Southeast Asia is experiencing unprecedented change, and nowhere is this more evident than in its cities. In 2018, the United Nations (UN) identified 33 megacities – cities with more than 10 million inhabitants – and three were in Southeast Asia (Jakarta, Indonesia; Manila, the Philippines; and Bangkok, Thailand).
In 2019, analysts announced that over half of Southeast Asians lived in urban areas for the first time in the region’s history. By 2030, there will likely be 100 million more people living in the region’s cities than 2020. There will also be at least one new Southeast Asian megacity (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), and Jakarta, Indonesia, may have overtaken Tokyo, Japan to become the world’s most populous urban area.
The urbanization dilemma
What kind of impact is felt in the region when the changes are so immense?
“Southeast Asian cities have been driving economic growth in the region,” says Vijay Padmanabhan, Director of Urban Development and Water Division in Southeast Asia at the Asian Development Bank (ADB). While economic growth has lifted millions of Southeast Asians out of poverty, undesirable side effects are keenly felt.
“Due to rapid urbanization, Southeast Asian cities have been subject to deteriorating environments,” says Padmanabhan, citing poor air quality, water scarcity, and land degradation as just some of the region’s most pressing issues.
Southeast Asia’s cities are diverse and at different stages of their development. Singapore, a well-established global metropolis, has some of the world’s most sophisticated urban infrastructure. At the same time, Ho Chi Minh City is an emerging megacity, and Yangon has only just begun its journey to becoming a modern metropolis.
Recognizing that diverse growth brings varying issues, Japanese conglomerate, Hitachi prioritized its expertise in implementing innovative solutions to the region’s social infrastructure. From diversifying water sources to smart city technology implementation, here are some innovations that are being rolled out in Myanmar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore.
Expediting electrification in Myanmar
Spurred by economic development in recent years, the demand for energy in Myanmar is increasing rapidly. However, power infrastructure remains underdeveloped, even in parts of Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar’s two largest cities. Electrification is an important process in making energy accessible, especially in the suburbs of the future. The government aims to have 100% electrification by 2030. To reach its goal, Hitachi Soe Electric & Machinery has implemented over 5,000 distribution transformers that will reduce electricity from high-voltage to low-voltage, for use in households and small businesses.
Other successful initiatives include providing electricity to villages in Sagaing, which borders Mandalay city, as well as to Bago, a satellite town north of Yangon. Electrification in these areas lays the groundwork for penetration into more remote parts of the country.
Managing wastewater in the Philippines
The Philippines has been grappling with wastewater management issues in recent years. Most wastewater is discharged into the sewers, where it is channeled into natural bodies of water like Manila Bay.
Environmental problems arise when this wastewater goes untreated. Hitachi launched a joint venture company, Filinvest Hitachi Omni Waterworks (FLOW), with Filinvest Development Corporation, with a focus to develop water treatment facilities such as desalination, water recycling, and sewage treatment. Meant for both public and private sectors, FLOW’s pilot plant for advanced wastewater treatment was launched in Manila. Large scale implementation are underway to improve the capital’s discharging water quality.
Conserving energy in Malaysia
Southeast Asia’s big cities are located in the tropics and are home to scores of shopping centers, offices, and residential and community buildings. These buildings expend large amounts of energy to keep environments cool and comfortable.
Smart city developments may have further strained energy supplies, but they can also help provide solutions to promote energy conservation and address environmental issues. In a township in Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur, Hitachi developed the Es Navi, an air-conditioning system that can adjust cooling levels depending on factors such as weather changes and human activity in the buildings. The focus is on optimization, ensuring that indoor spaces are kept cool enough without using excessive energy. The Es Navi system extracts and stores data digitally, which building managers can access at any given time and from anywhere. This helps to customize daily operations and achieve effective energy saving and is especially useful when managing different types of buildings across large townships.
Digitalizing financial services in Vietnam
Digitalization is the future of financial services. It reduces cost to both financial institutions and customers and minimizes the risk of human errors and fraud. It also results in better customer experience, from reducing waiting time to decreasing the reliance on cumbersome cash.
In Vietnam, Hitachi launched a financial service pilot program in Hanoi’s Thanh Tri district and in Hai Duong province. An electronic payment system was set up for pensioners and social welfare beneficiaries, facilitating convenient access to allowances. The recipients were given personal and secured electronic cards that could be used to withdraw allowances at facilities such as the post office. The pilot’s success saw the expansion of the service across Vietnam at the end of 2019.
Compounding digital services in Thailand
As a sprawling regional metropolis, Bangkok is demonstrating how smart city development can elevate living standards. Hitachi and its partnerships with local startups have brought smart technologies into residential homes. In one integrated system, residents can purchase groceries, procure domestic help services, arrange home repairs, and benefit from customer loyalty programs. The solutions are currently offered to residents, and there is potential for expansion into hospitals, security companies, and transport companies to make procurement as easy as possible. Digital solutions have proved particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic, as they help minimize human contact and facilitate day-to-day life and work.
Overcoming Covid-19 in Singapore
“How can we return to work?” remains a pressing question surrounding Covid-19. In the Hitachi office in Tampines, Singapore, the “Hitachi Worksafe” application helps make returning to the office as safe as possible. Using facial recognition and thermal sensing, the system only grants access to individuals who do not show signs of fever. Hitachi is extending the program to further mitigate the risks of transmission in their offices by pre-assessing employee health before they enter the workplace and managing footfall and queue lengths.
While urbanization comes with its share of problems, history suggests that the benefits outweigh the costs. Through local partnerships and joint ventures, Hitachi is showing how technology can be harnessed to mitigate costs that growing cities may face with increasing urbanization.
“With this mindset, we hope to improve the quality of life for people and bring greater happiness to the communities we serve,” says Takatoshi Sasaki, Managing Director of Hitachi Asia Ltd.
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