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Singapore smart city chief delivers vision to the world

The Singapore government minister running the city state's smart nation project tells the world about the country’s smart nation vision

By 2050, half the world will move into cities. Since the digital revolution is redefining the economic and social structure of the world, there are dozens of cities aspiring to become smart cities – digitally connected cities that break down the siloes b­etween governments, businesses and citizens to enable better quality of life.

On 30 – 31 March, thousands gathered in Singapore at the IoT Asia 2016 expo to discuss the state of the smart cities, enabled by the internet of things (IoT) technologies. The conference featured more than 100 international speakers and industry experts from 16 countries.

The opening keynote was delivered by Vivian Balakrishnan, minister for foreign affairs and minister-in-charge of the Singapore Smart Nation initiative.

Singapore’s smart city journey started in late 2014, when the island state’s prime minister announced plans for a smart nation.

A lot has happened since then to achieve that goal, said Balakrishnan. For example, using smart sensor technology, the country has been able to reduce congestion in the local transport system. There are also app-based innovations in the healthcare for the elderly and community health space.

Balakrishan gave the example of the world’s first pedometer-based walking app, which achieved a lot of community acceptance. “The technology was not new, but it was gamified and it altered lifestyles,” he said. 

“Singapore is in the game. We are not leaders, but we are in the leading pack,” said Balakrishnan. “In the smart nation journey, there can never be a sense of complete arrival. It's an evolution and a posture,” he said.

Digital silk route of the future

Balakrishnan added that Singapore wants to be one of the best connected places in the world.

Singapore will be part of the digital silk route of the future, he said. This is why the country’s leadership envisions the future of Singapore as a test bed for ideas, where innovators can come and develop proof of concept, and upscale their startups quickly.

“We are not constrained by money,” he said, referring to the S$19bn research and development (R&D) fund that the Singapore government announced for the next five years.

In the past 10 years, Singapore government has invested S$22bn in various R&D initiatives.

Culture matters in building smart cities

Balakrishnan said the real determinant of success is culture. A society that embraces openness and learning, that invests in education and infrastructure, that takes advantage of the technological culture and innovation and defers gratification is the kind of society that will succeed in the future.

In the near future, Singapore will be working on technologies that will solve the problems of its citizens, Balakrishnan said.

For example, autonomous vehicles will be developed that will solve the challenge of the last 500 meters. There will be autonomous mini buses that will take the commuter from his doorstep to the underground station or bus interchange, or bring the commuter from the station or interchange back to his or her home.

Robots will be deployed to address manpower challenges and productivity issues. For instance, robots will be used as waiters to serve food and beverages in restaurants, and they will also be used in manufacturing.

The ordinary lamp post will become a smart lamp post. It will be solar powered and it will be equipped with cameras and sensors. It will provide video feed, street lighting and other information. “We are not just focusing on productivity, but on innovation,” said Balakrishnan. “Come to Singapore if you have an idea for innovation in cities.” 

Echoing his sentiments, Rob van Gijzel, mayor of Eindhoven and chairman of the Brainport Foundation in the Netherlands, said his government focused on building smart societies with people’s participation. To him, technology is just an enabler.

Admiring Singapore’s single layer of government, Rob van Gijzel said it was a practical government that wants to solve problems. But the case is not the same in majority of countries, including the Netherlands, where there are multiple levels of government and a lot of time is wasted in passing legislations.

Too many layers of government impede the development and growth of smart cities, he said.

Read more about Asean smart cities

Read more on Internet of Things (IoT)

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This kind of innovation and vision would be valuable throughout the world. Especially in the US, once the world's thought-leader. As US politicians continue to dismantle education resources, draining essential funds once used to pay teachers and attract students, we're being left with the shell of a nation. Embarrassing that Singapore grasps the need more than we do....
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