#SG50: Rappler Talk: Singapore’s vision of a Smart Nation


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#SG50: Rappler Talk: Singapore’s vision of a Smart Nation
On Singapore's 50th anniversary, Rappler talks to Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan to learn how the city-state built a leading global metropolis, and how it aims to further improve its residents' quality of life.

SINGAPORE – After transforming from a third-world swampland to a first-world modern city, where is Singapore headed in the next 50 years?

The city-state’s new generation of leaders are raising Lee Kuan Yew’s vision to the next level: to make Singapore the world’s first Smart Nation. Launched in November 2014, the initiative aims to harness technology to address urban problems like an aging population and public transportation. (READ: #SG50: Smart Nation: The future of Singapore’s wired city)

Using sensors, big data, and the Internet of Things, Smart Nation aims to create real-life applications in Singaporeans’ homes, streets, and workplaces. Examples include autonomous vehicles for mobility, telemedicine for consultation and rehabilitation done just at home, and using smartphones to report about floods and poor air quality. 

On Singapore’s 50th anniversary, Rappler flies to the Lion City to learn how it built a leading global metropolis, and how it aims to further improve its residents’ quality of life. We talk to Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Programme Office.

An ophthalmologist, Balakrishnan is also Singapore’s minister for the environment and natural resources. His two portfolios highlight how sustainability is central to Singapore’s Smart Nation vision, and the future of this small island-nation.

Here is the full transcript:

Hello and welcome. I’m Ayee Macaraig We are in Singapore for its 50 anniversary, tracking the city-state’s progress from a 3rd world backwater to a first world metropolis, and now as it aims to be a Smart Nation using technology for a better quality of life.

Today we talk to the man leading this initiative. Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan is the Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Programme, and the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources. 

Hello, Minister. Thank you for joining us.

Balakrishnan: Welcome to Singapore. I’m glad you started on that note because if you think of Singapore in the last 50 years, there are a couple of things we did under the leadership of Mr Lee Kuan Yew that made us special. One, he took us from a third world town into a first world metropolis in only one generation. Two, we achieved first world infrastructure in a region which at that point of time only had third world infrastructure. Three, we were forced to globalize even before globalization became a catchword. Four, he understood the value of environmental sustainability and being green, creating a city in a garden well before even being green became fashionable.

So in a sense the recurring theme for Singapore’s development in the last few decades has always been about anticipating the future, positioning ourselves with infrastructure, education, capability and systems so we can take advantage of future trends, and then hard work, discipline and planning and organization. That in a sense are the secret, not-so-secret ingredients for Singapore’s success so you need to understand that to put this effort of being a Smart Nation in context. 

We want to be a Smart Nation because we have to, secondly, because we can. 

Rappler: Why?

Balakrishnan: First, if you look at the IT revolution, it began 50 years ago with the invention of the transistor in Silicon Valley, and then computers, and then connectivity, the Internet, the world wide web, and the latest platform technologies. The Internet of Things, big data, all these are not just inventions or technological tools, these are platform technologies which will transform completely the way we live, communicate, work, interact, engage, mobilize, organize our societies. So the point is we have to because some fundamental platform technologies have opened up whole new vistas of opportunities and potential problems. 

The next question then is we’re doing this because we can. Why are we in a position to do so/ We have been investing assiduously on infrastructure. Fortunately, we have also been investing in infocomm infrastructure over the last few decades. For instance, today, we have fiber to everyone’s home. In fact not just one fiber but two fibers in every home and ultimately, every single office, factory and the rest of it. That’s on the wired connection. On wireless connections, we already have 3 mobile telcos possibly a 4th in the offing. We have one of the world’s highest penetration not just of mobile phones but smartphones.

Thirdly, we have a population that is very IT-literate and technology literate and demanding. In other words, sophisticated consumers who want the latest and the best who know how to use it, and have set expectations on that basis. We have an education system that has focused to a large extent on science and technology. This is what I would consider a science and technology literate population. In terms of the work force, the supply and demand side of the equation, we have those ingredients.

