The country is just 270 square miles, or about half the size of Los Angeles, California. Its dense population of 5.47 million is slightly less than that of Barcelona, Spain. And it has effectively no natural resources.
Despite these challenges, Singapore in just a few decades has transformed itself from a somnolent island settlement into one of the most developed states in Asia, if not the world. And today—in part because of those challenges—Singapore is attempting to become the planet’s first smart, sustainable nation.
In recent years as the world’s urban population has grown steadily, straining metropolitan resources, smart city initiatives have begun around the globe. The idea is to apply new technologies to address growing urban challenges such as traffic, waste, energy, transportation, lighting, parking, healthcare, employment, and security. Cities from San Francisco to Seoul, from Toronto to Tokyo, have launched ambitious local efforts to rethink and rework how they support their citizens.
Singapore, however, is leapfrogging them all by taking advantage of its singular position and qualities to become a living lab for the world’s first integrated smart nation. The ambitious goal of the countrywide program is not just to better support its existing and future population, but also to continue driving economic growth and promote human progress. In the coming years, all eyes—especially those of emerging economies in and outside the Asia-Pacific region—will be on Singapore.
Will it become a model for how government and the private sector can partner to solve a host of problems in a world where resources are increasingly constrained and competition continues to become more intense?
Will it all work?
The growing ubiquity of the smart city
An unfamiliar concept just a few years ago, today there are smart city efforts underway in a number of cities around the world attempting to address urban growth, environmental issues, public health, and resource constraints. Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, London, Malaga, New York, Paris, and Vienna are among those with ambitious plans at various stages of development and implementation.
The urban population in 2014 accounted for 54% of the total global population, up from 34% in 1960, and continues to grow. Estimates show that by 2017, a majority of people will be living in urban areas, even in less developed countries. And by 2050, more than 70% of the world’s population will call a metropolis home. Such mass movement creates numerous challenges, including resource scarcity and escalating operating costs, which smart city efforts can help mitigate or solve.
The problems arising from this expected migration are not insignificant.
Packed together, massive population clusters place a huge demand on energy resources, generate tremendous amounts of waste products, require enormous quantities of water, and demand the creation of a significant number of new jobs.
Smart initiatives can help. For instance, illuminating streets with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can help reduce costs that currently account for as much as 40% of a city’s energy budget. Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) has implemented an LED street lighting replacement program to install 4,000 LED street lights on 500 roads, intended to save up to 45% in energy costs compared with fluorescent lighting. Also, Nanyang Technological University, Philips, and JTC Corp. have collaborated to install newly developed LED smart-grid lighting in the country’s CleanTech Park as a testing ground.
Smart initiatives have a place as well in residential and commercial buildings, which can be retrofitted to lessen carbon dioxide emissions, as is happening in the United Kingdom. London is also implementing a charging infrastructure to support the introduction of 100,000 non-polluting electric vehicles.
For areas where water is scarce, sensors can be used to manage water use or provide critical information on water-storage levels. In Santander, Spain, soil-humidity sensors now detect when land requires irrigating for more sustainable water use.
And because smart cities can spur economic growth, generate new employment opportunities, and improve the quality of life for their citizens, it’s little wonder that smart city programs are expected to take root in various parts of the world as local governments partner with the private sector to transform municipalities and prepare for an uncertain future.
A singular experiment
In the scope of its ambition, Singapore stands apart.
The country is taking the smart city concept to the next level and applying it across the country, in effect becoming a test bed for a smart nation. For a number of reasons, the island has the potential to become a model for other larger efforts around the world.
Singapore’s diminutive size and compact geography make it easier to launch, regulate, and enforce a far-reaching smart city project. Moreover, the government is highly federalized and has both the political will and authority to implement its smart nation plans. The population is highly educated, with a reported literacy rate of 96.7% in 2014. Human capital is abundant, with the labor force participation rate at a strong 67% in 2014.
