Why you should care

Because cities the world over can learn from these innovations.

The urban blues come in so many shades. There are housing crunches and rising rents; bad traffic and depressing commutes; dilapidated infrastructure and a warming planet. And then, of course, there’s the shade known as anomie.

But it turns out that there’s an app for the urban blues — er, actually, several apps. (There’s also a set of islands shaped like a mythical bird.) Across Asia, swelling metropolises are finding innovative and often surprising solutions to the problems that plague cities. OZY reports:

Jakarta Unfurls the Great Garuda

Indonesia’s capital is sinking, sea levels are rising, and time is running out. Several miles south of where the waters of Jakarta Bay spill over the city’s seawall, a civil engineer pulls up a striking image on his laptop that reveals the urgency of his mission. It’s a forecast of 2030, and it shows a third of Indonesia’s largest urban area underwater, nearly up to the presidential palace. “The situation is already urgent,” says Sawarendro, who works for a Dutch firm, Witteveen+Bos. (Like many Indonesians, Sawarendro uses a single name.) “We have to make the decision fast.”

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A fisherman in front of one of the 17 artificial islands that will be shaped like Garuda.

Source Anton Raharjo/Getty

About 40 percent of this city of 10 million lies below sea level, and each year the thirst for groundwater causes several centimeters of subsidence — a fancy word for sinking. The wake-up call for Jakarta was a 2007 flood that killed dozens and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Enter the Great Garuda. Sawarendro envisions 3,000 acres of artificial islands shaped like the mythical birdlike creature — a national symbol — unfurling in a protective arc across Jakarta Bay. The wings would form a barrier to the encroaching sea while offering developers a golden waterfront opportunity and drivers a new beltway that will act as a relief valve for the city’s crippling traffic.

The project will cost an estimated $40 billion and take 30 years to build. A lot of the funding could come from developers enticed by valuable new property where 650,000 people could live and 350,000 could work, according to the Witteveen+Bos master plan. Now the Indonesian government must decide whether to let the project take flight.

Manila’s Typhoon Canary

Parked in the middle of what seems like a typhoon superhighway, the Philippines cannot prevent extreme weather, but it’s getting smarter about predicting it. Back-to-back storms delivered a sucker punch to Manila in 2009, killing nearly 1,000 people with devastating floods and inspiring a disaster-management reboot. Instead of an ark, the government built Project NOAH, or Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards. Deploying sensors throughout the country, NOAH aims to give communities a six-hour evacuation heads-up. External affairs officer Oscar Lizardo recalled one instance in 2013 when NOAH noticed the Marikina River rising a full meter in just an hour a few dozen miles upstream from Marikina City, so staffers called the city’s emergency-response managers to tell them to get moving — now. Before floodwaters swept in, the low-lying areas of the metro Manila city were evacuated with no casualties.

Manila’s flood-control infrastructure badly needs an upgrade, but a sophisticated coal-mine canary is better than nothing. And it’s more than technology. A big part of NOAH’s mission involves anthropologists and social scientists who are trying to bridge the gap between data and people. Translations must be precise for the polyglot country, and the message must be persuasive for people who are more afraid of leaving home than of inundation. “Science is a little scary to the common people,” says Jo Briones of NOAH’s communications staff. For Briones and her colleagues, nature is the bigger fear.

Kuala Lumpur’s Underground Solution

Jakarta is building a wall and Manila is running. Kuala Lumpur’s novel approach to rising waters: Send them underground. Opened in 2007 in response to crippling floods, the Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel (SMART) was the first of its kind in the world. The six-mile-long tube contains a lower level designed to handle water and two upper levels for vehicle traffic, which has helped relieve congestion. When a major storm hits, the roads are shut down, and the entire structure becomes a drainage conduit to prevent the national capital from becoming a lake.

The Malaysian government projects the $500 million tunnel will prevent $1.5 billion in flood damage and $1.2 billion worth of lost productivity due to snarled traffic over the next 30 years — and the tunnel is built to last a century. It’s been deployed dozens of times to prevent flooding, but the structure is no silver bullet, leading to public criticism when it does flood. After flash floods crippled Kuala Lumpur in May 2016, the natural resources and environment minister blamed the city’s inefficient drainage system and was forced to defend the tunnel. “It is not that the SMART tunnel isn’t working,” Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told reporters. “It didn’t rain near the SMART tunnel.”

Singapore’s App Approach

Chan Cheow Hoe was eating breakfast in his Singapore home one Saturday morning when his myResponder app went off: A 68-year-old man had collapsed three blocks away. Fortunately, an ambulance pulled up shortly after Chan arrived, and the ER crew was able to revive the victim. But the incident was an eye-opener for the government chief information officer and deputy chief executive of Singapore’s Government Technology Agency. “This is more than just an app,” he says. “This is real.”

The wealthy, skyscraper-spiked city-state of 5.6 million is deploying an array of new technologies to become what it calls a Smart Nation. Sensors help homes become more energy-efficient, and an app uses data from transit riders to help city planners design better bus routes. Beyond day-to-day urban problems, Chan’s grander vision speaks to a world of digital loners.

Rather than pry people away from their phones, Singapore is using mobile devices as a tool. The 10,000 volunteers connected by myResponder can apply a defibrillator in the critical early seconds of a heart attack. CareGuide users take an elderly woman in the apartment down the hall for a walk or help her with small tasks. In the Kampong villages of his youth, Chan recalls, neighbors in Singapore’s last rural enclave were always around in times of need. Now that everyone knows their smartphone contacts better than their communities, Singapore is creating what Chan calls “digital kampongs” — one helping hand at a time.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Chan’s professional title.

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