Smart Cities: Smart States: Smart Nations

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Innovating Together for the 21st Century was the subject of a UK / Singapore event today in Central London, and despite the rhetoric and back-patting from both sides about past creativity and success, this is actually likely to be a programme that will yield good results in the future.

And the reason is that Singapore is a very technologically progressive nation; and one for which I have strong affinity and a high regard. I lived and worked there for five years and was able to start, grow and exit a high technology company within that timeframe. My microcosm of activity stress-tested its research and development capability, its start-up mentality, its business support infrastructure, its logistics, its connectivity, and its resilience to global issues (SARS and economic meltdown in the western world, to name but two). And it all worked well for me. Of course there were frustrations, but there were also great rewards realised and strong friendships created.

That experience happened between 2002 and 2007, and although the term hadn’t really been coined, Singapore was a pretty smart city even back then. I travelled with an RFID card (like London’s Oyster card of today) seamlessly on both buses and the underground, traffic lights were fitted with LEDs to reduce energy consumption, the electronic road pricing (ERP) system reduced city centre traffic jams, wi-fi was free (and fast) at Changi airport, libraries and many fast food outlets, and taxis had seat-back displays giving you information as you travelled. And when SARS struck, free digital thermometers were distributed widely and body temperature was recorded and uploaded across the island.

But interestingly at the event today, a major panel discussion centred on smart cities and Singapore’s aspiration to be not just a smart city, but a smart nation; and probably the first. Of course, this is semantics, because Singapore is a city state, so by definition if its city is smart, so is its nation.

But actually there is a real challenge in this ambition, because being a smart nation needs to embrace more than just the city infrastructure. It needs to include national policy, diverse public services, education, employment, entertainment, tourism, retirement, and healthcare across the country.

And although being contained in a city has its advantages, it is also a great opportunity to reap the benefits. Today, being smart involves much more than I witnessed a decade ago. It needs energy supply, water supply, air quality, movement of people, movement of vehicles, supply of food, deployment of security, scheduling of entertainment and so on to be monitored, controlled and optimised in real-time against data models and in-field feedback.

Steve Leonard of Singapore’s Infocomm Development Agency (IDA) summed it up well: connecting everything and everyone all the time! The ramifications are enormous. Huge data, huge insights, huge efficiencies and a huge competitive edge.

And in Singapore where everyone lives on top of each other and there has arguably been a kind of “benevolent dictatorship”, privacy is not seen as such a big deal as it is to us in the west. Whether this is morally right of wrong is another debate, but the point is that culturally Singapore is primed to embrace being a truly smart nation and many of the barriers we see in the UK are not so high in Singapore. As Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise explained in her talk: Singaporeans are a very pragmatic people.

So the UK would do well to collaborate on this ambition with Singapore as it could learn a lot, test a lot, and probably bring its own cities up to speed in smartness more quickly than it would in isolation.

The challenge for the UK is actually the part of being a smart nation. Firstly, there is more to the UK than London. Secondly, there is more to the UK than a dozen or so large cities. We have huge swathes of rural countryside with small towns and villages where even broadband is absent. Living in Malvern, I know all to well how being rural can put the brakes on growth and development. But significant things do happen in Malvern and we need to be part of the smart infrastructure too. Moreover, there are lots of other rural spaces like us where tourism, agriculture, education, energy production, niche commerce, etc. are contributing to the nation and can be done better in a smart integrated way.

So my view is that in this partnership, Singapore should focus on becoming the model smart city state, and the UK should focus on becoming the model smart nation beyond cities. What we learn from Singapore can be applied to our great cities, and what we learn from the rural challenge can be exported via Singapore to its Asian neighbours where indeed rural jungles, isolated islands, and lesser-developed suburbs proliferate.

Meanwhile, we are ready here in Malvern to be the test-bed for the smart exo-city.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Postscript: As a case in point, this article would have been published more quickly had the wi-fi been working on my train home to the rural hinterland of our yet-to-be smart nation.

