Singapore is striving to be the world's first 'smart city'

Speaking with Engadget, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, the country’s minister for foreign affairs and minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, spelled out how he believes the program will transform Singapore.

“There is much political angst about inequality and middle-class stagnation in developed economies,” he said. “This has been accompanied by loud, populist and ultimately futile arguments about yesterday’s ideology and politics. … In Singapore, we know that new technology trumps politics as usual.”

What Dr. Balakrishnan is alluding to is that, rather than being about talk, Smart Nation is about action. It’s pushing forward with trials across many sectors, focusing on “areas with high impact on residents and citizens.” For now, that means housing, health and transport.

At home

When you think of public housing, your mind probably goes to the low-income tower blocks in generally deprived areas around North America and Europe. In Singapore, the scope of public housing is far more broad. More than 80 percent of residents (3.2 million people) live in affordable apartments maintained by the country’s Housing and Development Board (HDB). This huge pool of public housing provides an unparalleled testing ground for some of Smart Nation’s ideas.

In the Yuhua estate, one of the first neighborhoods to “go smart,” thousands of sensors have been installed to keep tabs on individual apartments. In partnership with private companies, authorities are able to measure energy draw, waste production and water usage in real time. The latter is a real issue for an island that, although making strides toward water independence, still imports tens of billions of gallons of water from neighboring Malaysia each year. As part of the pilot, Yuhua has also “gone green,” with a new vacuum waste-management system, solar panels and water-reclamation efforts.

Through smart applications, the sensors provide residents with feedback on their behavior, helping them to use less water, electricity and so on, driving down household costs. The government, in turn, is able to aggregate this data, using analytics and computer simulation to improve the planning, design and maintenance of public housing estates. And that pattern — programs benefiting both individuals and the country as a whole — repeats itself throughout Smart Nation’s myriad initiatives.


Many developed nations are facing the same problems right now: an aging population and the increasing cost of caring for it. Those costs are not only related to medical expenses, though. Singapore is a nation with a culturally embedded sense of filial piety, and as the pool of elderly increases, so too will the amount of time family members spend caring for them, rather than working.

When it comes to health care, Smart Nation is centered on reducing that burden. For the past two years, Singapore has been testing an “Elderly Monitoring System” (EMS), a noninvasive program that uses sensors on doors and inside rooms to monitor movement. If there’s a lack of activity or the system detects some other incident, the caregiver, be it a family member or a professional, is alerted instantly.

The trial is opt-in and, as Dr. Balakrishnan explained, is meant to “ensure peace of mind for those with elderly family members.” As beneficial as it may be for families of at-risk people, the effort seems as much about reducing the cultural stigma of not “doing your familial duty” by constantly checking up on people.

The private sector is involved in the rollout of EMS. Where this partnership differs from the energy monitoring schemes is who will pick up the tab. During the trial period, the government is handling costs, but it’s expected that residents with the means to pay will do so when the service goes into full operation. Commercialization of initiatives is seen as key for driving Smart Nation forward — the government supplies the “laboratory” for businesses to flourish in.

Another health-care pilot revolves around “Tele-health” — the idea that you don’t need to leave your house, or even see a doctor, to get medical treatment. A “tele-rehabilitation” trial began in late 2014 and is nearing completion. It aims to offer stroke patients the chance to rehabilitate without traveling to hospitals or health centers. “Tele-health allows you to receive treatment in the comfort of your home, to remain longer with your family and community without going to the hospital, or to provide greater peace of mind for caregivers of loved ones while freeing up hospital beds for those who really need them,” Dr. Balakrishnan said.

In the trial, tablets guide patients through exercises. While they go through the motions, sensors and cameras capture footage for therapists to review remotely. Once a week, the tablets are used for face-to-face video conferences between doctors and patients. Just under a hundred citizens have taken part in the trial, which has a control group to compare the methods against traditional therapy. The results are expected to be published next year.

On the road

Transport is the obvious poster child for the “living laboratory” strategy. Singapore has been at the forefront of autonomous-vehicle testing, opening its streets to self-driving cars and buses. Small-scale trials of shuttles began at Nanyang Technological University three years ago, and more recently MIT spin-off nuTonomy started testing autonomous taxis on the city’s streets. But while these efforts continue — just last week a plan for a full-size robotic bus serving NTU was announced — there are efforts beyond self-driving vehicles.

Sensors are at the heart of Smart Nation, and the government has been using them to track its bus fleets. By crunching data, it’s able to identify problem areas and formulate solutions to work around them. Dr. Balakrishnan said that by identifying where more buses were needed this initiative has already “resulted in a 90 percent reduction in crowdedness” and reduced wait times on popular services three to five minutes. The next step is private transport.

Singapore has taxed cars using an electronic road-toll-collection system for over a decade, but the next iteration of that system, due in 2020, will be much more comprehensive. It calls for a government-mandated satellite-navigation system in all vehicles. The system will silently monitor where a car is at any given time, opening a wealth of data for analysis. Authorities will be able to monitor traffic conditions nationwide, from volume to average speed, highlighting congestion and issues with road layout. This level of traffic monitoring — knowing exactly where every car on the road is at any given time — is unprecedented.

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