Smart city, green city, resilient city and sustainable city are terms with slight differences in their implications, but all refer to recent trends in city planning and management that emphasize quality of life over the long term. Asian cities have embraced all four labels with enthusiasm, but to what extent has this produced new and effective ways to address the rapid urbanization that has affected them?

In the case of Indonesia, which boasts some of the largest and most rapidly growing cities in the region, the smart-city movement has been universally embraced. A hundred Indonesian cities have pledged to pursue sustainability objectives through an increased reliance on technology to manage its service responsibilities.

Jakarta was the first of the big cities to create a Smart City Center to increase its reliance on information technology to manage urban services. Former Bandung mayor Ridwan Kamil (now governor of West Java) created a command center where he was able to see first-hand potential trouble spots (traffic bottlenecks, for example) through a wall of monitors and then send out staff to address problems immediately.

Many of the smart cities sought to mechanize various government processes, such as issuing licenses. Throughout Indonesia, toll roads now uniformly utilize smart cards to pay toll fees. And the Bus Rapid Transit System that extends to all parts of Jakarta uses smart cards for access and egress.

Clearly, the widespread application of these technological interventions accounts for greater efficiencies, but while this is good, technology alone does not necessarily make the city truly smart.

The mayor of Surabaya, Tri Risharini, who presides over Indonesia’s second-largest city, hosted a delegation from Cambodia last year to experience first hand her approach to the smart city. Although, as she proudly noted, “Surabaya offers all its municipal services electronically” with “some services … accessed through smartphones,” she emphasized that the concept of a smart city does not stop there. For Mayor Risharini, “the most important thing is how a city can make its citizens feel happy, peaceful and comfortable.” In the case of Surabaya, this involved adding parks and urban forests, vigorously enforcing health regulations and cleanliness in its kampongs, and adding libraries and broadband learning centers so that citizens know how to use IT.

The smart city also needs to use technology to gather and analyze data to understand better many urban challenges, such as why flooding occurs, and where best to locate new development based on careful consideration of the ecological footprint of the city

Beyond such successes, the smart city also needs to use technology to gather and analyze data to better understand many urban challenges, such as why flooding occurs, and where best to locate new development based on careful consideration of the ecological footprint of the city.

In Jakarta, data analysis has determined that the two primary causes of the devastating flooding in recent years is the reduced carrying capacity of the rivers that flow through the metropolis, but even more important, the land subsidence that has been caused by excessive extraction of subsurface water. To determine where best to locate new urban development, cities need the data-analysis tools created through the application of geographic information systems to map current and potential future land uses. Assessing the energy costs of unregulated spatial expansion and the environmental implications of current and future energy uses is also potentially feasible through comprehensive data analysis by local governments.

So the smart city requires much more than creating smart cards and monitors to keep an eye on trouble spots. This cache of data also needs to incorporate the views of all urban stakeholders and how the continued growth of Asian cities will ensure all its citizens are “happy, peaceful and comfortable,” particularly the new residents who will continue the growth in the decades ahead.

Cambodia’s main cities are experiencing the same growth trajectory as many of its regional neighbors: capital concentration and issues related to gentrification, waste management, planning capacities, flooding, pollution caused by traffic congestion, and gender-related insecurity, to cite the most obvious ones. Yet Cambodian cities still possess one advantage. The scale of those issues is (still) manageable: Current population size is not so daunting (the capital city Phnom Penh has only 2 million inhabitants compared with Jakarta’s 8.5 million or Bangkok’s 10.3 million), and the nature of issues, albeit complex, offers possible short- and long-term solutions that are viable. In short, it is not too late for urban Cambodia.

But new approaches are required. Top-down and silo interventions proposed by development agencies and policymakers have proved quite ineffective when trying to address urban issues. Among successful innovative approaches is SUMAI (Sustainable Mobility of All Initiative), a project led by the United Nations Development Program (and initiated by UNDP Senior Adviser Wisal Hin), and Grab (Southeast Asia’s leading on-demand transportation platform), together with key public ministries. The UNDP engaged from the onset of the project design stage with non-profit organizations such as the Center for Khmer Studies, an independent research center, to frame challenges and goals to solve issues related to urban mobility. Other local partners included Impact Hub and EnergyLab. Both innovative and efficient, SUMAI has been selected as a winner this year of an Asia Responsible Enterprise Award under the Social Empowerment category.)

Solving urban systemic issues requires successful collaborative models that bring together multiple actors originating from different sectors. It also involves a capacity to engage with local citizens and youth, to ensure equitable social representation.

As urban investments remain for the most part infrastructure-focused, capacity development initiatives such as the first Urban Sciences Department within the Royal University of Phnom Penh, a leading Cambodian public university in social sciences and humanities, should be encouraged and supported.

Sustainable urban futures do not reside solely in technological systems, but also involve the flexibility and coherence of social systems and how those systems ensure safety and opportunity for all. Giving the tools and understanding to the new generation of Cambodian youth and students so they can change their behavior and that of others will be key. Their civic responsibility is strong but mechanisms that can enable them to engage and contribute are still quite underdeveloped.

In this context, the technological platform can certainly play a role in closing the gap. But relevant models and rules need to be openly discussed and debated. Innovative and interdisciplinary urban-centered university programs will provide the models to address systemic issues.

Author’s note: I am very grateful to Professor Christopher Silver, University of Florida, who came on a scoping visit to Phnom Penh in April. He wrote the first half of this article, sharing his extensive experience teaching in Indonesia.