The country is an economic powerhouse. Classified by the World Bank as a high-income nation, Singapore’s gross domestic product was $280 billion in 2014, according to IHS, and is expected to grow at a solid compound annual growth rate of 3.4% through 2030. Its $53,459 per capita GDP is just slightly lower than that of the United States at $58,337.
Against all odds, this tiny nation possesses the capital resources not only to run ambitious pilot projects but also to scale them nationwide.
What’s more, Singapore has previously made strategic investments in advanced technology infrastructure, both wired and wireless. The country was rated the most globally connected in Asia and the third most integrated in the world, according to the Global Connectedness Index (GCI) 2014.
And yet the country faces problems that cannot be resolved in conventional ways, presenting further compelling reason for its smart nation initiative.
For instance, Singapore has no room to build additional roads, and so must devise a more efficient transportation system to ease traffic congestion. With very limited natural resources, it must focus on sustainability and innovation to remain self-sufficient. Moreover, growing household and commercial water demand is forcing Singapore to improve water management, with a target of reducing per-capita domestic water consumption from the current 153 liters per day to 140 liters by 2030.
For its power, approximately 90% of Singapore’s electricity is generated from natural gas, which it imports via pipeline from Malaysia and Indonesia, or via cargo ships from Equatorial Guinea and Trinidad. In fact, the government plans to increase its Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal’s capacity from 6 to 11 million tons a year by 2018, all with an eye toward gaining self-sufficiency.
Blueprint for a smart city
While facing many of the same challenges as other urban regions—a growing and aging population, scarce resources, increasing societal costs—Singapore’s desire to succeed and lead in the region has led the country to come up with innovative solutions to address its problems. Since becoming an independent republic 50 years ago, Singapore has risen to become a financial powerhouse and important trading nation. But to maintain its position and self-sufficiency going forward, the country must take significant steps. The government, therefore, has created and funded a comprehensive smart nation plan.
The Smart Nation Program, developed in 2014, is intended to put in place the infrastructure, policies, ecosystem, and capabilities to improve quality of life, create more economic opportunities, and support stronger communities. The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore is overseeing the effort, working with citizens and companies to develop smart nation solutions.
The elderly: By 2030, one in five Singaporeans will be 65 or older. The country plans to use technology to help its growing elderly population live independently. IDA will be rolling out a Smart Health-Assist pilot project in the Jurong Lake District later this year to support the needs of this aging population. Deploying user-friendly sensors in the homes of the elderly (or for patients suffering from chronic diseases), data can be recorded and sent securely online to caregivers and healthcare providers, who can then monitor the individuals, receive alerts should they require attention, and respond efficiently, knowing in advance what kind of care and attention will be needed.
Transportation: With a limited land area, Singapore must get smart about meeting its growing transportation demands. The country has plans to use smart technology to improve transport efficiency and user experience. For example, Singapore is providing greater access to real-time traffic information so that citizens can plan better routes to their destinations and discover new travel options, thereby reducing congestion on the roads. The LTA’s MyTransport.SG app, for example, features enhanced bus availability times and bus loading information. The transport data sets are also available to the public via LTA's DataMall.
To deal with carbon emissions—present as long as transportation relies on internal combustion—Singapore aims to reduce emissions by 7-11% below the 2020 Business-As-Usual (BAU) level of 77.2 million tons. It is also exploring the role of autonomous vehicles: a 3.7-mile (6-kilometer) test route for autonomous vehicles has been opened for parties interested in conducting on-road autonomous vehicle trials.
Analytics: Already a leader in e-government solutions, Singapore plans to make more government and public data accessible to encourage research and analytics that will form the foundation for more responsive and forward-looking public services, such as in water management. To further drive economic competitiveness, IDA aims to position itself as an international data and analytics hub, while encouraging the adoption of analytics among businesses. IDA set up a Data Centre Park in 2011 to attract companies to host content and services in Singapore, and today houses approximately 50% of data-center capacity in Southeast Asia.
