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ASEAN Smart City Network: Thinking Beyond Ceremonial Paradiplomacy

Can ASEAN support the growth of “smart” cities?

By Ario Bimo Utomo for
ASEAN Smart City Network: Thinking Beyond Ceremonial Paradiplomacy
Credit: Pixabay

On November 3, ASEAN conducted its 35th summit in Bangkok, Thailand. One notable point was the acknowledgment of the ASEAN Smart City Network Action Plan. The action plan is the next step of the ASEAN Smart City Network (ASCN), where the ASEAN member states have previously agreed on the 32nd summit to collaborate on developmental approaches in addressing city-specific needs.

ASCN was formed when ASEAN was under Singapore’s leadership in 2018, with the leading themes of “resilience” and “innovation.” As a regional organization that oversees 10 Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN is home to 630 million people and the is world’s sixth-largest economy when combined. Moreover, its population is steadily urbanizing; approximately 350 million people in ASEAN are now concentrated in urban areas. With the ASCN, ASEAN is expected to be able to answer classic urban problems in developing communities such as traffic jams, poverty, pollution, and homelessness. At the same time, ASEAN also needs to capitalize on this urbanization trend to create an innovative climate for business.

The implementation of ASCN foresees that ASEAN countries will work together in creating smart urban areas which are based on three strategic outcomes: a high quality of life, a competitive economy, and a sustainable environment. Currently, there are 26 cities taking part in the program, each represented by a Chief Smart City Officer (CSCO) appointed by their respective national governments.

There are six developmental focus areas of ASCN, including civic and social, health and well-being, safety and security, quality environment, infrastructure, also industry and innovation. These developmental focuses are designed to align with the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025, promoting sustainable urbanization within the ASEAN region.

On one side, the creation of ASCN is an endeavor to appreciate. ASEAN has been sensible by capturing a recent trend in international politics — a shift of locus from the central to local governments as alternative political actors. Some scholars have backed this view, such as Benjamin Barber with his notion of the nation-state crisis in which states are increasingly unable to cope with complex international problems. Parag Khanna, an Indian strategist, argues that cities have the possibility to replace states in the future through connectivity and information networks. 

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The involvement of cities in international relations is not a new phenomenon. It has been encapsulated into a concept called “paradiplomacy.” This concept generally refers to international activities of substate political units, including cities. While some paradiplomacies can challenge state interests, many of them have the potential to be used as supplements to state diplomacy to enhance quality and to democratize outcomes. In this case, ASCN can also be seen as a move toward a more democratic ASEAN by acknowledging the local governments and their uniqueness in the region.

However, we should not take the program for granted, especially in relation to its expected sustainability and effectiveness. To date, ASEAN has often been criticized for its elitist and state-centric nature and still can improve itself as a people-oriented organization. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure that ASCN is an initiative that truly advocates the local interest of its member cities.

Consequently, ASEAN and its member states should safeguard ASCN from turning into something called “ceremonial paradiplomacy,” a condition where the paradiplomacy goes no deeper than shallow programs without real benefits and opportunities. In avoiding this trap, ASCN can be fostered both through ASEAN and through its member states.

First and foremost, ASEAN can help ASCN be relevant for the public by making its information available to everyone. Both consistent online and offline dissemination of information are needed to engage people with the issues being addressed in the ASCN action plans. Second, the member states also need to push their cities into realizing their roles in globalization. Due to the top-down nature of ASEAN, this aspect can be a stumbling block for ASCN, as local governments might not be well-equipped in responding to the international agenda being given to them. This can be avoided through capacity buildings, particularly for city officials whose departments are included in the ASCN framework.

On paper, ASCN is a promising project with immense potential to catapult ASEAN cities into active players in Southeast Asia. Should this initiative be successful, we can anticipate some ASEAN cities to follow the steps of Singapore in becoming leading innovation hubs in Asia, joining the likes of Tokyo and Seoul. However, great targets need great execution. Every party involved should take ASCN as a real platform to grow together, rather than a mere set of ceremonial programs.

Ario Bimo Utomo is a lecturer at Universitas Pembangunan National “Veteran” Jawa Timur and a researcher at Center for Identity and Urban Studies.