Singapore

The Big Read: Speed bumps hinder Singapore’s Smart Nation drive

Commuters pass Grab transport booking service app advertisements at a train station in Singapore February 10, 2016. Photo: Reuters
FILE - In this July 15, 2015, file photo, Uber driver Karim Amrani sits in his car parked near the San Francisco International Airport parking area. Photo: AP
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the Camp Sequoia dialogue. Photo: MCI
Located at the NUH Medical Centre Pharmacy, this Outpatient Pharmacy Automated System (OPAS) integrates assembly line technologies with pharmacy databases and software in order to automate the medication dispensing process. Photo: NUH
Published: 10:10 PM, April 14, 2017
Updated: 12:08 AM, April 15, 2017

SINGAPORE — It was unveiled as a vision that will transform lives, create a more productive economy, and enable the Government to be more responsive to citizens’ needs. But Singapore’s massive Smart Nation drive - which seeks to transform the way the whole country does things by tapping on the exciting possibilities that technology offers - has run into speed bumps, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself acknowledged earlier this year.

“We really are not going as fast we ought to,” Mr Lee said at the annual tech summit Camp Sequoia in February where he was speaking to some of the world’s leading innovators and disruptors.

Singapore’s aspiration is a lofty one: While countries are working on creating “smart cities”, the Republic aims to be the first Smart Nation in the world, infusing information and communication and Internet of things (IoT) technologies into every aspect of citizens’ lives.

Just last month, the Government announced steps to “turbo-charge” the Smart Nation movement, as Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO) Vivian Balakrishnan called it. Various government agencies will be reorganised and a high-powered Ministerial Committee will steer the Smart Nation efforts.

But it is the private sector which has been found wanting and needs to step up, experts say. In other countries, private sector involvement has been essential to the success of smart cities such as Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Hamstrung by a lack of deep technology entrepreneurs, software engineers and data scientists, the private sector here has yet to seize the initiative in most areas - except in transport, which has led the way thanks in no small part to the disruption brought on by ride-sharing companies Uber and Grab that has, in turn, spurred innovation by local firms including homegrown start-ups.

In fact, the “strong government” could be a double-edged sword when it comes to the Smart Nation drive, the experts pointed out. While this means that the Government has the capacity to push through initiatives and achieve results, the private sector could become less pro-active as a result.

On its part, the Government has - on several occasions - stressed the need for private sector and the general public to play a bigger role in the Smart Nation initiative.

“By and large, Singapore companies seem to be waiting for the Government to take the lead in rolling out smart solutions. Others may also wait for the Government to call for tenders or contracts before proceeding,” said Dr Calvin Chan, an expert on e-government who is director of the Office of Graduate Studies at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). Referring to the impact of Uber and Grab on the private-hire car industry, Dr Chan pointed out that local companies may be nudged into action when they are faced with competition from new entrants.

In response to TODAY’s queries, SNPO said there has been progress in some areas, including transport and e-government services. “However, progress is not uniform and we can move faster,” SNPO said. It cited challenges such as getting more people excited about ICT and engineering. Referring to the reorganisation of government agencies, which will take effect next month, SNPO said this was a step towards greater nimbleness given the pace of technological changes. “We saw a need to adopt an integrated approach and pull together the expertise that currently resides across different parts of the Government, so as to move more swiftly and decisively on our Smart Nation goals,” SNPO said.

An issue that may prove to be tricky to overcome is the size of Singapore’s market, which has led some entrepreneurs to question the viability of testing out concepts here.

To spur involvement from the private sector - including overseas players - and attract cutting-edge ideas, Singapore has touted itself as providing “the ideal place for firms and individuals to create prototypes and test bed new ideas”, in the words of the Prime Minister.

Calling on the private sector and members of the public to step up in order for the country to realise its Smart Nation vision, Mr Lee had noted that Singapore is “compact and allows innovations to be scaled up”. Speaking at the Founders Forum Smart Nation Singapore held in 2015, Mr Lee added: “If you can make it work in Singapore, you have a chance to adapt and apply it to other contexts. If it doesn’t work in Singapore, it’s probably worth a rethink.”

Companies involved in Smart Nation trials include Singapore-based start-up nuTonomy, which was the first firm to be given the green light to launch tests for self-driving taxis here.

Responding to TODAY’s queries, nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma pointed to Singapore’s “excellent infrastructure and strong governmental support of autonomous vehicles”. He said: “Connectivity is key to nuTonomy’s growth, since we rely on access to a digital platform to e-hail an autonomous vehicle.”

The company will apply what it learnt from the trial here to the streets of Boston, where it has also been testing self-driving vehicles since January. “Our ongoing public trials in Singapore continue to provide us with valuable feedback from riders on the entire experience - from booking to arriving at the final destination,” said Dr Iagnemma. He added: “We are adapting what we’ve learned in Singapore... and will further adapt our technology to cities throughout the world. We are in discussions with other locations to determine which we will expand to next.”

However, in a recent interview with The Business Times, the chief executive officer of homegrown gaming hardware company Razer - one of Singapore’s most successful companies currently based in San Francisco - advised other Singapore companies to focus on global markets from the start. “By the time you’re done with test-bedding in Singapore, somebody’s already tested the same (idea) in China, or in California, reaching out to North America and so forth,” said Mr Tan Min-Liang. “You’re better off starting in the US and China from the get-go.” His sentiment was shared by Mr Isaac Ho, CEO of venture capital firm Venturecraft, who told BT that “even if you successfully test-bed a product here, the small population means you will not be prepared for large volume transactions. This could result in under-building a product.”

SUSS’ Dr Chan agreed that the size of the Singapore market could be a limitation. “(It) renders us to be less attractive for foreign companies compared to other cities with a larger population and hence bigger market size,” he said.

Still, Ms Serene Chan, Industry Manager (Information & Communication Practice) at Frost & Sullivan, stressed that the Singapore start-up community has a vital role to play, “It is more important to grow our local start-up community to encourage an innovative and enterprising society... the government should not be the only one solving all urban challenges,” she said.

At the Camp Sequoia event, the Prime Minister reiterated that the Republic is “looking at major projects which will make a big difference to the way Singapore is able to operate”.

Turning their focus on the government’s role, the experts concurred that a lack of coordination among various agencies could likely have been a stumbling block initially.

Mr Gerald Wang, head of government and education at research firm IDC, noted the challenges that organisations such as the SNPO and the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) could face: “Government agencies are usually very protective of their data sets, and to get them to share information, especially if it is sensitive, would be difficult,” he said. The reorganisation meant that the coordination can be led by the Prime Minister’s Office “at a higher level”, he added. “Now, it is probably more streamlined, with less bureaucracy.”

Ms Chan also cited the time-consuming task of getting the views of various stakeholders - including ordinary citizens - and making sure their needs are met, given the issues involved and the pervasive nature of Smart Nation initiatives.

Indeed, underlining the enormity and complexity of the tasks at hand, the SNPO said that Singapore was in “uncharted territory”.

Citing “new and tough issues” in cybersecurity, data protection and data sharing which need addressing, it added: “We need to get these right and we have to figure out how best to resolve them together.”