IDA also works with key players to create analytics and shared services for selected sectors and to raise awareness of the benefits of analytics adoption. Some initiatives have been established as well to provide secure and efficient supporting platforms, including the Data-as-a-Service (DaaS) Pilot and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) Enablement Program. The development of standards and a new regulatory framework on data protection are among the most integral parts of the effort.
Housing: The majority of residential housing developments in the country are publicly governed and developed by its Housing and Development Board (HDB). In 2014, 82% of the population lived in HDB housing. In May this year, HDB began selling homes in Singapore’s first smart and sustainable district, in Punggol Eco-Town.
In addition to using technologies such as complex systems-modeling tools to plan the district, the housing board is testing a variety of other smart initiatives there. Smart car parks, for example, optimize parking space usage by monitoring demand patterns from residents and visitors. Sensor-controlled lighting and predictive tools that analyze human traffic patterns could reduce energy usage by up to 40%. A smart pneumatic waste conveyance system optimizes the deployment of resources needed for waste collection, monitors waste disposal and recycling patterns, and analyzes the data to improve the design of the collection bins and collection routes.
Connectivity: While the existing Nationwide Broadband Network provides the wired infrastructure connecting homes and buildings, Singapore plans to take this a step further by creating the infrastructure to connect public spaces such as roadsides and parks.
Singapore boasts of a smartphone-rich population as well as robust network connectivity. IHS Mobile Intelligence forecasts that smartphone penetration this year in Singapore per 100 people will reach 130.0—or more than one smartphone per person—with mobile subscriptions also exceeding the 100% mark at 139.7. Those levels typify mobile usage in advanced economies, and Singapore’s smartphone penetration and mobile subscription rates exceed even US numbers, forecast this year to reach 87.8 and 115.8, respectively, per 100 people.
Such high penetration rates are complemented by the country’s ample nationwide outdoor coverage for 4G high-speed connection. So far major mobile network operators M1, SingTel Mobile, and StarHub Mobile have attained close to, or more than, 99% coverage in the country. And as of the first quarter this year, Singapore registered 43% in 4G subscription, with the rate expected to grow as operators provide full 100% coverage by 30 June 2016 and by 30 June 2018 for roads and train tunnels, respectively. The country’s broadband penetration rate among households this year is projected at 92.1%, higher than the 75.0% rate forecast for the United States. Broadband penetration represents the percentage of all households possessing an internet connection with data speeds of at least 150 kilobits per second in one direction.
While anticipating the arrival of next-generation 5G mobile broadband technology, SingTel and China’s Huawei have launched a 5G Joint Innovation Program that will serve as a research hub for the advancement of the new standard.
Cybersecurity: Security breaches are among the biggest threats to a smart, interconnected nation. Recognizing this, the Singapore government is collaborating with industry and will invest $96 million through 2018 to develop systems and technologies to aid the country's collective response to cyber threats.
Advancing the local cybersecurity industry is the job of Singapore’s Cyber Security Agency (CSA). It will also secure government agencies, communication networks, energy grids, transportation and healthcare systems, financial institutions, and water supply. Recently, the CSA forged an agreement with a French counterpart to institute regular bilateral exchanges for the sharing of best practices and the development of improved cybersecurity expertise. For its part, the IDA is overseeing Singapore’s Computer Emergency Response Team and operates a Cyber-Watch Center, established as part of Singapore's five-year National Cyber Security Masterplan.
From concept to implementation
A colossal challenge in any smart city initiative is rollout and integration across all services and departments. Smart city projects are often dispersed among government agencies that operate independently, making it difficult to coordinate planning and investment responsibilities among the various stakeholders. Moreover, political considerations can skew departments toward short-term results, rather than funneling investments into long-term projects that will help assure future success but which voters may have difficulty appreciating.
