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Singapore’s Smart Nation vision entices startups and IoT developers

The Singapore government is pitching to make the tiny Asean city-state a centre for the development of smart city and internet of things technology, and wants to bring UK startups to its shores. Computer Weekly meets Steve Leonard, the man in charge of the project

As the global network grows larger and connectivity becomes more ubiquitous in the day-to-day lives of billions of people, the idea of the smart city – which uses wireless and internet of things (IoT) technology to improve standards in healthcare and public safety, for example – is gaining a great deal of traction.

In the UK, a number of smart city projects are up and running, and Computer Weekly has reported on some of the work going on in the field – such as in Milton Keynes, where the local council has been an enthusiastic guinea pig – as well as some of the debate surrounding the smart city and how to encourage government leaders to see it as a way to generate cost efficiencies while improving quality of life.

But when your city is also a country, you may be justified in thinking a little bigger than smart city. In Singapore, the very definition of a modern city-state, the government has gone one step further and is fostering the development of a Smart Nation.

How did Smart Nation come about? According to Steve Leonard, the US-born former head of EMC and Symantec in charge of the programme at the Singapore government’s Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), the initiative was born out of discussions between the IDA and its peers elsewhere in government over the resources that exist in Singapore, which over its history has become a centre for global trade and shipping.

“We have some great startups and universities, and lots of investment capital and big companies, but we weren’t necessarily harnessing those or getting as much from them as we would have wished,” he says.

“When we looked at some of the big challenges we were facing, such as urban density and the demographic challenges of an ageing population, the basic light-bulb moment was if we have a lot of great assets to really tackle these tough problems, how do we do a better job of working together? That was the genesis of Smart Nation.”

Good neighbours

Thanks to a series of coincidences and past policy decisions, Singapore has emerged as an ideal place to pursue the development of smart city technology, claims Leonard. He refers to a visit by London mayor Boris Johnson to Singapore in November 2014, during which Johnson talked enthusiastically about the parallels between London and Singapore, particularly of them being the financial technology capitals of their respective regions.

“Financial technology is one area where have a lot of activity, but there’s also a lot going on around wearables, healthcare and transport. We think we have some good things going on in our startup scene, but we need to do more,” says Leonard.

“We have a lot of competition. There is a lot going on in Djakarta, Manila, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Singapore is a place from which you can serve those markets. We’re trying to position ourselves as a hub in Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations],” he says.

Leonard points out that Singapore does not mean to disparage its neighbours, only to say that it is already familiar to westerners as a secure, English-speaking economy and a pre-existing hub for European and US enterprises. Therefore, he says, Singapore can attract aspiring businesses, both scale-ups and startups, on the same terms.

“Our goal is for Singapore to be a node on the network. Singapore is a great place, and we also think Manila is a great place, and Kuala Lumpur. I will never start off saying ‘those guys aren’t great so come here’, but with ‘those places are important, but we have unique assets here that may make working in those markets easier’.

“If you want to understand a global business, you need to understand the demographics you can access through Singapore,” adds Leonard.

Home and away

So what can a startup more familiar with the sights and sounds of Tech City or the Digital Catapult expect to find in Singapore?

According to Leonard, the answer is almost everything under the sun. Through its venture capital arm IIPL, the IDA has established a co-working space and startups are moving through the incubation process.

“We’ve got lots of funding to offer at different levels, we’ve got a well-established network of angel investors and seed, series A and series B funding.

“In some cases government plays a direct role – we have programmes with subsidies and grants – but there’s also an indirect role. In some cases we’ve leveraged relationships where we’ll put in a dollar and private investors will put in 50 cents, for example. It depends on the type of market,” he says.

What the IDA is trying to do is make sure it offers value effectively and appropriately, whether it’s dealing with a firm establishing a financial technology business, a public transport app developer or a medical specialist.

“It’s one thing to offer money, but we want to make sure we offer more than that,” says Leonard.

This includes advice on local market access, through distribution and reseller channel relationships if wanted, or assistance with the regulatory environment.

