What smart cities can learn from Singapore’s Smart Nation

A Sidewalk Talk with Jacqueline Poh, managing director of the Infocomm Development Authority

By Eric Jaffe

View of Singapore at sunset

Smart Nation Singapore

The smart city movement has had its up and downs. Many failures trace back to a disconnect between the companies that build new technologies and the officials who manage cities. Others occurred because the parties involved treated the city too much like a machine whose only task was to become more efficient, without stopping to think about whether or not that efficiency mattered to the everyday lives of people.

Singapore has had more success than most places when it comes to integrating technology into urban life. Recently the city-state pushed itself to the next level of urbanity in the digital age with the Smart Nation initiative. The hope is that ubiquitous connectivity and an expansive data infrastructure can help a wide range of government agencies deliver better services to citizens and businesses.

"We wanted to go a bit beyond the idea of the city as a machine --- of 'smart' being applied to the city alone," says Jacqueline Poh, managing director of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, which is leading the initiative.

Poh says IDA and Singapore officials are in the process of establishing a new government agency tasked with fulfilling the Smart Nation ambition, appropriately named the Government Technology Agency. "We would be the first government technology agency in the world," she says. In advance of the agency's expected start date this fall, Sidewalk Talk asked Poh about just what creating a Smart Nation really means.

Let's start with the word "smart." Smart means a lot of things to a lot of people. What does smart mean for Singapore?

For Singapore, the essence of our Smart Nation vision was always that it was focused on the people. The impetus was that, if we were able to do so successfully, and to really make services seamless, and to use data in a very pervasive way to deliver better services for businesses and citizens, that would really have achieved a lot of smart things.

So the idea was to bring together different agencies to see: If we wanted to be a citizen-centric, business-centric, smart city, what really are the applications that would make sense? That would best define and improve the lives of our citizens and businesses? And then, working backwards, what are the kinds of technologies, what are the kinds of data that need to be collected and shared, and then made into tools to be able to enable that experience?

So to us Smart Nation is about the experiences that people live out in their everyday lives.

You're talking about the tools that can enable these experiences. Can you give me an example of some from the Smart Nation program?

I can give you an example of one of the applications we've developed in the last year or so. It's had a very good reception. It's called myResponder. It's an app that crowd-sources life-saving. We did this together with the Singapore Civil Defense Force. It really is a mobile app that all the individuals who are trained in CPR and the operation of an AED [automated external defibrillator] can sign into. And anyone in a 100-meter radius of a person who collapses and needs emergency first-responder service, they'll be called upon. Using this we've got 400 cases a month now. It's been extraordinary in terms of the idea of crowd-sourcing a life-saving experience through technology.

We are an aging population in Singapore. The number of people who have emergency experiences --- collapsing due to heart attacks and so on --- has actually exponentially increased in the last two years. That's putting a huge strain on emergency first responders. If they arrive using the usual time they take to get to a person in distress, the percentage of survival is very low. But it goes up considerably if somebody gets to them a lot faster and is able to deliver emergency services.

We're also looking at other ways we can improve the daily living experiences of individuals. Singapore is a place where data is collected in quite an extensive way for our transportation network. The buses are tracked. The taxis are tracked. The trains are tracked. So there's already a lot of sensors in the transportation network. Based on that, we were thinking, what would happen if we could crowd-source bus routes?

So we created an app called Beeline that would actually crowd-source from the public the routes that make the most sense to them that may not exist today. In Singapore, many of the bus routes have had the same route with the same number for many, many years. Those bus routes that have existed for a long time might not be so relevant. What Beeline does is crowd-sources what commuters want as a bus route, then it provides that service. It crowd-sources that experience then provides an app that allows commuters to hop on that bus at the spot they wanted to hop on, and for that to be a new bus route.

A lot of smart city movements struggled to take hold. Maybe they promised too much, but they didn't really deliver those benefits. What do you think were the big barriers they couldn't overcome?

I've seen many smart city deployments that in fact did not quite deliver as much as they had promised. I think the provenance of where the smart city idea comes from is very important.

What I mean is this: Smart cities can be driven through universities and academia. It's a great idea for university departments to deal with urban solutions. They start doing a number of pilots, within university grounds, on how it can work better. But it never really leaves academia. It doesn't catch onto the wider environment. They don't have a commercialization plan, nor a city partner.

Then there are a group of smart cities that have a problem to solve, and there's been maybe large technology vendors that have come into the space and promised to help solve those problems for them using their proprietary technology. They come in and there's a lot of marketing. They build command-and-control centers, or they build sensor networks. The city departments need to fully buy into that technology so they change their processes to accommodate the technology of that provider, but along the way they face difficulties because those providers tend to be pretty exclusive. The standards are not interoperable. They can't work with other technologies the city departments may have bought for other things. So then they get stuck. And it doesn't proceed beyond, say, a memorandum of understanding or a trial in a small area.