Another advantage we have is because we’re small, we’re just a city-state, we have a single layer of government. We have technically, I would say even a technocratic government meaning probably half the Cabinet consists of engineers, the PM is a mathematician who can code, several of us can code, still code, just to keep as an intellectual challenge. We get it. We understand this technology. We are not afraid of it. We understand both the challenges and the problems, and we’re looking for opportunities to capitalize on the opportunities, and minimize the downside. We want to because we can. We have some areas where we have a slight or significant head start. 

The next question is well, how exactly are you going to do this. The most important point is this is not about technology but about human beings. This is about daily life, improving the quality of your daily life, increasing opportunities for every one, not just for the elite, educated, technically inclined but creating opportunities for everyone.

The third aim is even as we leverage on these new technologies, we have to be mindful that it builds social capital, increases cohesion, doesn’t lead to a fracturing or division or paralysis in the way we organize our societies, the way we organize our society, the way our communities relate to each other so that sense of social cohesion and social capital so I say all these so we remember machines, computers, technologies are just a way to an end.

The real question is will you improve the quality of daily life? Will you have a more open, cohesive, trusting society with significant stores of social capital being built up rather than being depleted? These are in a sense our paramount considerations when we embark on any plan.

Having set that out, we look at what specific domains would bear most fruit in achieving these 3 objectives. We said, look at health care first. Can we make health care more accessible, affordable? The center of gravity of health care shift from hospitals and clinics to homes. Can you access consultation, rehabilitation, even ensuring that people take their medications according to what has been prescribed, can we make sure health care becomes safer because monitoring outcomes and parameters, a lot of it can be done in the community or even at home.

So what infrastructure, what systems do we need to install in homes? What applications do we need to develop both in homes as well as mobile apps so we can make health care better. This takes added urgency because of demographics. We are ageing rapidly. The proportion of people aged over 65 is going to triple in the next 20 years so this effort becomes important and urgent. So we are investing considerably amount of effort and resources on bringing health care to the home and local community.

Another example because we are small and densely packed, public transport will always be a big issue. You think about it in the city, nothing affects your mood more than being stuck in a jam, feeling that you have wasted too many hours of your life on the daily commute. Can we make the daily commute shorter, more efficient, more pleasant, more productive. So even simple things like should you have full broadband access even while you’re traveling so you can work, entertain or educate yourself while traveling so you’re not just wasting time in a sense.

And then at the work place, we all know competition is global. We all know the way we produce, distribute, market products is undergoing a revolution. We need to make sure Singapore companies have the skill, reach, the networks, the wherewithal to invest and upgrade in our both the hardware and the software side of it so Singapore companies remain competitive in this brave new world we are going towards.

So health care, smart homes, public transport, work places, education, training, social cohesion. There are many, I refer to these as vertical columns we are trying put in place. Each of these represents a domain but the common thread that links them all is they are all focused on daily life, making life better, increasing opportunities, making us more competitive and yet building trust, social capital and keeping our society as cohesive as possible. If you see those things as pillars, the next question is how to build up these things.

Number one, we intend to ensure our infrastructure is top of the world. If you talk about broadband speeds, mobile coverage, access to equipment, ours has to be the best in the world and because we are small, we built up sufficient reserves, we can ensure we stay ahead of the curve. The hardware side of the infrastructure, that’s almost easy compared to the Philippines and other countries which are on a much bigger scale. Here we have to wire up a city. We’ve got to give all our citizens the tools, it’s much easier in Singapore but it’s still an exercise.

The next layer is capability. In other words we have to make sure every citizen is educated, trained has got retraining opportunities and that’s where we are working with schools, and this program called SkillsFuture. In schools, we intend to teach computational thinking to every student starting in primary school. Even if you will not actually code, you at least understand what computational thinking is.

