs) share their thoughts on smart cities and the need for more efficient ways to better run our cities.

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Why Smart Cities?

I’m in the smart city business. I’m excited about the promises of smart cities. But when I bring up the “Smart City” among friends and family, their eyes sort of glaze over, signalling their eagerness for me to drop the subject. There is an apathetic mood of the public on the subject of “Smart Cities”. This is unfortunate because the citizens are the intended beneficiary. This may indicate either

City officials have not done a great job at educating the public about how it will affect them

The public believes the smart city projects falls short of the grandiose promises

There are many reasons to implement smart cities. Half of all the people in ASEAN live in urban areas and an additional 70 million people are forecasted to live in ASEAN cities by 2025. Urbanisation is a crucial driver of economic growth. No country has yet achieved the middle-income status without a significant shift of its population into cities. (ASEAN Secretariat, 2018). In order for the country to be competitive in the future, our cities must be successful.

At the same time, our cities must be able to respond proactively to the negative effects of rapid urbanisation. Our recent struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and increased urgency for us to modernise how we manage our cities. Our pandemic management needs to be data-driven. Our policy makers lack granular data and take the “abundance of caution” approach with blanket MCOs with heavy economic costs.

We must adapt our cities to the new world that has different demands. Our traffic and mobility infrastructures requires modernisation to address the expected rapid increase in population, we don’t have enough protection for our vulnerable road users (pedestrians, bicyclists, electric scooters), our drainage systems are overburdened making urban flooding a regular occurrence, causing loss of life and disrupting economic growth of the country.

Commerce should be easy in our cities; it should encourage investments and improve our city branding. We have increased demands in the quality-of-service cities provide and cities must adapt to the growth of population and increased expectations while managing the limited budget.

We must run our cities more efficiently.


Despite the pressing and urgent needs for our cities to adopt smart technologies, many of our smart city projects fail to deliver as advertised. The problems include disconnected and ad hoc implementation, lobbied by special interest lobbying groups looking to make a quick buck. Our leaders are also prone to technology myopia and solutionism. City leaders fall into these traps when the goal is to implement a new technology instead of using technology to solve a city’s problems.

I’m still looking for practical uses of 5G and wondering why our leaders are focused on ultra-low latency and greater bandwidth when what we actually need as a country is a more equitable and wider access to connectivity (as illustrated by Veveonah).

Lack of the right digital infrastructure

Most used cases of smart cities solutions do not need ultra-low latency or high bandwidth. It needs an IoT infrastructure that is optimised for low power (battery powered devices) and low connectivity cost per device. ARPU (Average revenue per user) driven telcos are hesitant to invest therefore municipalities must invest. IoT infrastructure is the modern equivalent of highways and bridges. It encourages commerce, improves city operational efficiency, and helps solve the “stranded data” problem.

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ “what works cities certification” recognises and celebrates US municipalities that are leading the nation in the use of data and evidence. Categories include data governance, open data and performance & analytics. Most of our cities’ data are stuck in the vendor’s database and not available for analysis. The expression “possession is nine-tenth of the law” is an expression that ownership is easier to maintain if one has possession of something, and difficult if one does not. Many of our cities’ data are not in the possession of our officials.

Alphabet’s urban innovation company Sidewalk Labs led one of the biggest smart cities failures in the last decade with Sidewalk, Toronto. They forgot to include important stakeholders and didn’t align with the residents and neighbourhood organisations.

How can we do better?

Our cities need to invest in digital infrastructure to enable smart services. The city of Southampton in England has successfully deployed its private LoRaWAN network to address its on-going air quality monitoring project.

We need to re-visit well-intentioned but obsolete policies and processes that hamper adoption of new technology. For example, most of our facility management contracting is paid by the number of labour rather than performance, discouraging adoption of technology that increases efficiency.

Success Stories

In the interest of transparency and in its efforts to end corruption and poverty, the “Barangays” (smallest unit in the government) in the Philippines allow citizens to monitor budgeting and planning.

Perbadanan Putrajaya in partnership with Vectolabs Technologies Sdn Bhd is testing a vendor-agnostic and interoperable city IoT network that democratises the infrastructure and to encourage local innovation: See Putrajaya/Vectolabs Smart and Neutral LoRa network. Matt Ridley in his book “How innovation works” wrote “Innovation often disappoints in its early years, only to exceed expectations once it gets going” Let’s hope it applies here.

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