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20/10/2017 – Science & Technology / Smart City / Singapore / Innovation

King of the digital jungle

Singapore has always been unafraid to innovate its way to wealth. The tiny Asian Pacific city state ensured steady, export-led growth in its first few decades post-independence by relying heavily on electronics manufacturing and assembly, as well as its strong shipping and logistics clout. Yet the global financial crisis prompted the Lion City’s policymakers into a swift strategic rethink. In 2014, the government announced a new, technology-driven policy focus to ensure the city state remains one of the world’s top economies in terms of GDP per capita. As a result, Singapore is presently undergoing a huge, state-backed drive to become not just a Smart City, but a Smart Nation. Helena Haimes explores the details of this ambitious plan.


If any nation has laid the right foundations for unprecedented levels of technological integration, Singapore is undeniably one of the frontrunners.  The third most densely populated country in the world has consistently and enthusiastically embraced the digital age since its very dawn.  It’s routinely ranked as one of the most ‘connected’ countries globally in terms of international flows of trade, capital, people and data, and also boasts the world’s highest mobile penetration rate, which hovers at around 150 per cent.


Combine this tech-readiness with an exceptionally law abiding population whose level of trust in their government is the world’s fourth highest, and you have a promising formula for creating a truly all-encompassing Smart Nation.  From robots that provide physical and cognitive therapies for elderly stroke sufferers and household utility management systems controlled through mobile devices, to the sensor-based collection and analysis of public transport data intended to vastly improve Singapore’s crowded bus network, the country appears to be taking an unapologetically technocratic approach to implementing impressively cutting-edge solutions.


Yet Singapore’s Smart Nation innovations are emphatically citizen-led, as the initiative’s website makes clear: “‘Smartness’ is not a measure of how advanced or complex the technology being adopted is,” it tells us, “...but how well a society uses technology to solve its problems and address existential challenges.  Citizens are ultimately at the heart of our Smart Nation vision, not technology.” It’s more policy-led pragmatism than Silicon Valley style innovation for its own sake, meaning the risk of technology outpacing policy – an easy trap for Smart City initiatives to fall into – is minimised, while the possibilities for genuinely society-changing innovations are significantly expanded.  The whole country is fast becoming what the Singaporeans proudly call a “living laboratory”.


Smart move


Transport is one of the five key Smart Nation domains identified by the brains behind the Singaporean programme.  Singapore was one of the first nations to spearhead research into self-driving vehicle technologies at the nation’s leading Nanyang University and, more recently, to trial autonomous taxis on its streets.  Yet the country’s desire to make use of these innovations goes far beyond technological posturing and into the realm of tangible improvements for ordinary citizens.


“I think the technology for autonomous vehicles is not rocket science now,” Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-in-charge of Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative, recently remarked.  “There are many, many companies that can assemble the different components of the technology to enable autonomous vehicles, but I think one key challenge now is actually innovation in policy – insurance, legal responsibility, third party liability.  So, we don’t have to have invented the self-driving car, but we can be a wonderful place to prototype its use in the real world and to upscale it to the level of a city….It’s not really the self-driving car that turns me on from a public policy point of view, it’s the autonomous public transport vehicle – we’re talking about taxis, buses or minivans.  It has implications for logistics, transport, the way people will travel.”


Singapore also provides wireless connectivity on all its train platforms, a measure the Minister described as not only time saving, but also invaluable from a planning perspective.  “We also realised that providing this access also allows us to have heat maps that show how crowded or how dense a platform is because we know every phone that’s using that access point.  We found, hey, that’s also useful for planning, for management,” revealed Dr Balakrishnan.  Recent figures show a considerable impact on bus crowdedness and wait times, which have been reduced by 90 per cent and from three to five minutes, respectively. 


Singapore does have a key advantage as it races to become a model of Smart Nationhood – it’s been pioneering this combination of technology and public policy for years.  An updated version of the city state’s existing electronic road toll collection system that was a world first in 1998, due to be introduced in 2020, will bring in a requirement for all vehicles to be fitted with a government-mandated GPS.  The system will mean the authorities can monitor where all cars are at a particular time, providing them with an extraordinary amount of data that’s prime for analysis, from traffic volume to average speeds, meaning road planners will be extraordinarily armed to design the most efficient layouts possible.


Health and home


Beyond road congestion, Singapore is facing other challenges that are all too familiar to thriving Asian economies – an ageing population (along with cultural pressures for families to take care of their own) and high healthcare costs.  “The key challenges in healthcare are making care safer, cheaper, and more accessible,” commented Dr Balakrishnan.  “And the most accessible and effective place to deliver healthcare is actually not in a hospital, it’s in a home.  We should be able to monitor our own blood pressure, blood sugar, our own vital statistics, in real time, trended over time, be able to consult doctors, be able to adjust medication dosages accordingly.”


