01 Nov 2016

Everyone's a technologist on some level, declared Ms Toni Townes-Whitley, Corporate Vice-President of Microsoft's Worldwide Public Sectoras she brought first-hand knowledge of how technology is transforming the way we live, work and solve global problems. She was joined by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Social and Family Services, who shared how Singapore is catching this wave and preparing for the future, at an LKYSPP panel discussion entitled A Cloud for Global Good: Technology as a Vital Resource for Solving the World's Problems. The panel, which took place on 4th October 2016, was chaired by Dr Parag Khanna, a Senior Research Fellow at LKYSPP.

What has driven this empowerment of ordinary people and organizations is the creation of a vast engine' of cloud servers run by corporations like Microsoft, Google, Apple and many others. Using the fuel' of raw data, researchers can analyse it and find patterns and trends with real-world applications. Used well, they are tools that help solve great problemsespecially those outlined by the United Nations in its fight against poverty, inequality and many others. For instance, in third-world communities, local Internet providers are given the means to use TV white spacethe unused bandwidth between TV channelsto deliver broadband access to millions, joining schools, community centres, hospitals and the police online for the first time, and providing telemedicine to aid in disaster relief. Other applications Townes-Whitley shared included educating children with special needs in the United States, and pioneering work on Internet searches that could extend the lives of cancer patients.

A Future-Ready Population

However, all the past industrial revolutions have led to some people losing their jobs as their work became redundant, and cloud-based solutions must manage this shift to remain relevant for the global good. Too many people remain digitally-illiterate, and technology drivers like Microsoft must ensure that their work is purposeful, responsible and inclusive. Minister Tan then updated the audience on Singapore's new initiatives to share information and harness new technology in the public sector, and outlined the consequences for Singapore on a policy level. Singapore is already implementing the opportunities created by the fourth industrial revolution. For instance, the Monetary Authority of Singapore is creating a controlled data-scape' where stock trades and other financial transactions can be safely made without fear of a market crash, so that failure comes with fewer consequences and traders can focus on learning from it. And as its population ages, there will be a growing demand for solutions to the problems caused by dementia and other age-related conditions. Wearable location trackers that can instantly broadcast a patient's whereabouts are being tested, reducing the stress of caring for them. How can Singapore allocate resources and pass the right laws to ensure that its people are ready for the future? It can take some time for the legal system to catch up and properly regulate its use, so that its benefits can be enjoyed and the costs are well-controlled.

Can vs Should

Minister Tan used the example of a person who is behind on his utility bills. The Government can certainly identify repeated failure to make payment as a warning sign to activate social services and help this personbut should it, given that the person has a right to privacy under the Personal Data Protection Act? A mindset and cultural shift is needed, one that pushes boundaries, embraces failure and manages the risk. Singapore's initiatives include:

  • A new technology start-up incubation facility at one-north run by the Infocomm Development Authority's investment arm, called BASHshort for Build Amazing Start-ups Here. (They are very good with acronyms, said Minister Tan, to laughs from the audience.)
  • SkillsFuture, a subsidy that reduces the cost of training courses so that workers stay relevant.
  • Encouraging the training and employment of engineers, so that the technology sector becomes as attractive as other fields.

Singapore's experiences reflect a wider global issue faced by governments around the world. How they enact policy, execute their plans and manage the consequences will determine the way billions of people live, well into the future. It is not just about what is technologically possible, but what laws need to exist to strike the right balance between personal freedom and government regulation. When those systems are in place, run by people empowered to serve in more and better waysthen in the words of Townes-Whitley, the sky's the limit.

This article is written as an event coveragepiece for the A Cloud for Global Good: Technology As a Vital Resource for Solving the World's Problemsdialogue session which took place at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on 4 October2016. The full dialogue session on A Cloud for Global Good: Technology As a Vital Resource for Solving the World's Problems can be viewed here.