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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