Mandalay – Myanmar’s first ‘smart city’

Since 2017, Mandalay City has been progressing with tremendous effort and speedy pace to adopt technology across various sectors to handle a wide range of urban challenges. This shocking shift was never on the agenda of Mandalay.

Experiencing through the fall of Myanmar’s last royal dynasty, decades of colonial rule, and post-colonial ages, Mandalay remained as a cultural hub with rich heritages and traditional lifestyles for over 150 years until the word “smart” was introduced into a country where officials still largely labor with pen and ink, surrounded by stacks of moldering papers.

Located strategically in the heart of Myanmar, Mandalay has also been identified as one of the few key cities that would be involved in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. (The World Bank, 2019) These economic developments have led to rapid urbanization within the city, triggering problems like overcrowding and competition for important resources like housing and water among the citizens of Mandalay. Accordingly, Mandalay’s city officials have sought to embrace smart solutions as a cure to the city’s everyday ills since its leadership in 2017.  (Naing, 2019).

In April 2018, Singapore, as the chair nation, proposed the creation of a network of 26 “smart cities” that would harness technology to tackle some of the urban challenges in the region together, and Mandalay was proposed as one of them. Led by the Mandalay City Development Committee (MCDC) with the collaboration and support from Asian Development Bank, JICA, and other international experts, Mandalay has stood out as a ‘model’ for many cities in Myanmar including Yangon, which is the commercial capital of Myanmar, in applying social media and new technologies such as IoT software and drones to solve wide arrays of urban challenges. Municipalities of Mandalay are rapidly adapting to go digital, both for internal workflow processes and for new ways to engage with their citizens.

Urban Challenges of Mandalay

Digital infrastructure

Myanmar is a late bloomer on the digital infrastructure compared to the region. As mentioned above, almost all the entire operations of the government are paper-based with very few rooms for technological integration. To exemplify, communications between the governing bodies and the civil societies were unnecessarily prolonged with numerous stages to pass through, which resulted in the inability to respond immediately to specific needs in time. Digital channels like electronic mails were not applied, instead, the paper-based submission was the only channel applicable. Moreover, the databases were not accurate, easily accessible online, and were not updated from time to time. Until the 2010s, its ICT infrastructure was inadequate and the industry was still in its infancy. According to MCDC, before 2015, the city had accurate data on only about a third of its residents. Reluctancy to adapt to digital infrastructure was also a major challenge for installing smart technologies in public services and utilities. 

Waste disposal & management

For the last 30 years, the population of Mandalay doubled, reaching 1.4 million in 2019. According to the statistics, the city collects 100,000 tonnes of garbage on a daily basis, generating the number of wastes exceeding the capacity of the city. With the increasing population, growing urbanization, and emerging new industries across the city, however, the officials did not have clear visions to strategies to tackle the trash collection and waste management problems until early 2017. The traditional “ collection – transportation – disposal ” was practiced by the municipalities, which resulted in mounting waste landfills in the outskirts to which the unseparated wastes from the entire city were disposed of. These landfills were neither recycled nor treated properly, contaminating the natural environment and climate patterns. Inefficient fleet management of the trash collecting vehicles was an additional factor adding up to this issue. 

Public security

For the last three years, Mandalay has encountered a number of crimes and robberies at night. In some cases, the robbers use more brutal methods on their victims to rob their mobile phones, money, or motorcycles, causing the victims more serious injuries or sometimes death. This left fear in the residents causing them hesitant and reluctant to go out at night. Road safety was another concern, which accounts for hundreds of accidents and tens of deaths annually. The underlying causes include poor road maintenance, inadequate traffic infrastructure, unclear road signs, limited spaces for pedestrians and other modes of travel, and weak-enforcement of the traffic regulations and controls. Most importantly, if any crime happened, there were difficulties in tracing back the culprits due to lack of data and witnesses, which left a number of crimes not being taken action promptly. 

