Since the surge of Covid-19, companies like Gojek have increased their digital presence to accommodate to consumers’ growing requests. (Photo: Keith Miller, Flickr)

ASEAN Cities: Putting the Smarts into the Fight Against Covid-19

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ASEAN governments and companies are harnessing the power of smart technologies to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Given future challenges, small and local interventions will be vital.

As ASEAN member states start to ease lockdown measures, it is pivotal to observe critical success factors that are facilitating the Covid-19 recovery. While they are not known to many, various smart technologies have been essential tools in assisting citizens to better cope with the crisis. 

A wide range of smart technologies deployed across ASEAN cities during the pandemic include mobile tracing, reporting applications, digital marketplaces, telemedicine and dispensing machinesThese smart technologies have provided platforms for enhancing information transparency, strengthening prevention strategies, and delivering social assistance and essential services. 

The government of Singapore has launched a wide-scale tracking application, TraceTogether, that targets to ensure a faster response in tracking down contacts that an infected person has come across. The app recommends users to take necessary action immediately, such as monitoring temperatures and flu symptoms if they have been in close contact with Covid-19 case. These processes help to break the spread of the virus and protect families and communities better. 

When the app was launched in March, participation was not compulsory. But, as Singapore is reopening gradually, contact tracing is essential to ensure people’s safety. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative, recently announced the plan to distribute a TraceTogether wearable device to encourage more participation.  

Similar to Singapore’s prevention initiative, Telkom Indonesia, with four local start-ups, Kata.ai, Qiscus, Volantis, and Qlue, have launched Indonesia Bergerak, a website to monitor Covid-19 cases across Indonesian cities. Indonesia Bergerak presents a list of up-to-date Covid-19 cases and allows citizens to report urgent problems that need to be solved by their local authorities. Some issues reported include safe-distancing violations, medical equipment scarcity in local health facilities and emergency assistance. 

Gojek, an Indonesian multi-service giant, is helping micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) – in particular those in the food and beverages sector – to digitalise their business to survive in the pandemic-triggered economic downturn. As of June 4, it had added 100,000 MSMEs to its food delivery, courier, and e-wallet services, optimising their sales and targeting new customers. 

In Bangkok, the Yothi Medical Innovation District – which supported by Thailand’s National Innovation Agency (NIA) and Innovation-Based Enterprise Development Fund recently – has introduced a tele-medicine platform that funnels medical start-ups during the pandemic. There are approximately 22 start-ups that give medical advice, diagnose cases, and make hospital and medicine arrangements for patients. This initiative could reduce the workload of medical staff, assist non-Covid19 patients to avoid hospitals, thus, making health facilities less congested.  

… smart technologies have provided platforms for enhancing information transparency, strengthening prevention strategies, and delivering social assistance and essential services.

In Ho Chi Minh City, businessman Hoang Tuan Anh is leading a charity to distribute rice to people who have lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Disbursing bags of rice from person to person could increase people’s exposure to the virus. Hence, the charity uses a novel bank-like Automated Teller Machine (ATMs) supported by a camera system. This simple yet efficient technology ensures only people in need receive the rice and encourages safe-distancing when queuing. Many philanthropic organisations have donated to Mr Hoang’s initiative and are looking for opportunities to expand his charity project to other cities in Vietnam.

What can we learn? 

Smart city technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), big data, e-governance, and crisis response are increasingly becoming critical tools to manage shocks and stresses. With the booming of the internet economy and 5G mobile technology on the way to the region, smart city applications will only proliferate in the future.

However, there are three important takeaways from its application during the pandemic. First, it needs continuous iteration. The TraceTogether app in Singapore consistently modifies its use based on feedback to improve its services as well as to protect data privacy. Prototyping, scaling up efforts, and user-experience research must be consistently explored to direct expected outcomes. 

Second, it requires a cross-stakeholder partnership. Lessons from Gojek and the Yothi Medical Innovation District demonstrate that through collaboration and leadership between governments, private sectors, and communities, progress on smart applications can be made. 

Third, smart cities can only succeed through real-time coordination, site-specific programmes, as well as locally-led intervention. By adopting these strategies, cities and business do not only apply a technology-led tool but also design a people-centred approach that reflects the needs of citizens.  

Given the multitude of current challenges and future uncertainties, small and local interventions, therefore, are becoming critical. ASEAN has started to embrace working with local governments to look closely at urban problems at the city level since the launching of the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) in 2018. Instead of setting standardised guidelines, the ASCN embraces a collaborative approach among city governments and business sectors, enabling them to tap opportunities proactively as well as to define their programmes according to the local context. This network could become an indispensable regional asset to mobilise various local actions to combat the health and the climate crises of the future.

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