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How digital tech can help Singapore tackle crises and build a better society

Singapore is an island city-state. We have no natural resources other than the creativity and industry of our people. In the face of these challenges, technology has been Singapore’s ally.

Singapore is an island city-state. We have no natural resources other than the creativity and industry of our people. In the face of these challenges, technology has been Singapore’s ally.

Technology has continued to evolve, and Singapore is determined to harness it for good. 

Smart and digital technologies can help us and other countries solve problems, unlock opportunities, and improve people’s lives. 

If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital tools and solutions, and greatly accelerated global trends towards digitalisation.

The global pandemic has also shown that digitalisation not only makes our lives more convenient, it can be a lifesaver. 

In Singapore, we have had to come up with apps and technologies quickly to trace and contain Covid-19 infections. 

The TraceTogether app and the national digital check-in system, SafeEntry, have enabled health authorities to swiftly and effectively conduct contact tracing. 

This has been a game changer as we strive to keep Singaporeans safe, and as the country gradually resumes some form of normality.

INTEGRATING TECH INTO URBAN PLANNING 

Prior to the pandemic, we had already been consistently using digital tools to help us better plan, develop and manage our city. 

The pandemic has accelerated this process and spurred us to make better use of these tools in various dimensions, including public health.

Our urban planners have developed a range of digital planning tools, including ePlanner, which helps analyse datasets from different agencies to improve the design of urban spaces. 

With ePlanner, our planners can not only identify areas with higher concentrations of elderly, but also analyse travel patterns to assess how easily they can access healthcare facilities. This additional information helps identify and fill gaps to meet seniors’ needs.

Digitalisation has also helped to better design, build and manage public housing towns. 

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) uses environmental modelling tools and computer simulations to analyse wind flow, solar heat and noise within upcoming towns, allowing the design and positioning of newly built homes to conserve energy and optimise comfort. 

This has been applied on a town-wide level for the very first time in Tengah New Town, which is now being built.

TRANSFORMING THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT SECTOR 

This pandemic has shown us clearly that Singapore needs to embrace digitalisation and move away from a heavy reliance on manual labour. 

Embracing digital tools and technology also creates opportunities to upskill Singaporeans and create new jobs. 

This transformation also greatly enhances the cost-efficiency of managing and maintaining buildings. 

A building’s overall life-cycle costs ─ including energy use, maintenance and facilities management ─ can be more than four times greater than the initial construction cost. 

This can be lowered by using technology to design, build, manage and maintain buildings more efficiently.

Many of our government agencies and private developers have begun to embrace these changes. 

JTC, which manages industrial estates, uses a range of digital tools to track, analyse and optimise the performance of buildings, gather feedback from tenants, and automatically route the information to a facilities team for quick action.

PLANNING NATURE AREAS AND PARKS 

Geospatial modelling tools have helped boost the conservation of local biodiversity, such as migratory shorebirds, forest birds, butterflies, coral reefs and mangroves. 

The National Parks Board (NParks) uses geographical information system (GIS) modelling, for example, to determine the path of least resistance for forest birds and butterflies across the urban landscape. 

Connective “nature ways” can then be created for these creatures to move between green spaces in the city.

NParks is also using predictive models to understand how coral reefs, mangroves and intertidal flats are connected within Singapore’s coastal waters. This assists urban planners in  crafting management strategies to safeguard valuable areas of biodiversity.

Insights from highly technical models can even lead to ambitious national policies such as the creation of protected nature parks. 

Satellite tracking of migratory shorebirds has helped determine that our small island is a major pitstop along their long-distance migration routes. 

Understanding this key ecological relationship enabled our decision to conserve Mandai Mangrove and Mudflat as a nature park.

MAKING TECH INCLUSIVE  

Technology also allows Singapore to harness the energy of greater citizen participation. 

One example is the OneService mobile app, which was created to enable residents to give feedback easily on-the-go. 

When residents encounter municipal issues, the feedback they submit through the app is automatically routed to the relevant agency in charge. 

The app’s geo-tagging and photo-taking functions enable municipal officers to pinpoint the exact location and nature of the issues, and to respond promptly.

How do we ensure that everyone ─ from rich to poor, young to old, and across all ethnicities ─ experiences these technological benefits?

In May 2020, Singapore set up an agency dedicated to raising the digital literacy of groups such as the elderly and the lower-income, and to accelerate how quickly they adopt digital tools. 

The SG Digital Office organises classes for senior citizens to pick up various simple digital skills, such as creating secure passwords, making e-payments, making video calls to loved ones, searching for information online, and importantly, how to guard against cyber scams even as they explore this new digital world.

The private sector and civil society are also pitching in. 

Several telecommunications companies have launched subsidised mobile and data plans for seniors, while the Ministry of Education has partnered non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and businesses to provide low-income families with subsidised personal computers and options for free broadband connection.

FUTURE-PROOFING SINGAPORE

The Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global crisis that continues to have far-reaching impacts on economies and peoples’ lives. 

Yet we should keep in mind that, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the world was already grappling with complex and growing problems such as climate change and urbanisation, and adapting to technological and social disruptions.

While the global pandemic is a major crisis, it can also trigger societies to act more boldly to find solutions to these challenges, opening up new opportunities and ways of thinking.

Technology and digitalisation should play a key supporting role in these efforts. 

Singapore’s experience has shown that these tools can enhance our strengths and even transcend our limitations. 

If harnessed well, technology will be instrumental in helping cities and countries emerge from difficult times to become more resilient, more sustainable and more liveable.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Desmond Lee is the Minister for National Development and the Minister in-Charge of Social Services Integration. This is an edited version of the article published in the January 2021 issue of Urban Solutions magazine, a publication by the Centre for Liveable Cities under the Ministry of National Development.

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Technology tech digital economy Smart Nation digitalisation

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