These are far from empty words.  The government is backing an impressive number of what are known as Tele-Health initiatives that they hope will vastly improve quality of life for care-givers and patients alike.  In 2016, the country’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) extended a six-month trial of a groundbreaking Elderly Monitoring System.  The technology uses smart sensors installed in a person’s home to monitor their daily activities and alert caregivers when anything untoward is detected, as well as providing wireless panic buttons to enable the user to quickly alert their loved ones at moments of distress.  The trial took place on the Yuhua Estate, and was generally well received, fulfilling one of its main aims – to allow caregivers more freedom to be away from home.  Launched in April 2017, the Smart Health Video Consultation for Healthcare is one of three Tele-Health programmes that aims to move aspects of care from hospital to home.  The platform has been introduced for a selected number of services, including certain paediatric consultations and post-stroke care, through some of Singapore’s largest hospitals.


While it might seem odd to some for a government to be involved in the provision of home-based, Internet of Things technologies, the proposition makes perfect sense in Singapore’s case.  Approximately 80 per cent of the country’s 5.6 million people live in social housing, meaning it’s able to provide a huge test bed for manufacturers to trial smart home solutions.  A new estate built by the Housing and Development Board, for instance, will be the first to offer comprehensively Smart flats, fully fitted with all the necessary infrastructure to support an array of Smart Home technologies.  


The programme’s ambitions in this arena go beyond individual homes, too.  The Singaporean government wants to use smart monitoring technologies to vastly improve its planning and environmental approaches.  A trial project in the Punggol Town area of the city state is enabling architects, planners and engineers to use Smart planning tools and the resulting data to analyse such variables as wind flow, solar irradiance and shade levels to identify the best possible sites for new apartment complexes.


Boosting business


Unsurprisingly, given Singapore’s status as a global commerce and finance hub, the Smart Nation initiative also explicitly backs technologies that promise to revolutionise the way business is done.  The Monetary Authority of Singapore, for example, is in the process of setting up a Smart Financial Centre to provide a base for Fintech (financial technology) solutions and innovations aimed at supporting the city state’s strong financial services sector.  It will allow banks and other institutions to use financial technologies experimentally, in a ‘safe’ environment. 


A Fintech Innovation Lab and Innovation Village, LATTICE80, are also key parts of this drive to make Singapore a global Fintech hub.  Crucially, the government is taking what it describes as “a responsive and forward-looking regulatory” (read: business and experimentation-friendly) approach that it labels a “regulatory sandbox”, while also including those innovations in their broader ‘open data’ policy, which they claim encourages an open and exploratory environment that’s key to developing successful Fintech solutions.


Virtual Singapore


While all the aforementioned initiatives clearly have massive potential to kickstart an unprecedentedly integrated approach to integrating Smart technologies in both public and private spheres, there is one concern that rears its head repeatedly: privacy.  The Singaporean government’s ability to collect vast amounts of data is one of the scheme’s biggest advantages, but is also potentially its Achille’s heel.  The enormous haul of data from all of these Smart Nation initiatives (and many more besides) is fed into a huge platform called Virtual Singapore – a scale model of the island built to exacting detail, including precise dimensions of every building and their layouts.  What really sets it apart, though, is the sensor data that it’s able to access and include.  The flow of water, the movement of electricity and waste, the exact movements of every vehicle, air quality measurements, data from each of the state’s security cameras, noise levels, crowd density… all this data (and soon more) will be open to anyone who can prove they need it.  If you’re a developer, for example, you could insert your plans for a new complex into the platform, and it will tell you how telecommunications would be impacted, how local plantlife might be affected and what the transit implications would be.  The platform could also warn healthcare providers about potential spreads of disease – still a very real danger in a densely populated and tropical albeit developed country.


Blueprint for urban advancement


Some commentators have expressed concerns about a government holding such detailed and comprehensive data on its population, but Singaporean citizens and businesspeople themselves – with their exceptional level of faith in their governing bodies – are apparently far less concerned.  They seem to recognise the unique benefits of an initiative that encourages co-operation between government, the business world and private citizens, and that open data is key to achieving boons for all concerned.


“I’m a fan of open data, open standards and open platforms.  But the flip side of that coin is that all that won’t work unless you have security,” Dr Balakrishnan acknowledged.  “My nightmare is a major security breach, loss of privacy, identity theft, large-scale financial losses, because systems were not secure.” Yet he’s confident that the government is putting enough regulation in place – by engaging independent security consultants to conduct regular audits, for instance – to make sure the worst cannot happen.


While its government is clearly proud to be leading the way, the ever outward-looking Singaporeans have expressed a sincere hope that other countries will follow their example.  “I don’t believe Smart Cities can exist in isolation,” explained Dr Balakrishnan.  “The way I view it, we have to be part of a global network of nodes where interesting things are being dreamed up, created, invented, tested, prototyped, rolled out, modified...  For Singapore, because we are so small, we never believed that we could take an isolationist approach, so we’re looking to connect with as many people, as many nodes and as many Smart Cities as possible.”

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