Singapore hopes to manage these risks by creating a viable framework for all participants and by working toward long-term goals in a standardized fashion. To achieve its vision, Singapore has introduced the Smart Nation Platform (SNP), on which the key components of its smart nation program will be built.
The SNP is organized around three principles: Connect, Collect, and Comprehend. The country is focused on building a secure and pervasive wired and wireless communications infrastructure, including a Heterogeneous Network (HetNet) Program to enable “Everyone, Everything, Everywhere, All the Time (E3A)” connectivity. Singapore has also committed to standardized sensor deployment across governmental departments to collect data for analytics and planning, developing sensor-network technical references to systematize connectivity and to ensure interoperability. And the nation will employ a single Smart Nation Operating System (SN-OS) to facilitate data processing, analytics, and sharing across government agencies.
Opportunities for public-private sector cooperation
Smart city initiatives represent a huge opportunity for forward-thinking companies. According to reports, 70% of global capital expenditures in 2013 were devoted to energy, transportation, and public security, with 90% of this expenditure funded either in total or in part by national or local governments. Approximately $22 billion has been invested over the past decade by the Singapore government in R&D to develop, test, and commercialize new smart city technologies and solutions. Reports project an investment volume of over $33 billion just for the installation of sensors in smart cities in 2016.
The global opportunities for smart city initiatives increase exponentially with Singapore’s whole-nation plan. A record S1.6 billion worth of public-sector technology contracts will be up for grabs in 2015 alone, up from $1.4 billion in 2014. And many of these opportunities are below $3.7 million, creating more openings for everyone from startups to multinational corporations. The IDA already has signed 24 deals with startups in 2014 alone, compared to an average of 9.2 deals between 2009 and 2013. Building Singapore's smart nation backbone will involve contracts calling for a network of 103 Intelligent Aggregation (iAG) boxes—enablers of connectivity—to supply power for surveillance cameras and traffic sensors currently being deployed island wide.
To be sure, in order to access and implement cutting-edge technologies—low-cost sensors, cloud computing, advanced analytics, Internet of Things technologies, and microgrids—Singapore must tap the global entrepreneurial community. The country will need to partner with entities of all sizes—multinational firms, large local businesses, small- and medium-sized enterprises, and startups—to achieve its smart nation goals.
Singapore must also collaborate with local and foreign institutes of higher learning and research to develop innovative solutions. At home, the government is building talent through its two major universities: National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University. Singapore’s Institute for Infocomm Research has set up the Research and Commercialization Hub in collaboration with industry partners, and has already launched numerous joint labs in areas including telecommunications, banking, transportation, and healthcare.
Government agencies can work with the private sector to create new smart services in a number of areas:
Infrastructure: Local company Singapore Technologies (ST) Electronics has launched iAG boxes. Hooked up to a variety of intelligent sensors, these devices will provide power to the sensors and aggregate surrounding sensor data on vehicular and human traffic as well as air quality. The boxes then transmit securely to relevant government agencies for analysis. Some sensors have already been deployed in the Jurong Lake District.
Green/smart buildings: The Singapore Building and Construction Authority (BCA) launched its flagship R&D project, the Zero Energy Building, at Braddell Road. The first of its kind in Southeast Asia, the structure achieves a net zero energy consumption annually despite an increasing load every year. Power and automation technology maker ABB has developed an intelligent building control system, installed in Singapore’s National Library building, to improve energy efficiency and reduce costs.
Public transport/traffic management: Singapore has awarded to ST Electronics the contract for its Expressway Monitoring and Advisory (EMA) System—a computer system to monitor traffic on expressways, detect and respond to accidents, and suggest route alternatives to travelers. The country continues to enhance the EMA, with upgrades expected to be completed by 2017.
Maritime and port management: Singapore has 11 ports with 67 berths. Port terminal operator PSA Corp. plans to invest $2.6 billion in a port intelligence system, including an automated container yard and unmanned rail-mounted gantry cranes.
