As demand for the development of smart cities continues to build up, South Korea should be seriously considered as a partner in this endeavour. Although positive steps have been taken towards this direction, there are ways to further enhance the ASEAN-ROK partnership in this area.


The Republic of Korea (ROK, hereafter South Korea) has been at the forefront of smart city development. Indeed, its smart cities have been ranked among the most advanced in the world. Some of its smart city initiatives include the Mobile Seoul website that provides 60 real-time services and information pertaining to transportation, employment opportunities, facilities for the disabled and cultural events; Seoul’s Intelligent Traffic System (ITS), smart transportation card and Bus Information System (BIS), which collectively has improved public transportation in the capital; and the world’s first 5G convergence self-driving vehicle testbed. 

Further, the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) established the World e-Governments Organization of Cities and Local Governments (WeGO), an international organisation that aims to achieve enhanced and improved governance in light of recent technological developments, to collaborate with other cities and enterprises on the development of smart cities. These include efforts to narrow the information gap and support other cities by exporting smart city solutions. Since its founding, the organisation has assisted a number of cities to carry out e-government initiatives. Recently, WeGO launched the WeGO Smart Health Responder to provide useful information in order to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, the few initiatives that are taking shape include Malaysia’s Cyberjaya, Indonesia’s Jakarta Smart City Lounge and Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative – with the latter also ranked among the most advanced in the world. Similarly, other ASEAN Member States (AMS) have pushed for the rollout of smart city initiatives and goals according to their own needs and capabilities. For instance, in accordance with Thailand 4.0, the country aims to achieve 100 smart cities by 2022 while Vietnam has plans for its four major cities to complete the first pilot phase of smart city agenda by 2030. 

In 2018, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) established its Smart Cities Network (ASCN) with the objective to collaborate on creating smart, sustainable urban development as a solution to urban problems, while leveraging on urbanisation to develop a robust innovation ecosystem for businesses. As it stands, there are 26 pilot cities under the ASCN and these are welcomed developments indeed. 

However, concerns remain that initiatives under the ASCN are unable to go beyond superficial programmes and to successfully catalyse tangible gains. Certainly, the high cost involved in constructing and retaining the expensive line-up of technological tools, as well as developing and keeping the talent to run them are some of the challenges faced by the ASCN. The varying levels of development, technological readiness and political will, and diverse economic systems in AMS will also influence each member’s starting point and priorities. 

Here is where regional collaboration with developed countries, who have had experience in developing such smart cities as South Korea, could be the key in addressing these gaps. 

The ministerial-level consultative body formed by South Korea and AMS for sustainable cooperation on smart city development in 2019 looks promising. Essentially, this is aimed to increase contact-time between the respective ministers responsible for smart city development to facilitate the sharing of challenges and best practices, and to identify practical means to boost cooperation. 

Besides, through its Korea Smart City Open Network (K-SCON), Seoul intends to export its smart city expertise by establishing an international cooperation system among countries that are interested in South Korean smart city models. Here, South Korea is already planning to support four AMS through K-SCON to develop comprehensive plans and pre-feasibility studies on smart cities. Notably, South Korea has earmarked US$250 million to invest on ASEAN smart city development projects. 

Nonetheless, more can be done to further the smart city agenda and fully realise the benefits of smart cities. 

Firstly, the lack of awareness and understanding of smart cities and what it entails must be addressed. Many political leaders, government officials and even experts have yet to fully comprehend and appreciate the complex and ever-expanding nature of smart cities as well as the various technologies required for a successful smart city deployment and implementation. 

Here, the ASEAN-ROK collaboration on smart cities can allow countries with more extensive experience, such as South Korea, Singapore and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Malaysia, to share their experiences. 

Secondly, a common policy framework on smart cities between ASEAN and South Korea should be set up. This framework, grounded on the objective of easing foreign private sector investment, should include the standardisation of market entry regulations. This would reduce the barriers and cost to entry, thus facilitating and easing private sector investment into the 11 markets. This would also help some smart city solution providers to better achieve economies of scale and, indirectly, allow smaller, less developed cities to benefit from the smart city revolution as well. 

Thirdly, as data is the driver of the advanced technologies underpinning smart city solutions, a data sharing framework between ASEAN and South Korea can be introduced. As the processes and challenges in developing economies differ from that of developed ones, the data harnessed would prove to be of value due to its inherent differences. This would, hopefully, make the case towards private sector investing in a less profitable developing economy with promises to harvest data, which can then be used to refine its technology. Having said that, any arrangement as such should be complemented with thorough privacy safeguards to prevent abuse. 

Fourthly, potential areas for exploration through the smart city collaboration should include the expansion of current “living labs”. Used as a testbed for new technologies, these provide innovators with real-world trials that are crucial for the iterative refinement process of new technology prior to its full commercialisation and subsequent deployment. Should living labs across ASEAN and South Korea collaborate to test the same technology, this could allow for a faster reiterative process to refine the technology while simultaneously testing its suitability and reception in multiple markets. The latter would allow for a proof of concept without needing to engage in a relatively costlier pilot project, thus could reduce the costs for smart city technology adoption. 

Beyond the potential benefits of ASEAN-ROK collaboration on smart cities is the added advantage the latter possesses in today’s geopolitical environment. With the geopolitical contestations between the United States and China heating up and spilling over to the technological front over the past years, South Korea, a non-threatening middle power with immense soft power to boot, stands to gain. With regards to smart cities, where South Korea is an acknowledged leader, there is much room for meaningful cooperation with ASEAN to materialise potential into tangible gains for a better future.

Moonyati Mohd Yatid is Senior Analyst in Technology, Innovation, Environment and Sustainability (TIES); and Harris Zainul is Analyst in Economics, Trade and Regional Integration (ETRI), ISIS Malaysia

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