Cities are racing to embrace technology and become “smart cities.” On the surface, this rush towards innovation seems positive. But smart cities often fail to improve people’s lives meaningfully.
Rather than hype, we need solutions that spread opportunity worldwide. Smart cities can become “effective soft power” — attracting others to copy their model for progress.
What is Soft Power?
The term “soft power” refers to the ability to influence the behavior or thinking of others through appeal and attraction, rather than coercion. It was coined by Joseph Nye in the 1990s.
Smart cities can exert soft power when their successes inspire other cities to follow their model. This replication spreads ideas and progress more rapidly than using force or money.
Singapore’s development into a “Smart Nation” is an example. By effectively using technology to improve efficiency and services, Singapore has become a blueprint for other Asian cities. Its expertise attracts partners and learners worldwide.
Why Soft Power Matters
When cities can positively influence their peers, solutions scale faster. Shared challenges like climate change also benefit.
But effective soft power is about more than hype. It requires:
- Tangible improvements to quality of life;
- Distinctive innovations others want to replicate;
- Knowledge sharing that enables adaptation; and,
- Strategic collaboration to co-create new models
Soft power must be earned through real outcomes benefiting citizens.
Keys to Developing Soft Power through Smart Cities
Here are strategies cities can use to cultivate soft power:
- Invest in technologies that directly improve lives. For example, implementing electric buses, smart grids, and digital health services. This progress enhances quality of life and appeals to other cities.
- Prioritize citizen wellbeing and sustainability. Guide smart city initiatives using measurable goals for livability, equity, environmental quality and community participation. Doing right by citizens earns global respect.
- Collaborate with consistent sharing. Work closely with other cities, companies, academics and civil society to jointly develop solutions and share what works. This spreading of knowledge is true soft power.
- Engage residents to guide priorities. Through participatory budgeting, design workshops and idea crowdsourcing, smart cities can authentically serve local needs. This community-driven approach is attractive to replicate.
- Focus on outcomes over hype. Evaluate smart city programs based on real-world indicators over time, not flashy headlines. With evidence of impact, other cities will emulate successful models.
Effective Soft Power in Action
The ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) demonstrates soft power principles. Since its launch in 2018, cities across Southeast Asia collaborate to use urban technology and solve shared problems.
By taking an open approach to developing and testing solutions, then sharing lessons, successful models spread rapidly across the region at low cost. This cooperation has advanced progress and built solidarity.
Individual cities like Bangkok, Hanoi and Manila have all enhanced their standing and influence by pioneering innovations like digital payment systems, intelligent traffic management, and centralized data platforms for public services.
The network has elevated the problem-solving capacity of all members, improving sustainability and economic development — a model the world is noticing.
A Vision for Global Good
Done right, smart cities can be a new form of soft power — spreading good through the appeal of technology improving lives. With citizens guiding priorities, shared knowledge accelerating ideas, and evidence-driven decisions, smart cities become beacons of equitable progress that benefit people worldwide.
This vision is within reach if we focus innovation on cooperative advancement. Smart technology should empower, not overpower. The future looks bright when smart cities are built by and for the people.
Full-length academic paper: https://so04.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/tmfjournal/article/view/266418
Department of Smart City Promotion
Digital Economy Promotion Agency