Singapore and Smart Nation: Less privacy, greater sustainability?

By Jolene Yeo

Singapore sits atop global rankings in many areas – education, healthcare, seaports and airports. But the success story of the city-state is far from done. Singapore, a country with one of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rate, is about to add the “world’s leading Smart Nation” honorific to its slew of grand achievements.

The vision of a “smart nation” is almost a dystopian one – autonomous cars ruling streets, Biopolis cities within giant domes, cities broken up into capsule climate-controlled biospheres – or so the Straits Times envisions.

The Smart Nation initiative seeks to harness information communication technology, networks and data to create a profound impact in changing the way we live, work and play. Coordinating this initiative is the Smart Nation Programme Office in the Prime Minister’s Office, rallying citizens, industries, research institutions and the government to co-create innovative solutions to deal with current problems.

Singapore’s Smart Nation initiatives

The Smart Nation initiative will allow Singapore to tackle the challenges of tomorrow today. These challenges include urban density, the ageing population, healthcare, mobility and energy sustainability.

With a population density of 8,000 per square kilometre, Singapore is the world’s third most densely populated nation. Coupled with that is the expected avalanche of elderly population and rising dependency ratio (the ratio of working adults supporting the elderly). The Smart Nation initiative tackles these problems through the Housing Development Board’s “Smart HDB Town Framework”.

Specifically, the Smart Elderly Alert System will include motion sensors in the house to monitor the safety of elderly residents. These data collected by private companies can then be accessed, with permission, by care givers. Given the flux of elderly residents and an increasing number living alone, this will give family members and caregivers of elderly a piece of mind when leaving alone at home.

At present, households in Yuhua estate and Punggol Northshore estate in Singapore use such Smart technology to monitor the safety of residents, as well as to management lightning and waste management, which includes waste tracking to reveal and prevent the spread of diseases.

Towards the likes of the Hunger Games Arena is the idea of Fluid Walls – walls coming alive. Architecture will be made more physically flexible, with walls, ceilings and partitions that fold and unfold. This results in more dynamic spaces, reaping multiple usages derived from the same square footage.

Other initiatives, perhaps to the benefit of energy sustainability but of detriment to the pockets of taxpayers include mandatory satellite-linked devices that will be placed in all Singapore-registered vehicles – including those of private citizens, wrote the Wall Street Journal. The satellite-based tracking will allow tolls to be charged more precisely, based on distance travelled. It would also allow for dynamic pricing, adapting the prices based on road conditions in real-time.

How ready is Singapore to embrace disruptive technology?

Pundits of Singapore’s ICT and innovation sector continue to express the lack of an entrepreneurial culture in Singapore. While Singapore relies heavily of imports of advanced technology and technology experts to supplement the local talent pool, Singapore’s private sector may not yet be receptive to the development of innovations because of the lack of a sizeable indigenous high-tech sector. Given the island-nation’s struggles with raising labour productivity above its current anemic level, it may be a sign that innovation is not a pronounced characteristic of the Singapore economy.

While far from the likes of MIT or Silicon Valley, the culture of entrepreneurship has made inroads into Singapore. Launchpad, for instance, is a start up district that brings together the government, start-ups and venture capitalists. It has since been described as the world’s densest start-up ecosystem. Furthermore, the likes of Zopim, Carrousell and Viki stands as testament to the growing clout of Singapore’s home-grown successes.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has also established a research centre– conveniently known as SMART (Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology) in Singapore, the first of its kind outside the United States. Professor Hastings, director of SMART says that Singapore has the “political will to innovate”.

Although a parliamentary democracy, Singapore’s unitary-state like structure of governance has long played an essential role in the island-nation glorious success stories, and its ability to effect policy changes and effect change on the ground, be it by the carrot or the stick. Research institutions such as the likes of SMART often receive an undisclosed chunk of ever growing tranche of government research money – cut out of the country’s opulent government coffers.

The smart nation rhetoric promises a myriad of possibilities. The Singapore government’s ambitious trajectory seeks to thread a fine line between scrutiny into the private sphere, and sustainability. While both the education and economic landscape appears to be morphing in favour of embracing innovation, it remains to be seen if Singapore can punch above its weight to carry the clout of the world’s first “Smart Nation”.