There's a third type, where the city mayor is very actively pushing it. This one has the most promise, by the way. Ultimately a smart city is, at the city level, something that has to be led by city departments and authorities. An energetic mayor may be able to execute a large range of quick wins. It also requires the city to go beyond what could be a very nice design or marketing plan for how it could look into actual execution. ... [But] the constraints are felt at the regulatory level with other authorities, and then again at the budgetary level.

That's my analysis of why some of these deployments have not been as successful as promised, and it's a reason why we think Singapore is in a slightly better position to make this happen than other places.

You mentioned the integration of a corporate technology vision and the city. That's something we've been talking about a lot --- the fact that often the companies who create the technology don't have a dialogue with the people who run cities. How do you go about promoting that conversation?

I think there needs to be a lot more dialogue between the tech companies and not just the city administrators but also with citizens. Very often I find that tech companies don't talk enough to the beneficiaries of the technology, in order to really understand what their pain points are and to validate whether what they think is the solution makes any difference to the user at all. A lot of the time I think the conversation needs to revolve around the "so what" question. If I were to do this, it would look really nifty. But so what? What is the thing that your citizens need more than anything else?

I'll give you an example. Within Singapore we have a Smart Urban Habitat initiative. We've put sensors into homes and residential areas --- even public housing, we're planning to make them smart homes. We've actually started to sell those smart homes since last year. The question we had to ask ourselves is: What is it a resident would pay for? What would they think makes sense on a household balance sheet, as opposed to a municipal balance sheet or a corporate balance sheet? Companies will pay for awesome smart features in their offices. Maybe cities will pay for awesome smart features in their city. But a home, a household, is very circumspect about how much they'd pay for certain technologies to make a difference in their lives.

In these investigations, and actually rolling it out to real households, we found out, for example, that a household's willingness to pay for home energy management was quite low. But their willingness to pay for something like tele-health, or something like smart elderly monitoring, was slightly higher. It enables companies then to say we'll bundle services in a different way. We won't go great guns blazing on some of these technologies that don't necessarily make people feel that much of a difference to their lives.

That kind of dialogue, that kind of understanding of the user, is going to be very important for companies and for governments to work together. The city and the company need to both go and investigate what the user wants.

When you talk about how a smart city could best operate, with sensors being everywhere, even in the home, there's an element of slight invasiveness. How much of a challenge or barrier is privacy to your programs?

As companies like Google and Uber have found, the trade-off is very important. We found that citizens are actually willing to give up quite a bit of privacy, completely depending on how useful they find the application. If they find a user-case extremely compelling, and they're getting something useful in return, they'll make the decision themselves on that trade-off. One of the things we are working on is to make quite clear to citizens what the benefits would be to them for Smart Nation applications so they can make that trade-off.

We've done some research on this. Citizens are generally more amenable to trading off privacy for (a) utility ... and (b) predictability. ... The third one is transparency. Citizens will have a different approach to privacy if the way in which data is used is more transparent to them. That's linked to the point about predictability as well. You get a utility. The transaction is predictable. And the way the information is used is transparent.

What are the measures of success for Smart Nation?

I think for Smart Nation, there is a sense in which we'll never get there. If you think about how technology keeps moving on, and expectations of users keep moving on, there is a sense that it is a journey really without an end. That doesn't make it not worth embarking on. It's still worth embarking on even if it doesn't quite have an end.

I think we're also looking for metrics we can actually push out in terms of citizen satisfaction with government services enabled through digital means. These are metrics we are looking to deploy. We need to know that our digital government experiences are satisfactory. Increasingly, we're seeking that feedback within the app itself, or within the digital experience itself we see that feedback.

If you had any advice on how to metricize a smart city, how you know you'd get there, we would really be open to inputs we could get. We think it's not an easy question.

What do you see Singapore looking like in a decade, two decades, if the Smart Nation initiative works out as planned?

Oh, my. I have no idea. Two decades is way too far for us to imagine. It will be a very different world. If you think back two decades---now it's 2016; in 1996, what was life like? No mobile phones. No smartphones. I remember being in the 1990s, and if you had to do a project you had to go to the library and find a book and photocopy it. I think computing power, revolutions in information-technology, have really made a huge difference so far in what has been achievable.

I think there's going to be a lot of developments in the realm of artificial intelligence that are going to change a lot of the way cities are run or citizens interact with each other. Exactly how it's going to do that depends on what's acceptable to society. It'll be very interesting to see how that plays out.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.