03 Mar 2017
Is Singapore ’smart’ enough, and will technology take it there?

Technology will inevitably play a momentous role with respect to governance, especially in advanced economies; and the way in which it is used will outline the contours of future administrative apparatuses.

Technological innovations already have a far greater impact on governments than private corporations or individuals. For a city-state like Singapore that aspires to become the world's first Smart Nation by 2025, information technology isn't just a contemporary tool, but also an indispensable one to develop smart' public policies.

A panel of experts from academia, government, business and civil society discussed the future impact of technology on Singapore at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) on 16th February. As the country constantly strives to harness the best of information and communications technology to serve its citizens, the discussion revolved around Singapore's capacity to evolve as a Smart Nation, while keeping abreast of changing socio-dynamics in an environment of proliferating technology.

Becoming a Smart Nation: key roles to adopt

Tan Kok Yam, Deputy Secretary, Strategy Group & Head, Smart Nation Programme Office Prime Minister's Office, initiated the discussion by elucidating the concept of being smart'. He said that Singapore as a city needs to fulfil the following three key roles to ensure its evolution as a Smart Nation.

What smart city is:

  1. City as an enabler of innovation: Developing and facilitating platforms that support innovation and research in future avenues of collaboration such as open data platforms and e-transaction services, is crucial for sustainable improvisation and research.
  2. City as a user of smart technology: Incorporating technology into everyday life by optimising sectors such as healthcare, transportation systems, and smart grids, is a stepping stone that will ease the transformation towards a Smart Nation.
  3. City as an exporter of ideas: Knowledge sharing is a key aspect and a key responsibility. Sharing original, creative and relevant ideas that translate into synergies with other regions helps ensure steady transfer of technology, talent and ideas.

Tan also explained that labelling a city smart' leads to some conjectures that may not necessarily be reflective of how a smart city is characterised. He outlined the particular characteristics of a smart city.

What smart city is not:

  1. Being smart' doesn't mean that planning and execution will be limited to a specific group of people. While computer geeks, developers or programmers are the key influencers, the role of subject specialists in the area of governance, such as policy makers, journalists and lawyers, will be more pronounced and relevant than ever, in order to achieve the full utility of digital technology through proper discourse.
  2. It's definitely not a portfolio of government projects. Although there are things that government can provide, such as infrastructure and regulations, at its core, government needs to collaborate with businesses for innovation in design, development and value-creation.
  3. There is no end-state for a smart city as the end points will always be in flux. It's more about the capacity to change and adapt.

Liveability first, then technology

James Crabtree, Senior Research Fellow at LKYSPP and Contributing Editor at the Financial Times, shared his thoughts on Singapore's vision of participatory city development, claiming that this vision doesn't involve heavy engagement with digital technology, but rather focus on enhancing liveability.

According to Crabtree, this is exactly the opposite of what developers of smart cities in India mistakenly assume to be the mantra of success. Hefty investments in technology might sell as a lucrative idea, yet in pragmatic terms, such smart city projects tend to be terrible from the aspect of liveability.

Crabtree pointed out that technology should be considered as a layer on top of a substructure of excellent infrastructure and service provision, instead of the foundation upon which the life of a smart city can develop or be sustained.

In our use of technology, we have disappointingly focused on ordering pizza and booking cabs, which is definitely not the optimum utility, said Crabtree. He recommends that we instead direct our utility pattern towards more productive domains such as linguistics, artificial intelligence and other social objectives. Using social norms is one way in which the human aspect of governance can play a greater role in solving technological problems along the way.

The role of the private sector in smart city aspirations

When it comes to emerging trends in the corporate sphere, Alvin Sheng Hui Tan, Head of Public Policy Southeast Asia at Facebook, said that contemporary businesses envision a future where the potential of technology is beyond imagination, specifically for addressing emerging policy issues such as ageing and migration.

Such solutions go beyond performing a task efficiently. For example, the automation of hourly check-ups on elderly patients not only eases the process of data collection, but also frees up a nurse's time, which can be utilised more productively elsewhere.

Technology and society: tension or partnership?

Even tech giants are not immune to technological advancements and have to be more responsive and adaptive. To fulfil smart city aspirations, technology must harmonise with social aspects of governance by being more inclusive. This will make the public and vital stakeholders more receptive to technology itself.

Daniel Yap, Co-founder of The Middle Ground, acknowledged the potential that digital technology offers in smart cities, but he believes that civil society is at present apprehensive about societal perceptions of digital footprints and security, specifically in terms of privacy.

In his opinion, digital advances in a smart city will cut down jobs, but that doesn't mean a lack of work. It's more about a change of roles. Although work that involves the human element such as psychological counselling will retain its place, the need for such human experience might acquire more prominence in future.

Yap also said that technology should never be considered as a cure-for-all solution, but only one of the tools for problem-solving. Technology might not be the right tool for some social problems, but it can facilitate reaching a solution.

Being a Smart Nation will require intensive collaboration from all sectors, with government giving adequate room for private sectors and civil society to contribute and innovate. The discussion remains inconclusive in determining the extent of technology's overarching influence on developing Singapore as a Smart Nation, but the general consensus is that a tech-centric approach will require more caution so as not to displace the human element from governance.

The panel discussion on 16 February 2017 was organised in collaboration with Association of Public Affairs and Smart Urban Professionals Club and the panel experts were representatives from Smart Nation Programme Office Singapore, LKYSPP, Facebook and the Middle Ground.