Building the city of the future

To stay competitive, Singapore is transforming itself into a living laboratory for smart technology.

By Garage Staff — February 15, 2019

Imagine you’re in Singapore in 2020. Technology is everywhere, and ubiquitous digital access means that everything from government services and business processes to healthcare, education and transportation is connected, efficient and convenient.

You start the morning by scanning your fingerprint or face on your phone to verify your identity and log in to the national digital identity system. If you take medication, your HealthHub app gently reminds you to take your pills, since it is linked to your medical records. You next tap to see your immunization records to figure out whether you or your kids might need vaccinations for an upcoming vacation. Then, you turn to settling the month’s utilities bill and last week’s parking ticket using the national e-payments system.

A few taps later, you reserve a book at the local library, which you will pick up on the way home. As you walk out the door, you notice that the fire hydrant on your street corner is leaking. You pull up your OneService app to report the issue, and also see an alert telling you that there will be construction work on your block next week. Now, with various errands to run, you get ready to make the short trip into town.

“Digital technology is transforming the global economy and the way citizens live, work and consume.”

Low Teck Seng, CEO of Singapore's National Research Foundation

You may initially have planned on driving, but a quick look at Virtual Singapore –– a dynamic, three-dimensional map of the city updated with real-time data –– shows that all the parking meters near your office are full. You see that your regular bus route has a longer wait time than usual, but you can walk two blocks to catch another bus with a shorter wait time and no congestion ahead. A short while later, you arrive at the startup where you work on writing artificial intelligence algorithms for 3D printers.

This is what daily life might look like for the city-state’s citizens when it becomes the world’s first smart nation, where technology is integrated into every aspect of life, the economy is powered by digital innovation and the entire country is transformed into a living laboratory for cutting-edge breakthroughs in everything from housing and transportation to governance, medicine, science and technology. “Singapore is not only the first nation to pursue the goal of becoming 'smart,' but the first city,” says Matthew Gordon Lasner, associate professor of urban studies and planning, Hunter College, CUNY. “It’s able to do so because of the strong centralized government and because it's such a geographically small city-state. Elsewhere we mainly see the push to become “smart” in privately built master-planned communities and planned new towns devoted to tech, such Songdo International Business District outside of Seoul; and a few smaller urban extension districts, such as Google’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto.”

Courtesy of Virtual Singapore

Virtual Singapore, a data-rich 3D digital platform, provides a dynamic model of Singapore, which public agencies, research institutions and private companies can use to test new ideas and innovations.

Looking ahead to survive and thrive

The small island nation of Singapore is one of contrasts, a place of both abundance and scarcity. It is tremendously rich, serves as one of the world’s great ports and is a bustling, glitzy hub of finance and services. Yet the country also grapples with a dearth of natural resources: It lacks land, airspace, seaspace, water, and even sand and granite.

Yet, Singapore is thriving. The nation of 6 million people boasts one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world and ranks as one of the world’s most competitive economies. Singapore’s success story is a bit of a miracle, made possible in part by a centralized government that can implement sweeping initiatives, and by constantly looking over its shoulder to watch out for competitors and gazing ahead to figure out how to position itself for the future.

In Singapore’s smart future, data-driven services will help residents make informed decisions about the most efficient way to travel at any given time.

fotoVoyager/Getty Images

In Singapore’s smart future, data-driven services will help residents make informed decisions about the most efficient way to travel at any given time.

In a 2007 speech, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong of the People’s Action Party said, “Our model is ‘paranoid’ government — a government which worries all the time, which plays a crucial role in this system. It is proactive and looks ahead over the horizon.”

This relentless pursuit of progress is at the heart of Singapore’s very existence. For example, the country is always looking to grow through land reclamation, and over the past 50 years, Singapore has grown in size by almost 25 percent, from 224 square miles to 277. It’s also a key driver behind the country’s feverish push to become a smart nation by 2020, an initiative that centers on three pillars: digital economy, digital government and society. This means spearheading a spectrum of initiatives, including creating a national digital identity system, improving urban mobility by leveraging data and digital technologies, pursuing cutting-edge research and setting up a hub for digital and cybersecurity companies.


Living in a small, smart nation

At the launch of the Smart Nation initiative, Lee, who has been prime minister since 2004, described how it would impact every Singaporean’s day-to-day life: "We should see it in our daily living where networks of sensors and smart devices enable us to live sustainably and comfortably,” he said. "We should see it in our communities where technology will enable more people to connect to one another more easily and intensely. We should see it in our future where we can create possibilities for ourselves beyond what we imagined possible."

Smart sensors and real-time data will also aid public and private transportation planning, easing congestion on Singapore’s streets.

Scott S. Warren/Getty Images

Smart sensors and real-time data will also aid public and private transportation planning, easing congestion on Singapore’s streets.

A key part of the initiative is the national identity system, which is being developed by the Government Technology Agency and gives every citizen a digital ID as a one-stop shop to do things like check medical records, submit tax returns and sign up for government services. The system is scheduled to become fully operational in 2020, but Singaporeans already use a system called SingPass to transact with over 60 government agencies, allowing them to easily access hundreds of government services online –– like filing taxes, paying parking tickets and settling medical bills –– all in one place with a few clicks and taps. The national digital ID system would build on SingPass, making it seamless and secure to transact with both the government and the private sector on a single platform.

Another major pillar of the smart nation program is smart urban mobility. With a car ownership rate of only 11 percent, compared with 80 percent in the United States, most Singaporeans rely on buses and the subway to get around the city. The government wants to make transit easier and more efficient by drawing on a huge trove of data that will help with public and private transport planning. There are even plans to roll out on-demand self-driving vehicles to improve mobility for the elderly and the disabled.

Anonymized data will be pulled from travelers’ fare cards to identify commuter hotspots, sensors installed on thousands of buses will collect real-time location data and private vehicles will feature satellite navigation systems that keep authorities informed about traffic conditions nationwide. The data could help make apps like MyTransport and Beeline even more accurate, giving residents real-time information on bus arrival timings, shuttle schedules, the number of taxis nearby and parking availability –– all before they set foot outside of their homes.

A technological transformation

Digitizing daily life for the average Singaporean citizen is just one part of the smart nation push. The country is also going smart in the business and manufacturing sectors. In 2018, Singapore launched the HP-NTU Digital Manufacturing Corporate Lab, a collaboration between HP, Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) and Nanyang Technological University.

“Singapore’s smart nation journey will require the wide adoption of key technologies across government, businesses and people so that the benefits are reaped by all segments of the country,” says Low Teck Seng, Chief Executive Officer of NRF. “The impact will be significant in the manufacturing sector — the key trend being the convergence of digital technologies with physical machines.”

The $84 million lab, with 100 researchers and staff, focuses on this trend with advanced 3D printing technologies, and artificial intelligence and machine learning to ensure that Singapore stays competitive in the advanced manufacturing field. The lab will prioritize 15 projects, including developing AI to help printers predict and resolve problems; advanced polymers for manufacturing applications; and 4D printed smart systems that adapt their shapes to temperature changes.

Seng says the convergence of digital technologies with physical machines in the manufacturing sector is a key trend in Singapore’s journey toward becoming a smart nation. Adopting similarly innovative technologies across government, business and daily life, he adds, is critical “to stay ahead of this digital revolution.”


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