Waste management: Aside from testing a smart pneumatic waste-conveyance system, the Singapore National Environment Agency has begun a pilot project to fit trash bins with sensors that can detect when they are full, as well as track waste collection performance.
Water management: Singapore's Public Utilities Board (PUB) and SUEZ Environnement, a French resources management company, agreed to collaborate on using analytics to develop a smart water grid. Singapore plans to develop a decision-support tool for storm water management, automated meter reading, and water consumption tracking.
Environmental sensor networks: The nation is piloting uClim, a web-based service to empower urban planners with access to real-time environmental information, such as temperature, relative humidity, and air quality. The system will enable them to monitor, quantify, and visualize microclimates. Led by a local environmental monitoring solution company, BioMachines, the trial will assess the potential for creating new outdoor spaces that could affect the human environment and biosphere in positive ways.
Smart energy grids and meters: Singapore’s Economic and Development Board (EDB) created the SolarNova Program, intended to drive solar energy adoption throughout the island by instilling awareness and evaluating solar demand among government agencies. The first solar leasing tender was offered in June 2015 to consolidate demand across three government agencies.
Already, projects have been rolled out in Singapore to improve smart-grid network operations and facilitate active consumer participation. Implementation of applications, such as demand response and direct load control for smart meters, was completed in Phase 1. Phase 2, which started in 2012, has some 4,500 participating consumers—from households to the commercial and industrial sectors—to monitor their electricity consumption via smart meters.
Electric car sharing: The government will exempt up to 1,000 electric cars from vehicular taxes for a car-sharing scheme that lasts up to 10 years. While a network of charging stations has to be built, operators can apply for grants that would cover up to half their capital expenditure. A briefing in January 2015 attracted more than 50 interested companies in the automotive, infrastructure, and car-sharing industries.
Self-driving vehicles: Singapore’s LTA wants to incorporate driverless vehicles operating on fixed routes and schedules into its mass-transport services. The first autonomous shuttle system, dubbed Navia, debuted in August 2014. Manufactured by French startup Induct Technologies, the system was launched in partnership with Nanyang Technological University and the government-linked JTC Corp., with the support of the state-run Singapore Economic Development Board. In addition, Nanyang Technological University and Dutch chipmaker NXP Semiconductors are collaborating on a S$22 million (approximately US$15 million) Smart Mobility Test Bed program to develop Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) technology that will enable car-to-car and roadside infrastructure communication. The test bed aims to cover 100 vehicles and 50 roadside infrastructure elements by 2016.
Smart homes: More than 17 companies—including South Korea’s Samsung and LG Electronics, as well as local communications firm StarHub—have participated in a series of trials conducted by the Housing Development Board for smart living solutions, which also take into account smart kitchens. Dutch technology company Philips launched an LED lights e-shop to enable the convenient delivery of energy-efficient lighting directly to Singaporean consumers.
Telehealth: Telehealth includes teleconsultation and telemonitoring, which are tied together by the electronic medical records system. The mechanism allows the sharing of patient data among healthcare professionals and the application of analytics on patient data, enabling more targeted and personalized treatment at reduced costs. Public hospitals, including National University Hospital, are testing a telehealth rehabilitation system in which data is transmitted wirelessly through sensors attached to patients' limbs as they carry out therapy sessions at home. The goal is to reduce the need for elderly patients to travel—and then wait—for their appointments in hospitals.
The development of digital healthcare systems will spur growth of the healthcare IT market in Singapore, IHS believes. Together, the medical electronic data interchange and medical business intelligence IT markets will grow to a projected $17.6 million in 2019. For elder care, Singapore consulting firm HuttCabb has developed a Movement Intelligent Processing System that lets users keep up with physical therapy sessions at home. Wearing sensors on their limbs, people can follow prescribed therapies or exercise regimens with the help of a virtual, on-screen assistant. Data collected from their movements will be sent automatically and in real time to healthcare professionals, enabling patients’ progress to be tracked and for regimen adjustments to be made as required.
