Why Penang Aspen Vision may be a global Smart City model: exclusive

In a new Computerworld Smart City interview, tech infrastructure leader Arshad Munir Sharif reveals the somewhat unusual approach and evolving vision behind the RM10 billion 'breakthrough smart city' development in Penang, Malaysia.

By AvantiKumar
March 13, 2017

An impression of Aspen Vision City (aspenvisioncity)

Image (Aspen Vision City website) An impression of Aspen Vision City


  When I sat down for a recent lunch meeting in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, with IBM's Arshad Munir Sharif, I did harbour an expectation that I was about to hear some 'typical' cloud-project related stories behind the new smart city development in Penang.

However, Arshad, who is guiding the technology and cloud infrastructure, quickly painted a picture that pointed to some unusual aspects to Penang's Smart Vision City project, which added up to what may be a global Smart City model.

First, some background: A group of companies have come together to create a new RM10 billion (US$2.24 billion) smart city development in Penang, Malaysia, which will include a RM100 (US$22.36) million digital ecosystem with a cloud services infrastructure platform to serve both local and international users.

Described as 'Malaysia's first and most comprehensive cloud infrastructure and technology services platform,' the project is driven largely by property group Aspen's subsidiary AG Innovation working closely with technology services giant IBM.

Computerworld Malaysia first heard about the Aspen Vision soon after the formal announcement in George Town in the closing weeks of December 2016. Witnessed by YAB Tuan Lim Guan Eng, chief minister of Penang, and Dato' Seri Nazir Ariff, chairman and executive director of Aspen Group, the deal was sealed by Dato' M. Murly, group chief executive officer, Aspen Group; Woo Kok Weng, executive director, Aspen Group; Ms Chong Chye Neo, managing director, IBM Malaysia and Arshad Munir Sharif, general manager, IBM Cloud, IBM Malaysia. (For more details, see Penang's RM10B breakthrough smart city ecosystem.

Aspen Group has already confirmed the allocation of RM100 million for the smart city infrastructure ecosystem and the partnership with IBM accounts for an initial RM10.3 (US$2.30) million investment in a cloud infrastructure.

When the smart city is finished in 2018, its ecosystem will provide a platform for multinationals, local businesses, start-ups and residents to scale their participation in the digital economy.

As this is part of the country's smart city drive, I first asked Arshad to offer his view of some of the detail behind the project.

Arshad Munir Sharif - IBM Malaysia

Photo - Arshad Munir Sharif, General Manager, Cloud, IBM Malaysia with Computerworld Malaysia
  [AMS]  Basically, the story started in 2014 when the Aspen Group signed a deal with Ikano Pte Ltd and the Penang Development Corp (PDC) to embark on a massive RM8bil property project in Batu Kawan, Penang called Aspen Vision City (AVC).
Aspen Vision City will feature a mix of residential and commercial properties integrated with first class infrastructure and amenities. The project mainly spans 245 acres in Batu Kawan on the mainland of the Peninsula Malaysia.
The first phase of the RM10 billion Aspen Vision City is expected to be completed by 2018, which will include the Vervea commercial precinct, Columbia Asia Hospital and IKEA Store.
The AVC project is part of the enlarged 6,000 acres Bandar Cassia, Batu Kawan's township project under the Penang state government's master plan. Apart from Aspen, developers such as Eco World Development Group, Belleview Group and Paramount Corp have also partnered PDC to develop Batu Kawan.
Projects under Aspen's RM1.4bil property umbrella include the first phase of AVC project worth RM620mil, RM135mil mixed-development Beacon project in Sungai Pinang and the RM637mil HH Residence scheme in Tanjung Bungah. It is also developing the RM700mil Nouvelle Residence condominium in Subang
The Aspen Group has allocated RM100 million to invest in smart city infrastructure eco-system.
Significantly, the entire project is driven by private enterprise collaboration.  However, separately, the state government is providing ancillary support by lining up a few projects to complement the new development and simplify travel for residents commuting between the island and mainland.
What first attracted you to the project?
 We went to see Aspen in April 2016 where I was introduced to the chief executive officer of the Aspen Group, Datuk M. Murly. He a young man (30 years old when we met him last year) and I find he is very forward thinking. He talked about where he is going to take his business in future. He also said the property industry is the second most regulated industry in Malaysia and that industry players must rethink their strategies to serve future markets.
The new generation of house buyers is continually evolving. The future buyers are very different. They want affordable housing that is equipped with intelligent features and amenities.
The Airbnb trend is also having an impact on the property market and questions like 'will rentals become the new normal in future?' come to mind. If this trend comes to pass, the old style of property sales of buy, build and sell might well be redundant soon.
So Dato' Murly said he decided to apply elements of the 'as-a-service' model to the property business. We were impressed by such progressive and bold ideas on the make-up/demography of future property buyers.
 This thinking has probably given an unusual approach to the project approach then?

