It sounds like something out of a sci-fi fantasy: “A nation where people live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all.” These were the words of Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in November 2014 as he launched the government’s Smart Nation initiative, and it could well be that this one day becomes a reality.
Singapore, along with other cities and countries around the world, is investing heavily in the future, particularly in smart technology, to solve its problems. In January, the city-state unveiled a $13.5 billion five-year plan to fund research and development (R&D) to transform past research into solutions to the country’s challenges. A big portion of this cash will go toward reaching Lee’s goal of creating a smart Singapore.
But this idea of a ‘smart city’ is still an abstract concept for many. “We define smart cities as adding communications and IT to urban infrastructure to improve efficiency. This is typically energy efficiency, but also improved public safety, traffic flow and more,” explained Chris Testa, director of research at Northeast Group, an R&D consulting firm based in Washington, DC. “This includes smart metering, building automation and sensors for smart streetlights, environmental indicators, traffic lights and similar infrastructure.”
Devices equipped with smart technology can collect and send data to be analysed in order to, say, switch off streetlights when there are no pedestrians or vehicles. The applications are endless. “Street and traffic light sensors can allow for dynamic tolls or timed traffic lights to manage congestion, smart meters can help improve electricity demand management, and sensors on rubbish bins can alert waste management when they are full,” said Testa.
Singapore’s Jurong district has become a test bed for such innovations under the government’s initiative. Hundreds of data collection sensors dot the area, with the information being used to manage several aspects of life there, from the driverless electric buggies that ferry people around, to the comfort levels of bus rides. Advanced software analyses videos to reveal when public spaces need to be cleaned and monitors queues in stores or offices to deploy staff where they are most needed.
Another part of Singapore’s initiative is the Future Cities laboratory where scientists have, over the past five years, been collating all the possible information on the city and making it accessible to other researchers and to the general public. They are currently focused on using the data to build a ‘responsive city’ through Information Architecture.
“In a smart city you have all the data you need and more, but with Information Architecture people can, through the devices they have, start to interact in a responsive way with the city,” said Gerhard Schmitt, professor of Information Architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and the founding director of the Singapore-ETH Centre in Singapore. “That means they cannot only see something, they cannot only analyse something, they cannot only complain about something, but they can start to make suggestions for the design and management of the city.”
Of course, in cities across the world, much of the data used is collected by government agencies and businesses. But in smart cities, ordinary citizens can be part of both the data collection and analysis too. In places as diverse as São Paulo, Brazil, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, people are already providing information to city planners via smartphone apps.
“This has a positive impact because people see that they actually have some effect,” said Schmitt. “On the other hand, it increases the amount of data and thus the certainty that decisions are right or have to be made based on the data.”
Some may point out that, with its relative wealth, size and stable government, Singapore is blessed with distinct advantages in developing as a smart city compared to its neighbours. Other cities may struggle to replicate Singapore’s model in the short term – for example, dynamic tolls will be harder to implement in less-wealthy and poorly organised urban centres, while the cost of implementing communications infrastructure may be too high for some cities. But as Testa points out, costs are coming down for most technologies and the first, fundamental layers can be installed in most major metropolises, which will then enable further smart city applications.
“I hope you see a real tropical paradise,” said Schmitt when asked how Singapore might look in five decades’ time. “So if you walk around the streets you won’t be suffering from the heat, the air will be absolutely clean, and there will be self-driving transportation that will quietly move you from place to place, and there will be no more heavy industries.”