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Inside Singapore's bid to achieve smart city status

Singapore has made becoming the world’s first smart city-state one of its key objectives in the next few years. Photo by Wiser.

Singapore has made becoming the world’s first smart city-state one of its key objectives in the next few years, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasising the goal in his annual National Day Rally in August.

However, Lee previously remarked before the rally that progress is still slow because Singapore is still lacking an integrated national sensor network, a national digital identity system and cashless payments in hawker centres and shops, and between people.

The Drum reached out to experts to ask what should Singapore do, in addition to Lee’s wishes, to truly become a smart nation, in terms of connecting things, mobility, water, city services, smart building and smart energy.

Mark Burton, digital marketing manager at technology group Schneider Electric, says cities need to become smart now because they are in competition to provide the best quality of life possible to their citizens and, as 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, the race is on to see which city will be the best.

These cities face the challenge of providing huge populations with basic resources such as clean water and safe food, he explains, whilst also ensuring overall sustainability goals are being met socially, economically and environmentally. “These ultra-modern cities must fulfil promises of universal access to cleaner energy, sufficient fresh water and people’s ability to travel from one point to another with as much ease as possible.”

Victoria Petrock, principal analyst at eMarketer defines Singapore as one of the ‘model’ cities in terms of its efforts to implement smart city initiatives and it has been aided by the fact that it is relatively small geographically, relatively affluent with a highly educated population, a good infrastructure and the government has a lot of central control over what's going on.

“The obstacles are the same as they would be for all smart cities,” she adds. “Getting the systems to work together, putting the right technology in place, ensuring that the systems are secure and stable, finding the right expertise and the right people to do the work, etc.”

Jacqueline Poh, chief executive at GovTech, the agency that the Singapore government set up to push the country towards becoming a smart nation, concurs with Burton and Petrock, and adds that like other cities, Singapore also has had to grapple with the internal challenges of ageing populations and increasing urban density.

Poh further explains that Singapore’s other strengths, like having a pool of talent that performs well in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) disciplines, a greater demand for infocomm-technology professionals and engineers and a vibrant innovation ecosystem with an expanding number of local and international start-ups, are helping drive results. She also added that an open data network with the private sector leveraging on government data through data.gov.sg to drive new services, is another reason why the country is in a good position to succeed in its quest to become a smart nation, in spite of the challenges highlighted by the prime minister.

“Fundamentally, being a smart nation is about Singapore taking full advantage of technology to create new jobs, new business opportunities, so as to make our economy more productive and competitive, make our lives more convenient and to make Singapore an outstanding city in which to live, work and play,” she says.

Burton praises Singapore’s attempts to merge technology into every aspect of life on the small island to improve the enjoyment and efficiency of key tasks people do on a day-to-day basis. He also highlights travel, healthcare, housing and data as some of the areas where the country has made the most progress.

“Singapore is transforming its bus stops with plans to include interactive maps, wi-fi connectivity, e-books and even a swing. As there are almost four million daily rides, catching the bus is the largest part of Singapore’s transport network,” explains Burton. “In some hospitals, Singapore has also begun trialing video conferencing for patients in non-emergency cases. The KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, one of the biggest and busiest in Singapore has begun to use this form of consultation with issues such as speech therapy, lactation consultation services and paediatric home care services.”

“In Europe we are likely to associate public houses with tower blocks, Singapore tells us a different story as 80% of its residents live in affordable houses maintained by the country’s Housing and Development Board. In this housing, we’re expecting to see a significant uplift in technologies such as smart thermometers, a new vacuum waste management system and efforts to use their own solar,” Burton continues, adding that the crucial organ of smart cities is data and with sensors in these apartments, the government is able to track the population’s energy consumption with much more accuracy, record their behaviours, ultimately allowing them to be more informed in the planning, design and maintenance of public housing estates.

