Singapore is aiming to be the world’s first Smart Nation – but what does that actually entail?
You know what it’s like. You’re waiting for the bus on your way to work and inevitably, you’re late. Enter Singapore’s Smart Nation solution, which aims to merge technology into every aspect of life on the small island.
That includes some bus stops, which under this plan will now have interactive maps and wi-fi connectivity – even e-books and a swing. This is all an attempt to make the journeys of Singapore’s commuters more enjoyable and efficient.
If you look at how important the bus system is to public transport here, it makes sense. With almost four million daily rides, the bus network makes up the most significant part of Singapore’s transport network. Nowhere is the scale of the project more evident than at the headquarters of the Land Transport Authority. Using GPS data, researchers and programmers can tell how fast or slow a bus is going and how many people are on board at any given time.
“With this information we know where are the choke points at different times of the day,” said Christopher Hooi Wai Yean, deputy director of the authority’s communications and sensors division, as he demonstrated the movement of the buses on their screens. “[This way] we can put in measures to alleviate and dissipate the crowd at choke points across the island. This will ensure that the whole transport system is more well-oiled in that sense.”
It is an approach that is being replicated across all sectors – transport, homes, offices and even hospitals.
The KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital is one of the biggest and busiest in Singapore. On any day, it sees scores of patients – mainly pregnant women or mums with their kids. It began trialling video conferencing for its patients in non-emergency cases in November last year. Gladys Soo is one such mum. Her seven-year old son suffers from eczema and she started treatment for him in February.
“We went to the hospital in person for the first consultation to check for his eczema,” she told me. “The follow-up was done via video conferencing.” Mrs Soo said the fact that she is a working mum was a factor in her decision to go for the video-conferencing option. “It saves you time – I don’t have to travel, I don’t have to take leave. The pharmacist can actually view my son’s eczema on the video conference. And he can diagnose whether it is getting better – it is like being with him in person.” Speech therapy, lactation consultation services and paediatric home care services are other aspects of medical care that KKH is using video conferencing to address.
Associate Prof Low Cheng Ooi, the chief clinical informatics officer of IHiS, the company that manages the technology infrastructure for the healthcare aspect of Singapore’s Smart Nation solutions, says the plan is to phase this programme in gradually. “We already know that public health services delivered over video and medical consultation via video works well in larger countries with rural areas,” he told me. “But in Singapore we are very urban, and our citizens can get healthcare within a very short period of time.
“So we have to rationalise what it is we are trying to do with this platform. We are moving cautiously with discipline so that patients will benefit from this kind of consultation, with no risks.”
It’s an ambitious goal – trying to merge technology into every aspect of citizens’ lives – but this grand plan may have already run into some speed bumps.
“We really are not going as fast as we ought to,” said the country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently. To deliver results, Singapore has set up a new ministerial committee to push ahead with its Smart Nation dreams. Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister in charge of the Smart Nation initiative, says that a sense of urgency is vital in ensuring the future success of Singapore. “If we don’t get this right, jobs are at stake,” he told the BBC. “Wages are at stake and any government that doesn’t prepare its people for the future and offer the potential for good jobs will be in trouble.”
But Harminder Singh, a senior lecturer in business information systems at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, says the main issue with Smart Nation is that there may be too much government control over it right now for real innovation to take place.
“Singapore’s way of doing things is that the government leads, then others follow,” he told me. “This might be a problem – it is too centralised and so it may take too long for plans to trickle down. “And ideas from the ground may be neither visible to those on top nor acceptable to them, especially if they are related to the delivery of services that are traditionally handled by the government.” He adds that it is not clear why Singapore’s leaders are so keen to move full steam ahead with this plan. “Smart Nation is about building national technology infrastructure so that the government can offer new services, or do what they do now differently. The government may need to explain more clearly how the Smart Nation project will improve salaries and jobs in Singapore to get the project moving faster.”
The authorities here are taking this initiative extremely seriously – it appears to be the big bet Singapore is taking for its next generation. Because of its size, Singapore has always had to stay one step ahead of the curve to survive.
This tiny island nation has always prided itself on persistence and a strong work ethic to succeed. Smart Nation is its plan for its future survival – and the shoots of innovation are beginning to show.
Singapore now has a small but growing start-up culture and home-grown companies are starting to take more risks. But creativity needs to be nurtured – and Singapore may find that its Smart Nation dreams may take time to reach their full potential.
This feature is written by Karishma Vaswani & originally appeared in BBC.