All students, it’s almost like basic literacy, it used to be the 3 Rs, read, write, arithmetic. I would add computational thinking to one of those essential baseline skills. We are also focused on SkillsFuture which is an opportunity to retrain, re-skill, retool our current workforce so we can use the latest technologies available for manufacturing, services, analytics. We are going to invest a considerable amount on building up skills and capabilities. In a sense it’s the human software.

There’s a layer above that, the ecosystem meaning now that you’ve got infrastructure and people, now you want an ecosystem where enterprises can thrive, new ideas can be generated. Ideas will be converted to solutions and products, a free market will apply, and our companies will access global opportunities on the basis of the products and services which they have developed here. I would add one caveat: it doesn’t have to be invented here. 

What we are offering is we will be smart, demanding consumers. We will take an idea. We will make it an attractive place for you to test it, to prototype. If it works, we will upscale it and if it works in Singapore maybe it might work for cities elsewhere, maybe it might work in Manila, Beijing, Africa, whatever.

The point is we are not Silicon Valley. I am very dubious when someone stands up and says “I’m going to be Silicon Valley.” I think you need to understand that you need a constellation of features that made Silicon Valley the preeminent place it is today. That is not our goal. Our goal is there are some things I can do better than Silicon Valley.

For instance, you can invent an autonomous vehicle in Silicon Valley but when it comes to deploying it city-wide, nation-wide, having an entire national system of maps, sensors, coordination, being able to prototype and test it in real life, in a real, busy metropolis, I think we can do that faster, perhaps even better. The point is I’m not competing. I am complementing and I’m trying to be part of a global value chain that takes great ideas, prototypes them, upscales them, and then applies them at a global level.

So you realize I’m taking quite a demand-driven approach to technology because it is impossible for any of us in Southeast Asia to compete with the scale of talent and smart money and the entire ecosystem in Silicon Valley.

So I tell my guys no, no, we are aiming to be complementary, take ideas from there, give opportunities to companies even from Silicon Valley or from anywhere else in the world and say, “This is one place where you can test the product. Proof of concept. Prototype. Make it work. If it works, go elsewhere.” It may elsewhere work in other cities. And I think what gives us an added edge is for the first time in human history, more than half of human beings now live in cities therefore urban solutions, solutions that work in resource-constrained cities, resource constraints involving water, energy, food, distribution systems, logistics – all these are areas we know there will be massive needs in the future as urbanization progresses over the decades to come. That gives us an opportunity.

Rappler: What prototypes have you seen so far? What works? What doesn’t work?

Just this month alone, we are rolling out a prototype, smart home technologies in Ihua which is an old estate in Singapore. We want to test whether these things work with older households, with senior citizens. It’s not about installing in a university, dormitory. The next month or two, we will have autonomous vehicle running in certain parts of Singapore again to test how it works in our local context.

Earlier next year, we’ll probably roll out some health care applications again focused on the home and delivering better rehabilitation or monitoring outcomes, parameters, teleconsultations, with both physicians as well as physiotherapists. We’ll be working on those things. Also, a lot of ongoing work with regard to the school syllabus, the curriculum as well as trying to ensure we have enough training providers for SkillsFuture. So a lot, there’s a lot of implementation going on.

Rappler: What is the role of the private sector and business. If I have an idea, I just approach the government?

Balakrishnan: If you have an idea and you already have your own funding, you don’t need the government. You just need the government to stay out of the way, make sure the regulations allow you to test new technologies and to see whether your idea flies. You’ve got the idea, the networks, the moneys. You don’t need us except to make sure we don’t get in the way. A lot of governments make the mistake sometimes of getting in the way of the private sector. We don’t do that.