 The way this project was approached is indeed different from traditional seller-buyer relationship where a seller sells an item to a buyer and delivers the services and moves on.
 For example, the arrangement we (IBM) have with Aspen is a collaboration arrangement to create new services.
 We believe the Aspen smart city model will elevate the quality of life of Penangites and open new avenues for more investment to enter Penang.
We are collaborating with Aspen to create a 'smorgasbord' of services that can be offered or bundled along with the cloud infrastructure that Aspen is building and these can be extended to other development projects.  Aspen can use the infrastructure available and offer it to other stakeholders like state government, universities, schools, utility companies, etc.
In addition, I believe another unique factor is that the cloud innovation platform is based on open source that allows any organisation to participate and contribute. (IBM Bluemix is powered by OpenStack).
 An important question:  Smart living projects like this generally tend to get bogged down by internal and external factors around the world - what's been your general experience and solution to this so far?
Firstly, our approach for a smoother development path is by applying IBM's unique design thinking practice at Aspen. IBM design thinking is basically a framework to solve users' problem at the speed and scale of the modern digital enterprise.
We conduct design thinking workshops that looks at end user behaviour and requirements before embarking onto development of those services. Design thinking keeps us focused on what matters to Aspen and its stakeholders as we progress from ideas to outcomes
Secondly, a think tank was set up and we invited Philips, Arrow, LG, Crest, and Telekom Malaysia, among others, to participate. Getting other players and organisations on-board is essential to collectively help and decide on the best way forward.

This is not an initiative in isolation.
 What other pain points do you foresee?

One of our biggest concerns is the right talent to bring the 'as-a-service' model to live without deviating from our purpose.

To tackle our concerns, we set up the think tank to oversee the project and help realise our joint vision to create services that are up to mark and provide the quality of life envisioned.

We have a programme team based in Penang for this project. Our approach is to evaluate ideas - fail and fail fast to move without deviating from our goal. We have drawn up boundaries that define the project to keep us on track. The notion of 'not to fall in love with one own ideas' is the rule of thumb.
What other firsts or 'ground breaking' initiatives are attached to Penang Aspen Vision?

I think the ground-breaking initiatives in this project are really the socio-economic benefits that will be realised from designing and building smarter services.
The general understanding of smart city is 'a sustainable and urban environment for citizens to thrive.' With improved connectivity and proliferation of IoT devices, today's concept of smart city now includes a cluster of services to improve that will make use of the IoT technologies and IT services to offer a good quality of life with the basic amenities and public utilities within reach.
We also welcome other organisations to be part of this collaboration and include the strengths of their flavour into the services to bring Aspen's evolving vision to life.

The platform is open and we encourage interested parties to join. We plan to run public forums and discovery workshops in future.
What knock-on benefits will Aspen Vision bring to Penang?
Personally, I believe this is the 3rd wave that will propel Penang to greater growth and to achieve its goal of an environmentally friendly, live-able, harmonious and progressive city.
Penang is famed as a Malaysia My Second Home destination. This project of 'life-style-as-a-service' raises the bar even higher.
Commercially, the project is building a rather unique innovation platform for startups and MNCs (multinational companies) to develop and market their services to the community and wider region.

Residents will also gain as the quality of services will continually be improved. For example, a manufacturer can collaborate with IoT devices provider, a financial services institute and a local service provider to create an end-end service for residents in Penang and beyond.
 What can other similar smart city project teams learn so far from how this particular development has been handled?
The key learning is really to keep an open mind to explore all possibilities as they evolve. IBM has a systematic method with design thinking to help clients understand and uncover what their clients want.
Computerworld Malaysia will revisit the project as it develops, but as a final word for now:  In what other ways is Aspen Vision a 'first'?
Well, this is a first for IBM where we are bringing all these parties from different sectors together and yet remain 'vendor' independent.
 This feature first appeared on Computerworld Malaysia 13 March 2017.

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