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The Biggest Big Data

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At the risk of sounding like a technical dinosaur, I still have neatly filed away some 3.5” floppy discs. Their capacity a tiny 1.44Mb. I remember well the days that I used to pop them in and out of my Mac and other devices at the time thinking that I would never need any more storage than that. Of course I was wrong, by a long way. Megabytes, became Gigabytes, Gigabytes have become Terabytes and today, whilst listening to Pete Rose from HP talk at the Malvern Festival Of Innovation about Big Data, I heard for the first time about Brontobytes – yep, ‘brontobytes’, like that huge dinosaur! This is a huge, huge number, this is almost the biggest of big data.

Just to bring you up to speed sequentially we have a gigabyte, then add three more zeros to get a terabyte, add 3 more zeros to get a petabyte, then you go exabyte, zettabyte, yottabyte and then the aforementioned brontobyte. This is 10 to the power 27, or more zeros than you can comfortably write down or even quantify. Just to put this into context 10 to the power 24, the yottabyte, is the total strange capability of 250 trillion DVDs. So a brontobyte is 1000 yottabytes, in other words – massive!

These are immense numbers and in order to access (never mind find!) data that will be stored in this quantity, new computing methods will be required. HP Labs are already innovating, developing and researching into photonics to replace the copper connections within todays computers, servers, and tablets with optical connections – the much heralded computing at the speed of light, literally. In order to do this they have a research project called ‘The Machine’ to make computing more efficient by removing the 80% of time that computers spend on managing their environment – as in moving data from one place to another – and getting it to perform the task at hand. The technology and the new thinking (the innovation) needed to do this is immense, but with HP behind it and their enviable track record in innovation, it will no doubt come to market.

So will ‘The Machine’ be able to crunch through brontobytes at the speed of light? That’s the aim, that’s the dream, in fact that’s the future market need.

Oh and just in case you were wondering, the brontobyte will go the way of it’s dinosaur namesake, as the ‘geopbyte’ – that’s 10 to the power 30, is already in HP’s sights. Big Data will continue to get bigger!

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Read more about ‘The Machine’ here : http://h30507.www3.hp.com/t5/Cloud-Source-Blog/The-Machine-a-view-of-the-future-of-computing/ba-p/164568#.VCv1ab4rjdk

Stuart Wilkes, Guest Blogger

So What Is Innovation?

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The Malvern Festival Of Innovation has kicked off, for the next 4 days in the beautiful hillside town of Malvern. There is a range of exciting speakers talking on everything from Cyber Security and the Internet Of Things, through to manufacturing and bootstrapping. These are complemented with a diverse range of exhibitors such as Aston Martin and Lockheed Martin to small startups and entrepreneurs.

Everybody will talk ‘innovation’! But hang on, exactly what is innovation? I’m sure if you ask half a dozen engineers, you will get half a dozen answers – it’s the new, it’s a device, it’s a process, it’s an application, it’s a better solution…it’s all of these and more.

Being innovative, being an innovator is seen as a very good thing. These are the people who break new ground, rip up the rules and try something new. Not encumbered by the past, but excited by the future. Convinced that things, no matter what they are can be better. The human race can be moved forward by innovation in whatever form it comes and in whatever subject it occurs. Innovators will fall, but they pick themselves up, dust themselves down and keep pushing forward, enthused by the fact that one day they will ‘crack it’.

Innovators have given us smart phones, heart monitors, cars and planes; microwave ovens and digital cameras; They have delivered flat screens, HD, WiFi and more – and they are not done yet. With the world now more connected than ever innovators around the world can share and collaborate, they attack the big problems facing humanity as a collective.

It appears to me that innovation is not one thing, in fact innovation is a state of mind, and many of those minds are gathering for the next few days here in Malvern…

Stuart Wilkes, Guest Blogger