Next you may come to us and say, “Well, you have told me you need a solution, let’s say in public transport or energy or education. I’ve got an idea which may be relevant to you.” The government will say,”Okay, let’s test your idea, do a proof of concept or even prototype it and see if it works, if it works, that’s fine we can upscale it, we can even buy it or buy services for you. If it doesn’t work, it’s a learning experience for both you and the government.” So this idea of prototyping is another example.

A third way is through our National Research Foundation, we’ve set aside a significant amount of money to invest in research and particularly in development of new technologies or platform technologies which will address especially urban needs of the city. We might even get corporate labs or research institutions coming to Singapore saying we’ve got a great idea, we need some support, we will get the experts in the field to review their idea and decide whether it’s worth investing or co-investing with corporate labs or research institutions to take that idea further to the point it can be prototyped and tested in the real world.

Rappler: What’s a typical day in the life of a Singaporean with Smart Nation?

Balakrishnan: Let’s imagine, take any person, the routine. You hopefully have had a good night sleep without noisy interruptions because our environmental sensors are in place to make sure no unnecessary noise, no loud traffic. You wake up, your routines if need be your health parameters are measured. If you need to take any meds, that is both prescribed and recorded. If any communication with your health care providers, all that goes seamlessly. Food, the way you procure food, the way it is delivered, prepared is done cost-effectively, efficiently. You have nutritious food on the table. You make the commute to work. That is as short and as pleasant as possible.

At work you have the latest technology, whatever business or job you are doing, you empowered with the latest and the best. You remain in touch with your family, and we also acknowledge the fact there will be Singaporeans all over the world and you want space and time to collapse so you still stay in touch. Your family ties, community bonds are still vital and alive. At the end of the day’s work, improve the commute, make sure there are many options for wholesome recreation, family time again using technology to improve that experience so just think of how we use the technology to improve the daily life and the needs.

The needs for health, security, education, entertainment, engagement – those don’t change. Technology will change many things but I believe human needs don’t change. We need to meet those human needs better using technology so that’s just an example.

Rappler: Where does sustainability come in?

Balakrishnan: Let me give you an example, air quality, for instance. People want to be able to see blue skies. They want to know their children’s growth or development won’t be harmed by toxins in the air or the water. How do you achieve this? You can have rules. Every government has rules on clean air and water but can you monitor? Can you monitor and make it transparent so everybody knows the parameters in his own neighborhood? Can you have a system that imposes accountability on every single company? 

That’s why you notice that certainly in the case of environment in Singapore, we put those parameters in public domain. You go to data.gov.sg. Our Prime Minister has insisted to put as much data as possible, not just PDF files but machine-readable, accessible through APIs. As I said this enhanced transparency builds trust and gives people an opportunity to be part of the solution. 

Every complaint is a data point, whether you’re complaining about the air, the river, the water, the canal, it’s a data point, an opportunity to generate a solution. There’s a great confluence between building smart sustainable cities, and in fact there’s the need to do so and those of us who can achieve both these aims will have solutions which I think will be in demand in many other cities in the world. People all over the world want very similar things.

Rappler: How will Smart Nation do that? Is there a replicability factor? 

Balakrishnan: The answer is yes. You need political will, organization, transparency, education, the rule of law. The rest of it, the technology part, the hardware part, that can be bought. That’s easy. But political will, organization. It’s actually the human dimensions of it which are more challenging. Political will, social capital and organization. There are no trade secrets. Actually politicians all over the world know what to do, the question is can you do it, will you do it and will we be able to convince our people that we’ve got the right plan, and yes there are tradeoffs, there are challenges and hurdles but let’s make it happen. That is the real challenge. – Rappler.com 


This week, Rappler puts the spotlight on Singapore as the city-state celebrates its 50th anniversary on August 9. We take a look at the forces that shaped it, and what lies ahead. Here are stories part of the series:


#SG50: How planning made Singapore a Garden City


#SG50: Around Singapore in 16 dishes


#SG50: FAST FACTS: Singapore world records


#SG50: In Numbers: PH-Singapore relations


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