What can other cities learn from Singapore’s extensive tech initiatives?

What can other cities learn from Singapore’s extensive tech initiatives?

The blast of heat hits us like a punch as we step outside the aggressively air conditioned foyer at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. It is a solid 34 degrees centigrade with 74% humidity and luscious green foliage spills of out of the divider between the car park and the road. Stepping into the parked shuttle buggy is sucha a welcome respite from the elements, it is easy to miss the fact that it doesn’t have a driver.

Driverless car trials are running all over the world. This is one of the most progressive areas of transportation (despite recent hype about flying cars). Yet it is not the technology that makes them tricky to operate but the state of real world conditions that they have to function in.

Singaporean experiments may be different from elsewhere though, because its unique ecosystem allows it work on the whole shebang (including infrastructure). It has a bespoke test track, industrial partnerships with the likes of BMW and it plans to trial a new radio protocol [V2X] that allows cars to communicate directly with cars, as well as access points installed on street lamp poles. It even has a concrete roadmap to implement some driverless buses by 2018.


Why are Singapore’s digital ambitions so vast?

Automated transport may be the popular face of digitisation but it presents only the tip of Singapore’s vaulting – and extremely systematic – tech ambitions. Its messaging is all about creating a ‘smart nation’, but this really doesn’t do it justice because you hear this kind of rhetoric all the time. Everyone claims to be building a smart city and to be ‘transforming’ and digitising at a furious pace. What stands out here is that this is a highly organised, step-by-step approach, to get every aspect of society online. In a land of hard work and STEM educations Singapore takes a truly computer science approach to the problem.    

“If you can’t code it’s like an admission of guilt in our government,” says former children’s doctor and Singaporean Minister of State for Communications and Information, Dr Janil Puthucheary, when I meet him on this government-sponsored trip to the tiny island nation. “It is because of our Prime Minister…”

If the state is family, then Lee Hsien Loong, son of the nation’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, is definitely the Father. Lee has held office since 2004 and embodies the Singaporean ideal of being an extremely educated man in the top percentile. He studied computer science at Cambridge in the 1970s and released some of his own C++ code on Facebook in 2015. This tech savviness from the very top is referenced several times during my four-day visit (he sends personal feedback on government websites), and in a country where the government exerts an overarching and apparently benign paternalism over its entire population, it is clear he sets an example to everyone.

Empirical development underpins Singapore. It is a new nation – it only gained independence from British rule in 1965 – and has a population just shy of 5.8 million spread over a 719.1 square kilometre land mass. It also has no natural resources and the glittering modern city is carved out of flourishing rainforest, which despite careful manicuring, looks ready to spring back through at every available point. Yet in this extremely short space of time it has grown to take seventh positon for global wealth (at US$277,000 per adult in 2016) putting it behind countries like Switzerland, Australia and the United States. In fact, 5% of adults make up 1% of global wealth-holders which is particularly impressive for such a small country.  

Unlike most developed nations Singapore does not have a long illustrious past to flaunt, just a high growth story. This means that millimetres beneath the surface is a nagging fear is that if it stops developing and improving it will all crumble to nothing. An excellent radio interview with the Prime Minister, aired on the BBC World Service this March, discusses whether potential trade issues with the US could put the Singaporean model under threat. But while external issues may be difficult to govern, constantly striving for digital excellence is something which can be driven and managed from the inside.


What does all this mean for ordinary citizens?

The Singaporean approach to digital transformation is impressive but it is probably hard to replicate in countries where the government has less control and a therefore less joined up approach. The National Registration Identity Card, for example, came in with independence in 1965. This is required by citizens to do anything at all on the island on the island and government has been systematically filing data on the back of it since then.

Today the SingPass, which was introduced in July 2015, provides a digital gateway to this by providing a common user ID and password to access government services (with two-factor authentication). This means additional social and commercial initiatives can be built on the top. Take the new MyInfo Service, this allows citizens to apply for a new bank account without having to provide the normal supporting information. SingPass offers the entry point and different bits of data are pulled across from multiple government agencies to auto populate the necessary bank fields.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. During the course of the visit we are introduced to a wide variety of government ministers, taken by coach to universities, a school, a hospital and other government centres for R&D and startups across the island. This systematic top down approach to digitisation can be seen absolutely everywhere.

