This was revealed in the 2020 Smart City Index by the Institute for Management Development (IMD), in collaboration with Singapore University for Technology and Design (SUTD), which showed key findings on how technology is playing a role in the COVID-19 era. The annual survey conducted in April and May, the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, also saw declines in the rankings of 64 countries.
The Smart City Index ranks cities based on economic and technological data, as well as by their citizens’ perceptions of how “smart” their cities are. Based on the study, hundreds of citizens from 109 cities were questions on the technological provisions of their city across five key areas: health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities, and governance.
From a list of 15 indicators, the respondents were asked to identify priority areas of concern that were most urgent for their city. Citizens from developing economies, consistently identified air pollution and road congestion as a major problem, while also highlighting security and corruption. Cities in developed countries tended to have other concerns such as unemployment, education, and social mobility.
Affordable housing is also emerging as a major concern for most citizens around the world.
For Manila, road congestion, corruption, health care, air pollution and unemployment were the top 5 areas identified as the most urgent by citizens. Other major concerns include basic amenities, public transport, and security among others.
Based on the survey, Manila, the capital city of the Philippines with a population of 12.946 million, was just higher than the cities of Rabat, Cairo, Abuja, Nairobi and Lagos.
Meantime, Singapore, Helsinki and Zurich topped in the 2020 Smart City Index in a year that saw many European cities fall in the rankings.
“We cannot ignore the impact of COVID,” said IMD’s Professor Arturo Bris, who led the work of the ranking as the Director of the World Competitiveness Center at the Swiss management institute which is behind it. “Those with better technology manage the pandemic better. Smart cities are not the solution, but technology helps,” he explained.
The Duterte administration implemented quarantine measures with Manila being one of the harshest and longest lockdowns globally due to the pandemic.
The survey also revealed a diverse performance among Southeast Asian cities. Bangkok (+4) and Kuala Lumpur (+16) perform much better than in 2019. In contrast, Hanoi (-18), Ho Chi Minh City (-18), Jakarta (-13), Makassar (-16) and Manila (-10) drop significantly.
The rankings also measure the quality of life of the citizens through the Human Development Index (HDI). With the general quality of life improving, citizen expectations are also evolving. This can help explain this year’s decline in the rankings for several Asian cities.
City-states such as Hong Kong and Singapore have a clear advantage because of the complete coincidence of national and city politics. These two do not suffer from political inefficiencies and conflicts among regions that are typical from other countries. They are also economically specialized and successful, and can therefore channel resources into city technologies. Finally, they are geographically small, but very well connected to economic powers such as China and India.
Cities in India (New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru) suffer significant drops this year. This can be attributed to the detrimental effect that the pandemic has had where the technological advancement was not up to date. Indian cities have suffered more from the pandemic because they were not prepared.
Furthermore, a common factor behind the drop in all Indian cities is a general decline experienced by all of them in the quality of infrastructure of the cities despite the technological solutions implemented to advancing it. Citizen’s perceptions indicate that there has been an increasing dissatisfaction compared to last year particularly in the areas related to mobility (traffic congestion, quality of public transport) and governance.
In addition, the study said that the diverse performance of cities in the South East Asia region is rooted in the different levels of both economic development and technological infrastructure among these cities. For instance, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur enjoy basic and technological infrastructures superior to those available in Makassar, Ho Chi Min City, or Manila. These structural differences have been exacerbated in citizen’s perceptions about the smartness of their city during the COVID pandemic. Cities that could rely on reliable networks and services managed to better address and satisfy the needs of their citizens compared to those lacking such ecosystems.
Kuala Lumpur is one of the cities in the ranking that improves the most this year (+16). The rankings attribute such progress based on the impressive management that Malaysia has had of the pandemic, with relatively lower infections than in other neighboring countries.
Indonesian cities follow a similar trajectory as the Indian ones in respect to both slowing HDI improvements and preparedness for shocks. Cities have not been able to cope with the pandemic well, therefore, the quality of life in its urban areas (Jakarta, Makassar in the rankings) have suffered significantly. Similar to the Indian cities, Makassar and Jakarta experienced a decline in the Smart City index 2020 driven by lower scores in the structures factor. Specifically, negative perceptions about the current level of air pollution, traffic congestion and quality of mobility services contributed to this result.
Singapore is an exemplary city-state that comes top of the ranking this year. However, its uniqueness (politically, geographically, economically) does not make it a role model for any other city. It is easier to be ‘smart’ in Singapore, therefore it is rather the exception than the norm among other Southeast Asian cities. The mix of its economic, geographic and political characteristics makes it a difficult model to replicate in other cities in the region. What surely constituted a central pillar of the success of the city-state in this year’s rankings has been its resilience and promptness when confronted with the unexpected challenges brought by the pandemic.
Reflected in this year’s rankings is that cities have ever differing approaches to technology as managing the pandemic has become increasingly important in local politics.
It is also clear that the COVID-19 crisis is likely to widen inequalities between the haves and the have-nots of connectivity, both among and within cities. This is an aspect that will capture the attention of analysts and governments, both central and local.
“Smart cities closer to the top of the rankings seem to deal with unexpected challenges of the devastating pandemic with a better outcome,” said Professor Heng Chee Chan, Chairperson of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at SUTD.