ASEAN Urban Systems

Understanding Nuances to Address Complexities

Is the ASEAN development misunderstood? MORROW Intelligence (MI)'s research explores the complexities and opportunities within urban systems across ASEAN cities to provide a more bespoke and appropriate lens.

ASEAN is one of the most densely populated regions in the world
ASEAN is also socially diverse – more than 1,000 languages are spoken across the ten member states

ASEAN is Headed for a Liveable and Vibrant Future

Established in 1967, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional trade bloc that includes ten Southeast Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia. 

Half of ASEAN people already live in urban areas and a futher 70 million people are expected to live in the region's urban areas by 2025

By 2030, the region is expected to become the 4th largest single market in the world

By the year 2040, urban regions in Southeast Asia account for 60% of the world's total population

In the next 30 years, the region could see the rise of over 200 small secondary cities

 ASEAN’s real GDP growth bounces back higher compared to world numbers

Source: IMF (Statistics from October 2023 to 2028 are projected)

A key driver of ASEAN’s economic resiliency and growth is its growing and youthful labour force. ASEAN has the world’s third-largest labour force, behind China and India, and the region’s economic growth is projected to continue outpacing global GDP growth over the next two decades. 

As seventy million people are expected to migrate from rural areas into ASEAN cities by 2025, it is imperative that ASEAN leaders understand the nuances, trade-offs, and complexities of how their urban systems will be tested and pushed to their limits.

Navigating Complex Urban Systems

While urbanization continues to drive growth in ASEAN, unmitigated development can result in challenges such as a rise in congestion, decreased access to municipal services and more people living in informal settlements.

A city consists of many interconnected systems (e.g. economic, social, urban, governance) that can be broken down into sub-systems (e.g. housing, transport). Each sub-system serves its own unique function, but also relies on the resilience and capacity of other sub-systems to remain viable. This leads to complex urban challenges.

The systems of the city interact and support its urban planning and development towards liveability

For example, the systems approach to tackling housing challenges must not only include the provision of affordable housing but also resident access to amenities and economic opportunities. 

However, not all ASEAN cities are the same and face different urban development pathways.

Preparing for ASEAN’s Future Requires a Deeper Appreciation of Its Differences


ASEAN is culturally diverse, comprising hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, each with their own languages, customs, and traditions.


ASEAN is geographically diverse – its landscape consists of archipelagos and continental land masses with low plains and mountainous terrain.


ASEAN is politically diverse – with member states adopting a wide range of political systems.


ASEAN is also economically diverse, with all ten member states at varying stages of economic development.

This means ASEAN cities differ across socio-economic attributes from one another, let alone the rest of the world. Therefore, comparing ASEAN cities against globally defined benchmarks and expecting commensurate results is not compatible.

GDP per capita and socio-economic development vary greatly across ASEAN. 

Urban and rural areas in ASEAN have vastly differing attributes – substituting country-level data to infer city-level impacts, or vice-versa will skew comparisons.

Figures are extracted from the latest figures on official government websites and censuses.

ASEAN’s diversity reflects a region that does not always conform to universal concepts of liveability. Therefore, developing meaningful interventions to improve cities requires a deeper look at the interconnectedness of urban systems.

Our Approach to Understanding ASEAN

MI adopts a systems-of-systems approach to appraising and tackling urban complexities. This approach measures the interconnections of urban systems to develop a modelling of the causes and effects of urban challenges against potential outcomes of policy interventions. 

MI has identified three distinctive lenses that are bespoke and crucial to understanding and contextualizing ASEAN’s urban systems:


Foreign Investment Boom

 While foreign investment such as the Belt and Road Initiative offers substantial benefits, it is essential for ASEAN countries to ensure that it aligns with national development goals and benefits local businesses and communities


Growing share of the working-age population presents opportunities for economic development but also results in structural differences compared to the West

Growth of Secondary Cities

A lack of polycentricity has caused chronic pressures in primary cities; secondary ones offer development potential and new economic opportunities for the burgeoning middle class

These lenses form the baseline for projecting how urban systems evolve. MI’s research takes the additional step to quantitatively and qualitatively capture the ASEAN nuances embedded within and the tensions at play.


Urban Insights Series — Future of ASEAN

MORROW Intelligence remains committed to shedding light on the evolving urban landscape of ASEAN cities. As part of our ongoing dedication to this vital area of research, we are thrilled to announce that the first installment in a series of reports, focusing on housing affordability and accessibility within ASEAN urban systems, will be released in the near future. Stay tuned for our upcoming reports, as we continue to explore the intricate interplay of macro and micro trends, providing valuable insights for a sustainable and prosperous urban future in the ASEAN region.

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