How to be smart

Despite the government’s moves and pledges in recent years, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in expediting the digital development of Macau and transforming the territory into a smart city – from better formulation of a blueprint, infrastructure updates, to cultivation of local talents and stakeholders. 

Technology has been fully integrated in our daily life, particularly in the past two years in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. We can settle our transactions with e-wallets now, make online applications at different public entities, check the real-time location of buses across the territory via mobile app, etc.  These all have been partially facilitated by the government’s push to transform Macau into a smart city — but observers believe much more should be done to fulfil this “smart” vision.

In the city’s second five-year plan, covering the 2021-2025 period and published in December, the government aims to employ smart technologies (self-monitoring, analysis, and reporting technologies) in numerous areas to ‘enhance its governance and service level’, including government affairs, municipal affairs, healthcare, education, elderly care, culture, tourism and transportation. The authorities would also enhance the application of data, as well as the sharing and interconnection of data between the authorities and the community, in a bid to ‘accelerate the digital development of Macau’, the official document states, adding more public bodies would be encouraged to publicise their data that the community could “explore the value”.

And it’s not the first time the authorities have made such a pledge. The “smart city” ambition of Macau was first stated in the first five-year plan for the 2016-2020 period, resulting in the “smart city” partnership framework agreement between the Macau government and Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd in 2017. The pact was divided into two phases. The first stage, between 2017 and June 2019, addressed the construction of a local cloud computing data centre and helped the authorities to launch projects of big data services to accelerate the city’s development in areas of tourism, transportation management, healthcare service, urban management and training of information technology (IT) professionals. The second phase, between July 2019 and June 2021, was supposed to continue optimising the IT infrastructure in the city and to launch projects in the fields of environmental protection, customs clearance procedure, and economic forecast. 

Albeit, now that we observe the conclusion of the four-year partnership, both parties have so far provided little detail on the results of their collaboration. The authorities have only indicated the Covid-19 pandemic — which started in early 2020 — imposed challenges on the execution of the agreement, and some of the content in the pact had to be adjusted. Both sides were committed to gradually promoting smart city development here “to the greatest extent possible”, the administration said. According to local media reports, at least MOP440 million (US$55 million) were spent in this pact, with most of the capital expenditure focusing on the development of infrastructure. 

With the help of Alibaba, the administration has completed the construction of a cloud computing data centre here, as well as ameliorated the common access to public services for the public with a single online user account. The Macao Government Tourism Office (MGTO) has also initiated three projects, including “Tourism information interchange platform”, “Application for visitor insights” and “Smart application for visitor flows” leveraging the technologies offered by Alibaba. 

Alfred Wong Seng Fat, president of the Smart City Alliance Association of Macau, says the authorities should publicise a detailed report that assesses the implementation of the pact in the past four years as soon as possible. “The partnership did yield some outcomes but a lot more has to be done,” the academic says.

“The smart city development of Macau still lags behind other places in the region despite the recent improvements,” says Alfred Wong, president of the Smart City Alliance Association of Macau

No coordination

“The smart city development of Macau still lags behind other places in the region despite the recent improvements,” he adds, as one of the reasons for the slow progress could be due to the lack of a government department in charge of this specific matter. 

It is known that the office of the chief executive was tasked to coordinate with different public bodies to communicate with Alibaba for the smart city partnership in the administration led by former chief executive Fernando Chui Sai On, via the so-called Smart City Development Group under the Committee for the World Centre of Tourism and Leisure chaired by the CE. The Group was composed by representatives from different departments and led by the officials at the CE office. Nonetheless, the CE office is said to be not continuing this coordinating function after Ho Iat Seng assumed the position of the head of the government in December 2019, leaving each public body to follow up with the technology giant on their own projects.

“The government should task an existing department or create a new unit specifically dedicated to the smart city development of Macau,” Mr. Wong proposes. “The department should be able to directly report to the chief executive so that it will be smoother for the department to access information and coordinate with different public bodies under the scope of different government secretaries.”

To further expedite smart city development, the academic suggests the government should enhance the education of the matter among the public to reduce their concerns about data privacy, because the city has strict compliance with regulations about data usage and privacy. Using the bus rider real name registration scheme as an example, he says part of the community were against this in the beginning in worries of their personal data being used and abused in other fields, but they did not know clearly about the rigid requirements in regards to the access and usage of such data. 

“Besides the legal infrastructure, it is also of paramount importance for the authorities to improve the telecommunications infrastructure… to support the ‘smart +’ development in numerous fields,” says legislator Ella Lei

IT and legal infrastructure

Meanwhile, legislator Ella Lei Cheng I underscores the significance of the advancement in legal infrastructure. For instance, the law on electronic governance enforced in 2020 provides guidelines and basis for public bodies to handle official communications and processing documents by electronic means, to offer the electronic version of some types of documents to the public instead of the paper version, and others. 

“Besides the legal infrastructure, it is also of paramount importance for the authorities to improve the telecommunications infrastructure — namely, the quality of telecommunications service like fees and security, — to support the ‘smart +’ development in numerous fields,” the lawmaker adds. For example, the issuance of 5G licenses has faced delays for years, and the government has only pledged to issue licenses this year after failing to do so last year.

Another legislator Ngan Iek Hang also questions the issuance progress of 5G licenses that might delay the city’s development. “The development of a smart city requires a series of IT infrastructure and the capacity to handle a gigantic amount of data. The 5G network, which is known for its high speed and multi-connectivity, is a key to such development,” he illustrates, also enquiring about the progress of the legislation of telecommunications law that the government has said will pave the way for the 5G licensing process.

Concerning the government’s vision of incorporating smart technology in various areas, the lawmaker says an overall framework and blueprint is needed. “The idea of smart city development dispersed in multiple areas now from healthcare and elderly care to governance and municipal affairs to tourism and culture. It’s challenging for the public to get a grasp of the idea at one go,” he says. 

A public consultation exercise on the smart city development strategies and key areas of development in Macau was undertaken in 2018, but the administration has not yet publicised the final version of the document. 

“The idea of smart city development disperse in multiple areas now from healthcare and elderly care to governance and municipal affairs to tourism and culture. It’s challenging for the public to get grasp of the idea at one go,” lawmaker Ngan Iek Hang indicates


From the perspective of Mr. Lei, talent cultivation is also crucial to smart city development. “It’s not simply about importing professionals from elsewhere to satiate the demand, but the government should think about how these imported professionals could help train locals that will expedite the development in related fields,” she says. “Other jurisdictions like Hong Kong have policies and measures in detail in cultivating talents in IT and innovative fields, but the resources the Macau authorities have input in this aspect are still not enough.”

In a session at the Legislative Assembly by the end of last year, Secretary for Administration and Justice Andre Cheong Weng Chon confirmed the authorities would continue to work with Alibaba in facilitating smart city development. Divulging little detail, the official noted that the partnership would particularly strengthen personnel training on cloud computing and network security, in which Alibaba would send instructors to teach civil servants, who would also be dispatched to Alibaba to have first-hand learning experience.

“This training should also be provided to the mid-to-high-level officials in the administration, who I think might not have the best idea of what a smart city is about,” says Mr Wong of the Smart City Alliance Association of Macau. 

Besides working with Alibaba, the academic adds the administration should also work with local companies in the sector. “One of the reasons for smart city development is to expedite the industrial diversifications in Macau. Thus, the authorities should work with local companies in the segment and help them develop,” he concludes.