A CIF Journey: A Project Promoter’s Perspective

The Cities Investment Facility (CIF) offers a host of opportunities for project owners to take their projects to the next level and unlock their full potential. Think City has been an active part of the CIF’s pipeline process, both as a project promoter together with the Penang State Government, and now as the Cities Investment Portal manager. We share our first-hand experience in how the CIF has played an integral part in the creation and promotion of the Penang Bay project, which was pitched at the World Urban Forum 10 (WUF10) in Abu Dhabi. It serves as a case study to demonstrate the value of the CIF in shaping the development of a catalytic, SDG-aligned new economic zone in northern Malaysia.

Over the past five decades, rural to urban migration and industrialisation have resulted in a major uplift in the wellbeing and income levels of Malaysian households. As one of the most developed economies in Southeast Asia, Malaysia has advanced services and manufacturing sectors and an urbanisation rate of over 76%. However, the nation’s cities still suffer the growing pains of rapid growth including urban sprawl, inequality and environmental issues. In parallel, the economy is exposed to regional competition particularly in manufacturing as it seeks to transition out of lower-skilled mass production, to higher tech and higher-skilled activities. Recognising these issues, governments at all levels are seeking to build urban resilience by embracing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a key driver for future growth.

Penang is a state in northern Peninsular Malaysia with a population of 1.8 million that is roughly divided equally between Penang Island and the mainland. The state’s stellar growth and transformation since the 1970s mirrors the national experience. Its economy is underpinned by the twin engines of tourism and high-tech manufacturing. However, Penang has reached atipping point, with changing global technological needs, ageing port infrastructure, sprawl, and industrial land constraints with firms often dispersed across several sites. Working with the Penang state government we conceived a plan to create a new economic zone built on the renewal of the state’s ‘natural urban core’ and disused waterfronts.

Tagged as Penang Bay, the programme comprises 30 kilometres of waterfront renewal, including creating public coastal parklands, reimagining heritage assets, developing an innovation hub, reconfiguring water-based transport, rehabilitating a landfill site and regenerating 1970s-era industrial parks. Combined, they represent a development opportunity of over 3000 acres. However, having conceived the idea, we needed support to package the opportunities and test its viability with investors and other technical specialists.

In 2019 UN-Habitat put out a call for projects to be featured at WUF10 with the opportunity to pitch to investors and link to specialists within the CIF ecosystem. As one of nine projects selected globally, we went through a process with UN-Habitat and Global Development Incubator to refine our proposal and pitch to investors. Follow-up sessions at WUF10 with a range of investors validated the project’s potential. We also announced an international competition to crowd-in fresh community ideas and socialise our project with the public.

Although Covid-19 posed some disruption, we successfully launched the Penang Bay International Ideas Competition in August 2020. Open to all, it called for project ideas that would help Penang Bay accelerate the State’s achievement of the SDGs. It attracted 79 submissions from 20 countries which were assessed by an international jury of local officials, leading experts, and UN-Habitat. Many of the ideas were centered around the environment, social inclusivity, innovation, and mobility.

The competition’s accomplishments motivated us to expand our project into UN-Habitat’s SDG Cities Programme, of which the CIF is a central component. Penang Bay aims to become the first city to achieve SDG City certification and serve as a case study for other cities. We are taking several other steps to push our project further downstream and hope to announce investable packages by WUF11. This includes preparing a strategic master plan and launching the George Town Creative and Digital District as the centrepiece of Penang Bay. As a pilot, we have implemented an innovation hub in the heart of the capital city of George Town with key tenants, such as Facebook, TS Cloud a Google Suite Service Provider, and University of Science Malaysia, which we hope will spur growth in the city’s cultural, creative, and digital economy.

Our organisation’s involvement in the CIF over the past two years has not only strengthened our Penang Bay project, but also offered us a global stage to develop new networks, build our citymaking knowledge, and gain new perspectives. As we progress our project in the CIF, we continue to look for its support to realise our project and accelerate Penang’s achievement of the SDGs. Based on our experience, we encourage other cities to join the CIF and benefit from the tools, expertise and opportunities for finance it provides.

For more information, visit citiesinvestmentfacility.org