GovTech’s Poh explains that because smart nation is a national effort that involves the entire government, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG) - comprising the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office and GovTech - was formed in May 2017 under the prime minister’s office to better coordinate interagency efforts and accelerate the development of Singapore becoming a smart nation.

She highlights five strategic national projects that the SNDGG is focused on, which will lay the foundation for pervasive adoption of digital and smart technologies throughout the economy and society in line with the prime minister’s wishes.

The first will be developing a ‘National Digital Identity’ to enable citizens and businesses to transact digitally in a convenient and secure manner; the second will be to develop an e-payment framework to allow everyone to make safe, fast and simple payments; the third will be building the ‘Smart Nation Sensor Platform’, an integrated nationwide sensor platform to accelerate the deployment of sensors and other IoT (Internet of Things) devices that will make Singapore more liveable and secure; the fourth will be leveraging data and digital technologies, including artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, to further enhance the public transport commute in Smart Urban Mobility; and finally ‘Moments of Life’, which bundles relevant government services, across different agencies, to the citizen at different moments of his or her life. “This reduces the need for citizens to transact with multiple government agencies, for a more seamless and convenient experience,” explains Poh.

The experts also agree that while cities like New York, London and Tokyo are on track to become a smart city, there is no one size fit all approach and Singapore has to forge its own path.

“Leading smart cities around the world have their own respective defining characteristics and we are definitely looking at areas that we can adapt to our Singapore context that Singapore is a city-state with a single layer of government,” says Poh. “This is larger than being a Smart City, and I think we are unique in the world as we are capable of pulling together national policy, industry, technology and people into a cohesive whole, and making things work.”

However, even though the Singapore government has identified what it needs to do to push the country to become a smart nation, there is a difference in opinions between experts when asked what future challenges will hinder Singapore’s progress.

Burton believes there is too much control from the government, like the formation of GovTech and SNDGG. “The BBC spoke to Harminder Singh, a senior lecturer in business information systems at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, who says the main issue with smart nation is that there may be too much government control over it right now for real innovation to take place.”

“There seems to be a need for a balance between creativity, innovation and government control, something that Singapore is still learning to master,” he continues. “Technology can always be improved, there is always more data out there to work from, and innovation and creativity is endless. Getting this balance right is taking time, so it’s hard to say when the nation can be fully crowned a smart nation.”

In contrast, Poh says digital inclusivity is a challenge for Singapore as it needs to ensure that all segments of society benefit and nobody gets left behind. “Be it through the strategic national projects, or the simple digital solutions that address day-to-day needs – such as paying bills, and other digital government services – the objective is to meet the needs of users across different segments,” she explains.

Whatever the future challenges are, a report by Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet Inc’s urban innovation organisation, explains that cities attempting to become smart should pay heed to Rio de Janeiro’s flawed attempt to become a smart city ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

The capital of Brazil won a “World Smart City Award” from the Smart City Expo World Congress in 2013 after building a operations centre and an integrated centre of command and control ahead of the competition to improve public services in regards to safety and disaster management.

While the operations centre implemented a critical early warning and evacuation system for Rio’s favelas by mapping areas at high risk of flood-related landslides, the report found that the smart initiatives failed to go ‘beyond high-tech marketing rhetoric and help real people living in the city’.

The report urged cities planning to go the smart route to improve on Rio’s attempts by focusing on improving the human experience, being inclusive and not exclusive, building initiatives that help the city evolve over time and bridge the urbanist-technologist divide.

It concluded that that smart cities technology cannot solve urban challenges by itself and initiatives should be ‘well-defined, transparent, and accessible to the population’. The report adds that these initiatives should also be ‘rooted in civic participation, complement sound planning ideals, accompanied by policies targeting government inefficiencies and social inequalities’.

Even though Singapore is uniquely different from Rio, the country would do well to keep in mind that smart technologies can increase problems as easily as it can address them in the process of trying to achieve Lee’s visions. Remembering Sidewalk Lab’s recommendations could be the catalyst for achieving smart nation status.

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