Collaboration across government

When it comes to regulation, IDA is working closely with other government departments to ensure that, for example, startups looking at developing new mobile payments systems are adequately supported through the process by the financial authorities, or that transport projects receive help and advice from the Ministry of Transport.

“There are some trials occurring in 2015 in Singapore on public roadways for testing of self-driving cars,” says Leonard.

“The ministry can help offer perspective and ideas, or be involved in some of the brainstorming around what autonomous vehicles need to be able to do.”

The IDA also wants to collaborate with foreign authorities, and Leonard has been looking at the recently established code of conduct for self-driving cars in the UK, from which he hopes to be able to draw guidance.

Steve Leonard
“Different countries are doing different things and we can all learn from each other’s experience”

Steve Leonard, Infocomm Development Authority

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“Different countries are doing different things and we can all learn from each other’s experience. The things we are working on in Singapore will be important to a lot of people,” he says.

“For example, we have a water desalinisation company that was solving a local problem, but has gone on to be an important contributor to technology in the Middle East and Africa.

“We’re using the idea that if we work on important enough problems, then people in other countries will find those answers or solutions as useful and relevant as we do. Nobody is immune from an ageing population, or from constraints on healthcare or natural resources.”

All watched over by machines of loving grace

With a total land area of 716km², Singapore ranks as the 176th smallest country in the world, larger only than a handful of Caribbean and Pacific islands and old European microstates such as Liechtenstein and Monaco.

Its small size and a history of hands-on government has given rise to what the IDA believes are the ideal conditions to test drive smart city technologies. As of 2013, 80% of the country’s population lives in government-owned housing stock, for example.

“In Singapore we can think of these things as units. There may be 300 homes in a block but it’s thought of as one collective, so we can build wired infrastructure in a way that makes the Smart Nation vision more realisable,” says Leonard.

This has already brought gigabit fibre connectivity to everybody in Singapore – a strong incentive for businesses entering the country – but on top of this, having the ability to plug directly into 80% of homes in Singapore has tremendous implications for healthcare. The IDA is currently exploring the potential of using IoT technology to help elderly citizens remain and be cared for in their own homes.

“We’re doing some things around healthcare in the home as an experiment by offering earlier intervention and medical dosage adjustment for patients with high blood pressure,” says Leonard.

We have to articulate it in terms citizens are comfortable with
Steve Leonard, Infocomm Development Authority

“Say you go to the doctor and the doctor writes a prescription and tells you to come back in 10 days – if you’re able to care for somebody remotely you might be able to see that their meds need to be adjusted 24 hours after their latest appointment, rather than waiting 10 days to see the doctor a second time.”

The possibility of mass IoT experiments requires that the IDA be awake to getting buy-in from the population of Singapore at large.

“We have to articulate it in terms citizens are comfortable with. If you’re talking to someone who is 22, she will be very different as a target audience for Smart Nation than someone who is 82. We have to make the message appropriate and try to make sure people don’t feel it’s about the tech, but what the tech can do or enable,” says Leonard.

“If the idea is a wearable, it isn’t that the government is trying to track you for some nefarious reason, it’s because if your elderly relative has Alzheimer’s and wanders off – if they have a smart wristband with GPS, you can find them.

“We’re trying to communicate easy, bite-size, real-life use cases that will make people think, ‘yes, that is something that will be important to me and my family’,” he says.

Leonard argues that technology has been improving lives for centuries, and points out that in the beginning stages of a given innovation’s lifecycle, humans have often been wary.

He relates the example of the driverless lift to the driverless vehicle. When lifts were first in widespread use in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an operator would usually be employed to push the buttons. When lift operators were phased out in favour of the DIY option, people were wary.

“The idea that there was a human behind the wheel who was tired, drunk or distracted by their phone – people in the future will not be able to believe we used to have these 4,000lb vehicles driving around without some sort of system control.

“The driverless lift was a source of fear and anxiety – that’s the same stage we’re at now with smart city technology,” he concludes.

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