Smart surveillance: Japanese technology giant NEC is currently testing in Singapore public safety technologies—smart cameras, audio, and social media surveillance. An NEC-led consortium is one of four groups participating in the country’s Safe City Test Bed. Initiated by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Economic Development Board, the test bed looks at how technology and analytics can aid urban management and public safety.
E-governance: Singapore is looking to revamp its government e-services. Among the major initiatives announced in 2015 was the Singapore Customs’ plan to integrate by 2018 all its back-end applications into a single system, tentatively called National Trade Infrastructure. The government hopes that the system will boost national productivity and advance Singapore's competitiveness through a digitalized and integrated supply chain. Also on the agenda is Corporate Pass (Corppass): a one-stop authentication and authorization system for corporate users to access multiple government electronic and mobile services.
Robotics: Singapore-based startup CtrlWorks has introduced Axon, an intelligent robot powered by cloud robotics technology, intended to ease manpower shortages in areas such as logistics and hospitals.
Tech training and employment: Microsoft has partnered with IDA to launch a three-year nationwide initiative called “Code for Change.” The goal is to boost next-generation talent development with a program designed to reach 1.2 million people, including 500,000 students.
On the road to a smart Singapore
Building the first smart nation is fraught with risks. Project management can become problematic very quickly as the value chain, comprising multiple departments and initiatives, grows in size and complexity. In addition, the dominance of government-controlled entities and the centralized administration in Singapore could further slow the realization of the smart nation plan through potential bureaucratic delay
Even success may have its drawbacks. Self-sufficiency might affect Singapore’s future global relations, particularly with Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia currently supplies nearly 40% of Singapore’s daily water demand, and 90%of Singapore’s electricity is generated using imported natural gas from Malaysia and Indonesia. Reducing imports through smart technologies could strain relations with the two nations, and also reduce the demand for Singapore’s own products and services in those jurisdictions.
The government could similarly encounter resistance from its own citizenry. Smart homes, for example, are more expensive than traditional ones. The initial rollout of new housing from HDB costs as much as 8-20% more than standard alternatives. Citizens may justifiably grow concerned about their privacy—and the security of their personally identifiable information—as the government collects and analyzes increasingly large data sets about their lives, habits, and activities.
But if Singapore does make good on the promises of its smart nation plan, the result will be a more livable, competitive, and sustainable country in under two decades. Singapore would like to see 80% of its buildings achieve new environmentally friendly certification by 2030. It aims to improve the recycling rate in 2030 to 70%, up from 58% in 2011; cut energy consumption by 35% in 2030 from 2005 levels; see solar power contribute 350 (MWP) to its grid by 2020; and increase the lifespan of landfills from 30 to 40 years.
While these outcomes are not guaranteed, what is clear is that Singapore is serious and putting its money and will into the plan, promoting innovation, as well as providing funding and assistance, particularly for startups and small- to mid-sized enterprises. With various pilot projects underway, Singapore has also started to call for bids on many other plans in development. Companies that want to be part of this future may have found their first national test bed in which to assess their own new technologies and processes.
Undoubtedly the country has plenty to offer: advanced information technology that is available and utilized by all from seniors to schoolchildren; widespread, pervasive connectivity; and a government attuned to the digital age. All these elements will serve to make Singapore attractive to forward-thinking businesses around the globe, with the country conceivably becoming a hot spot for startups and leading Fortune 500 firms alike.
Ultimately, a sustainable Singapore—with everything from smart buildings and homes to efficient vehicles and resource management—would show other nations the way toward a more livable future for all the world’s citizens.
Vinita Jakhanwal is senior director for displays and APAC research. Contributing to this article were Chee-Seng Tan, Kia Ling Teoh, Yoke Yuin Cheong, Jun Wen Woo, Joanne Goh, and Krystal Khaw