The Tan Tock Seng hospital feels just like one of Singapore’s endless shopping centres on the inside except that signposts point to radiology instead of Louis Vuitton. It is a vast space and needs to be because like elsewhere in the world a rapidly aging population means patient volumes increase by 10% each year. Digital initiatives aim to improve the process. A consumer app provides access to Electronic Health Records. We are shown automated video rehab and a brilliantly redesigned pharmacy which sees robotic automation dispense pills for collection within seven minutes of consultation. The whole system delivers on the full potential in future health and offers the highest levels of IT in any public sector healthcare outside South Korea.

Yet it only works because of the underlying foundation in IT optimisation and because this is not a welfare state but it is an interventionist one. Many benefits are state-sponsored and an incredible 85% of Singaporeans live in ‘public housing’. Citizens own the properties themselves but are subject to stringent rules and regulations, such as the prohibition of cat ownership. Like a tax, a portion of every citizen’s income is set aside to cover social areas like health and pension each month and although the government pays the majority of healthcare costs a final percentage is left to the individual to pay. The message is loud and clear: The state will help you to help yourself.

As part of all this ongoing development, the government itself is on a mission to professionalise its own IT and bring as much in house as possible. “When I came in I was quite shocked because almost everything was outsourced,” says Chan Cheow Hoe, Government CIO and Deputy Chief Executive of the government technology agency, GovTech. Over the last two and a half years he has grown the technical team to 150 members of staff who come from a wide variety of different backgrounds.  

Specific initiatives include ongoing work to standardise 3D modelling terms. The aim is to take the potential in virtual spaces far beyond the usual ‘pretty pictures’ to produce fully computer readable worlds that can operate as total replicas of the real world. To this end, it is in the process of building Virtual Singapore, which was conceptualised in 2012, begun in 2014 and aims to provide a complete online version of the city that can be used both by government agencies and businesses alike to perfect areas like flood modelling, drone delivery and analysing the solar potential of the buildings.

Elsewhere at Ngee Ann Secondary School, earnest 14-year olds take part in a challenge to build a wearable device. The recently built National Gallery of Singapore has made an app and visual, interactive database of Asian artists, integral to the visitor experience. While the government has also taken the startup scene in hand and is focused on helping companies to scale out.


What can other cities learn from this systematic Singaporean approach?  

It is quite clear that there is a lot here that is absolutely outstanding. It is blatantly and provably world leading and it is impossible to argue with truly measurable progress and consistently working towards clear empirical goals. Yet this kind of approach also throws up problems of its own. After all, it is precisely the world of measurable analytics and striving for one-dimensional success that has led to the surge in click-bait fake news.

Potential issues here appear to surround privacy, security and possibly making too much available up front. The government, for example, wants to make Virtual Singapore open to the public which presents an amazing opportunity for any terrorists who quite literally want to know the lay of the land. The incredibly joined up thinking is also exceptional and delivers on the entire promise that technology can make our lives better and healthier but also means a breach could provide nefarious individuals with access to everything – from health records, to bank details, to your entire family network. It is also clear that in a culture of 24/7 hard work striving to achieve clear, predetermined goals, the evil hackers must also have some kind of advantage.  

At present every government and corporation across the globe is looking for ways to deliver IT to achieve better outcomes. There are endless programs, which are operating with varying levels of effectiveness at every corner of the world. Some are shout and bluster, some are really happening but most leaders realise that, just like the original online revolution, to get left behind is to ultimately fail in the future.

In the UK, Manchester, Bristol and Greenwich are running a variety of smart city initiatives. In Europe, Barcelona is working to tirelessly to push its smart city status, but despite extensive PR, its network continues to let it down. In the US many of the satellite cities, like Tampa in Florida and San Diego in California are taking a more progressive approach then their larger neighbours. Perhaps this is because they feel they have to work harder to stay ahead? This certainly seems to be the case in Singapore.


Also read:

Singapore's cut-off from the internet is not so crazy

Singapore is looking for foreign help to build its Smart Nation

Singapore’s big bet on a Smart Nation future


«Amazon Echo Show and the race to make homes machines


Quiz of the week: 12th May»

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