Some thoughts on Smart Cities and Nations

Having spent time working and living overseas, there are instances where ease of living in places that are worse off or better off than Singapore.

After the world ranking of ICT countries that has been popular for the last 15 or so years, it is now smart cities that many city governments that given the scope and span of control is more within their reach, so to speak. But by which yard stick or umbrella of categories do one city get ahead of another city? There is no apparent consensus and it will probably be debated for some years before a global organization like World Economic Forum or a reputable university will have one that is more acceptable by most stakeholders.

It is difficult to define smart that everyone agrees to. The measure of human intelligence has IQ test? Can EQ be tested? EQ defers from one culture to another. Let us leave it to the scholars and researchers to work it out what constitutes a smart city.

My understanding is when something is considered smart, be it a thing or a system, it has to exhibit human intelligence in anticipating and giving delight.

While lots of sensors can be deployed, where they previously were not due to cost and other reasons, are connected to deliver data (the fundamental use of Internet of Things) to systems, and people build applications or uses data analytics to makes use of the data, it is the people that gives the smart behaviour to the entire system.

Singapore has employed use of technology to build the intelligent nation based on building e-government platform and systems, and enabling use of technology that is pushed out to the masses at a speed and scale that matches the best out there (e.g. ICT @ Schools, wireless @ SG). While the roll out of pilot driverless taxi service has put Singapore in the limelight, this innovative use of technology in transport sector is still an extension and progressive trend that has been undergoing trials in lots of places.

Key Pillars

The Key pillars of smart city are public (infrastructure), private, and citizens in ways that will go beyond what has been done before. A smart city will enable businesses and individuals to go about their daily business and lives with ease that we should not feel the technology at work. Now that is a tall order even in the most futuristic science fiction books/movies.

A key enabler in smart city/nation is an public service that is ICT enabled and data sharing at least across the public sector. You cannot imagine a smart city that requires you to repeatedly enter your personal information in public hospital admission in the same city or state/province but it is still happening in every city in China. What has been done so far in lots of countries and in what I saw in China has been about building broadband infrastructure, cloud technology and community/personal health areas which is not built upon strong foundation of an efficient e-government platform and data services. China is still working hard to cut red tape and make its government services more friendly and relevant and only recently cancelled the need for citizen to go to the police for certain number of identity confirmation (see reference 8) and also a health system that does not allow its citizen to enjoy healthcare service away from where they are born (see reference 9). China do have lots of innovation in the e-commerce area which Singapore has lacked. Breaking down silo walls and thinking in the shoes of the citizens so that it is seamless and easy to transact should be what every public facing service should strive to achieve.

In the private sector area of smart city, it is the weakest chain for Singapore. While we have 30,000 small and medium enterprises, the ICT usage within each industry is low as we rely on a few key industries like financial service, pharmaceutical, electronics, chemical and oil, which are mainly centred on foreign multinationals. To build a plethora of smart apps and systems, we need to train and attract talents. I think the recent re-organization of infocomm and media authorities and the re-tasking of workforce development authority are necessary moves by the Singapore government to focus on supporting the ICT capability building capacity and developing the talent pools.

I like the way that Singapore has adopted in embracing changes in some industries such as the personal transport sector with driverless taxi and Uber. However, I think the breaking up of bus routes into multiple bus operators will dilute the investment in technology.

At the citizen and community level. I think the citizen sector will need a strong lead by the government linked corporations that deals with the citizens. The public hospital groups and the private healthcare groups and health technology companies should form an eco-system that will make healthcare much more personable and near-as-needed basis as possible. The retail sector should have a lead company or two (e.g. NTUC, ShengSiong, Cold Storage/Guardian) working together with delivery and physical dropbox companies to make working professionals’ lives so much easier. China has the scale and business size for and 1HaoDian to take order before 11am and deliver groceries to the door by 5pm, there is no reason why a city that is so well connected in Singapore cannot do the same or better. The identification of leading corporations should not be limited to government linked corporation if there is no suitable candidates.


We need more smarts and this is only achievable when people apply their smarts. I read an author who wrote that, let us put the intelligence into the Internet of Things (“IoT”). IoT is a tool and it is the human that we need to focus on, not the things. IoT is a tool and it is the human that we need to focus on, not the things.

Attracting and growing the talent pool that are needed to create innovative and smarter systems is the key. Things like whether IoTs will be used is secondary.


  6. Internet of Things: Promise and Peril for the RFID Industry
Some thoughts on Smart Cities and Nations