Blazing a trail for smart cities in developing nations


SUNWAY Group has been the flag bearer for sustainable initiatives in Malaysia. Its founder and chairman Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah is the visionary who turned a disused tin mine into an 324 ha (800 acres) bustling township that is Sunway City Kuala Lumpur today.

Sunway City KL serves as Sunway’s building blocks, as it pursues its aim of becoming a smart sustainable city aided by cutting-edge technology.Sunway City KL serves as Sunway’s building blocks, as it pursues its aim of becoming a smart sustainable city aided by cutting-edge technology.

The city now serves as Sunway’s building blocks, as it pursues its aim of becoming a smart sustainable city aided by cutting-edge technology. Its intended objective is to build a template for smart cities around the world and is very much on course towards delivering on this aim, having earned the recognition as Malaysia’s first sustainable city by the Green Building Index in 2012.

The magnitude of endeavours, such as building sustainable and smart cities, requires critical analysis to examine progress.

While the lion’s share of attention is on environmental and sustainability initiatives – and its subsequent results focuses on the developed world – there is often precious little for researchers to draw from on the success of the initiatives in the developing world.

Cognisant of this, Sunway launched the sustainable city grant scheme that enabled a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from Monash University Malaysia and Sunway University to evaluate the sustainable transport system in Sunway City KL.

“The sustainable city grant scheme was launched in 2018, where money was allocated from Monash to work with Sunway to improve various aspects of liveability within Sunway City KL itself,” says Prof Edwin Tan Chee Pin, Monash University Malaysia School of Engineering, Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering discipline head.

He adds, “Then in 2020, Sunway expressed its intention to provide further funding for a more detailed study on the impacts of its smart city initiative in reducing traffic congestion.”

The result was a study involving academics from the Schools of Engineering, Business, and Information Technology from the Monash and Sunway universities that focused on three of Sunway City KL’s smart transportation initiatives. These include the elevated electric Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, elevated canopy walkway fitted with solar panels, as well as the smart parking system employing automation and sensor technology.

The study sampled responses from 50 participants, split across 16 online focus groups. The participants were at least high school graduates, with 20% living in Sunway City KL and the rest being intercity commuters.

Monash Department of Management head Prof Teh Pei Lee adds that it was a prerequisite for the participants to be working or studying in Sunway City KL.

One of the key determining factors was for the participant to be a frequent commuter on Sunway City KL’s smart transportation network, as these are the people likeliest to use the BRT, canopy walk or smart parking system.

Prof Tan – whose role was to use data from the study to gauge progress and how well an initiative is performing – stresses the importance of the multidisciplinary approach for the success of this project rom the onset.

Prof Tan was ably supported by Dr Chiew Yeong Shiong and Dr Susilawati from the School of Engineering, as well as Dr Lim Mei Kuan from the School of IT.

Dr Chiew worked on algorithms on detecting vehicles passing through the research areas and pedestrians using the canopy walk, while Dr Lim lent her expertise in computer vision. Dr Susilawati worked on the development of a multi-modal transport network.

Meanwhile, Prof Teh and Prof Santha Vaithilingam of Sunway University’s School of Business worked together to study on the behavioural aspects of participants in the survey, in addition to developing the five pillars that played a pivotal role in measuring and rating the success of Sunway City KL’s smart transportation initiatives.

The five pillars are scalability, connection, availability, productivity and environment.

This study, titled ‘Sustainable Smart Transportation System: Through the Lens of a Smart City in an Emerging Country’, has been published and revealed some interesting observations and considerations for improvements.

“Behaviour management is crucial in ensuring the critical adoption of sustainable transport alternatives. Targeted pricing incentives for key user communities (students, local white-collar workers) appear to be the best means of driving growth in utilisation Volumes,” notes the report.

It adds, “Another unexpected barrier is the resistance toward technological adoption, demonstrated by the lack of confidence of some users toward electronic payments. Hence, improved infostructure frameworks for educating users cannot be overlooked when introducing major technological shifts to the status quo.”

Prof Teh emphasises the differences in the behavioural part of communities in smart cities in the developed world, as opposed to smart cities in the developing world.

“Our challenges are different from that of developed nations. One of the things we found is that the reason people sometimes use the canopy walk is not solely for exercising. Sometimes they fetch their children and the walk provides bonding opportunities,” she says.

The success of Sunway has not gone unnoticed as international bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) have expressed interest in learning more about Sunway’s smart city initiatives.

She shares, “When I was giving a talk about urban mobility projects, WHO actually heard that we have done this in Sunway City KL and they are very interested. They approached me to learn more and have also been talking about potential future research because this also fits one of their agendas in creating smart cities and global age-friendly cities.

“As long as we have a good case study, we will be able to disseminate the findings and there will always be interest from people to learn from a developing nation like Malaysia, with all the challenges it faces.”

Do you have the desire to create positive change for the future? As a Monash University Malaysia student, you undergo the same curriculum offered in Australia to obtain top-tier credentials.

Find out more about programmes available here.

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