Technological solutions of Mandalay Smart City Project

Geospatial Information System

Having accurate and adequate data is key to making appropriate policies and strategic decisions for city planning and development. Hence, the committee started by undertaking a digital survey of the city, using 3D images shot by drones and data obtained by municipal officers roaming the city with GPS devices. These data were collected and analyzed to make critical decisions in terms of future street and residential planning. The committee also completed standard mapping and renewal of street signs using systems of international standards, with the provision of zip codes for specific locations of the city (which was not available before). Moreover, drones help map the city to plan drainage systems and GPS systems set up in rubbish trucks to help monitor their routes, leading to efficient waste management. New infrastructure to conduct treatment to the solid wastes are also constructed and is collaborated with the recycling business in the city. 

City Surveillance System

City Surveillance System is central to the Mandalay Smart City Project’s effective traffic management and crime monitoring goals. Mandalay has now purchased and integrated an Australian-made Intelligent Transport Monitoring System into the city’s surveillance system. This system utilizes data from the sensors installed in CCTV cameras at each traffic light to detect any congestion and adjust the sequencing of traffic lights accordingly. The sensors also scan vehicle numbers, track their route from the control room with real-time control monitors to see details on whether they broke any rule and which direction they are heading. It can help the crime unit and investigations to track any culprits in time. Having this intelligence monitoring system effectively slowed down the pace of crime rates across the city (which normally peaked nationally), and hence ensure the safety and security of the residents.

Digitalized Urban Utilities & Service

The digital survey produces new figures for the city’s demographics, which are applicable in providing a comprehensive overview of households and businesses and their liable billings and taxations. An RFID-based automatic meter-reading system is also being utilized for the new electronic toll payment system. In addition to paying taxes and bills, residents can use application-based platforms such as Mandalay Smart Pay to pay service fees, to scan the business QR code for payment, and to transfer and receive money from family and friends. The utilization of social media as part of communication between the municipalities and the citizens has enhanced transparency and rapid response to the city’s needs and supported their e-government initiatives. Now the residents can contact and reach out to the mayor and MCDC on Facebook, report any issues and get responses promptly, all done on social media. 

 

Way Forward

Although a very energetic municipal leadership in Mandalay has engaged in numerous, quick-win, improvements that have garnered recognition both locally and internationally, there are critiques and areas of improvement still remaining on the table, claimed by the local residents, researchers, and local think tanks. The current ongoing initiatives have put their strong emphasis on digitalizing urban infrastructures and services by advancing technologies, however, they are criticized to yet fail to address the underlying socio-political drivers of the challenges, especially for the most vulnerable urban dwellers. (Sanchez, 2019)

Moreover, these new systems under pilot-implementation confront resistance within the vulnerable workforces. To exemplify, when GPS trackers were installed on garbage trucks, some employees put water in them, making sure their routes couldn’t trace. The officers claimed that they had to warn and take action accordingly.

The need for a skilled workforce to implement and operate these technological solutions has been addressed as another issue that the city’s decision-makers need to leverage on. Although the leadership who is in charge of these project are tech-savvy, many of the employees within the municipal body were not readily competent with these tools and devices, which is often followed-up by capacity building training for them, which could incur additional costs as well as delay the implementation procedures. Furthermore, many of the current projects were reported to be not privatized, and are solely coordinated and implemented by MCDC.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/khantminnaing/Last but not least, with the latest headline of the cancellation of centralized wastewater treatment project this June and the upcoming election which will later determine the new leadership for MCDC, questions have yet to be answered concerning the future directions as well as the sustainability of the current projects underpinning the city’s significant growth, under the regime of the new leadership to-be-elected.

This article was written by Khant Min Naing, freshman at Singapore Management University.

References :

Kim, Y. (2017, October 11). Mandalay, Myanmar: The remaking of a South-east Asian hub in a country at the crossroads. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264275117303566

Naing, S. (2019, August 04). Royal capital to ‘smart city’: Myanmar’s Mandalay gets high-tech makeover, sparks ‘spy’ fears. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-myanmar-mandalay/royal-capital-to-smart-city-myanmars-mandalay-gets-high-tech-makeover-sparks-spy-fears-idUSKCN1UU04Q

Sanchez, Jérémie & Myat, Su & Kyaw, Pyae Phyo. (2019). SFD Report: Mandalay, Myanmar. 10.13140/RG.2.2.26723.50722.

The World Bank (2019, June) Myanmar’s Urbanization: Creating Opportunities for All. Retrieved November 01, 2020, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/myanmar/publication/myanmars-urbanization-creating-opportunities-for-all

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