Smarter roads for smarter cities
Aliff Yusri 
Medini City in Iskandar Malaysia is a test bed for smart mobility solutions

CITY planners are turning to smart infrastructure solutions to address traffic congestion and safety issues on Malaysian roads, with the China-based Alibaba Group launching the country’s first “city brain” initiative in Kuala Lumpur.

Pioneered in Hangzhou, the city brain concept utilises artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse Big Data from visual sources in metropolitan areas to facilitate decision-making for city council representatives and urban planners.

Developed in collaboration with Malaysia Digital Economy Corp Sdn Bhd (MDEC) and Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), the initiative is also the first of its kind to be launched outside China, with stakeholders hailing it as the model for future private-public partnerships involving smart mobility in Southeast Asia.


Issues in infrastructure

“Put together, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have a total population of about 359 million,” says iCar Asia Ltd chairman and former iProperty group CEO Georg Chmiel at the Medini CEO Forum 2018 in Medini City, Iskandar Malaysia in Johor recently.

Car ownership in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand is 6.4 times that of the Australian continent, says Chmiel

“Currently, demographics in these markets own 6.4 times as many vehicles per capita than those in the entire Australian continent.”

The growing number of vehicles on the road has profound implications for urban development, generating large amounts of data beyond the ability of conventional analysis by city planners.

Smart AI solutions structure this Big Data so that it can be used to reduce traffic congestion and safety incidents, with eventual applications in rail infrastructure and other areas.

Phase 1 of the Malaysia City Brain will include 281 traffic light junctions and 382 CCTV feeds, says Yasmin

“Phase 1 of the Malaysia City Brain targets Kuala Lumpur’s inner ring road and the central business district [CBD], beginning with a base of 281 traffic light junctions and 382 closed-circuit television [CCTV] camera feeds,” says MDEC CEO Datuk Yasmin Mahmood.

With this information, the city brain can optimise the flow of vehicles and traffic signals by calculating times to given intersections, while providing structured summaries such as traffic volume and speeds in specific lanes.

Its scope goes beyond conventional smart infrastructure applications such as dynamic toll pricing or autonomous vehicles, though Chmiel notes that an ecosystem of supportive solutions is necessary to develop the full potential of smart mobility.

In the case of the Malaysia City Brain, MDEC anticipates connections with urban management systems such as fire and ambulance dispatches moving forward, along with applications in enterprise, research and academia as its functionality expands.


Importing innovation

The Malaysia City Brain follows on a successful proof of concept launched in August last year in partnership with the Asean Data Analytics Exchange (Adax), an initiative by MDEC to catalyse data analytics uptake in the country.

The proof of concept, which MDEC’s Yasmin shares was just recently concluded, allowed four Malaysian students from Adax’s Data Star programme to experience the implementation of a city brain first hand.

The concept itself was pioneered in Hangzhou in September 2016 by Alibaba Cloud, the cloud computing arm of the Alibaba Group.

It was first introduced in the Xiaoshan district of the city, encompassing 104 traffic light junctions. First year operations led to an increase in traffic speed by 15% and an average reduction in traffic time of three minutes per vehicle.

In addition, the Xiaoshan City Brain reported over 500 traffic rule violations with an accuracy of over 92%, leading to an expansion in scope in July last year to 128 traffic light junctions.

While MDEC has not committed itself to any hard targets for the Malaysia City Brain, Yasmin notes that the institution hopes to see impact on traffic congestion and incident-reporting comparable to those in the Hangzhou deployment.

She also clarifies that the initiative’s implementation should not be thought of in terms of financial costs.

“The Malaysia City Brain is not a procurement exercise. It represents an investment on the part of Alibaba through their existing cloud platform in the country, to which they are adding their Apsara large-scale computing engine,” says Yasmin.


Demographics of development

Smart mobility solutions such as the Malaysia City Brain address the problem of traffic congestion faced by major cities, particularly as rural-urban migration places more of the global population in metropolitan areas.

Malaysia ranks among the world’s most urbanised nations, with 71% of its population living in cities as of the Department of Statistics’ most recent Population and Housing Census compared to a global average of 54% according to the UN’s World Urbanisation Prospects report in 2014.

“Kuala Lumpur encompasses some 243 sq km, with nine tolled highways, 169 federal roads and 51 major shopping malls,” says Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor.

“Malaysia had 26.7 million tourists in 2016, and in 2015, the number of cars on the road in KL reached 4.8 million. In total, the World Bank estimates the city’s population of 1.8 million is spending 250 million hours a year stuck in traffic.”

Urbanisation limits the amount of land available for road infrastructure as metropolitan areas develop, leading to an inevitable rise in traffic bottlenecks.

Internet of Things (IoT) start-up Favoriot CEO and co-founder Dr Mazlan Abbas notes that up to 30% of such congestion is caused by drivers looking for parking, making it a prime area for innovation.

However, he shares that smart city and intelligent infrastructure solutions alleviating these issues can be difficult to implement, particularly in brownfield projects where approvals from diverse stakeholders are required.

Brownfield projects involve the upgrade, rejuvenation or reconstruction of existing developments, while greenfield projects are new ventures on empty land.

Kuala Lumpur, for example, sees more brownfield launches, while Medini City in Iskandar Malaysia represents a greenfield development (see sidebar).

Pushing smart mobility forward

MEDINI is one of Malaysia’s newest townships, spanning 902.45ha in Iskandar Malaysia, Johor. With Medini Iskandar Malaysia Sdn Bhd as its master developer, the township is emerging as a fertile proving ground for smart mobility technologies.

“We want to become the testbed for autonomous vehicles, which we would like to see on Iskandar Puteri’s roads in the next 12 months,” said Medini Iskandar Malaysia managing director and CEO Dr James Tee (pic), speaking at the Medini CEO Forum 2018 on Jan 25.


“Last year, we piloted Malaysia’s first hybrid bus initiative with Hino Motor Sales (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, and each of our projects in Medini has at least two electric car charging stations.”

Iskandar Malaysia, according to Tee, has a population of 1.8 million, approximately equivalent to Kuala Lumpur, and this is expected to reach three million by 2025. Medini itself currently accounts for 128,000 people.

While Medini’s demographics do not exert the same pressure on infrastructure as KL’s population, the city lends itself to smart mobility applications due to the presence of a single governing agency in the form of Medini Iskandar Malaysia.

Dr Mazlan Abbas, CEO and co-founder of Internet of Things (IoT) start-up Favoriot, says it is easier developing smart logistics from the ground up, rather than retrofitting existing infrastructure.

Medini’s efforts in the smart mobility space mirror similar initiatives across the region and worldwide, as urban planners adopt new approaches to the perennial problem of road congestion.

“San Francisco has introduced smart parking meters which adjust rates dynamically, similar to electronic road pricing schemes in Singapore and the UK which vary tolls to manage traffic,” says iCar Asia Ltd chairman Georg Chmiel.

“As we move forward, however, I think a key challenge is the temptation to put technology first, rather than the real issues it was designed to address. With that as the focus, I think it’s possible to build something truly unique at Medini while incorporating solutions such as driverless cars,” he adds.

The Medini CEO Forum 2018 drew 170 industry stakeholders from across the nation with panel sessions addressing issues such as Smart Mobility - The Future of Transportation and Logistics and Enabling a Smarter, Safer and Greener City.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 271.