Published On: Tue, May 5th, 2015

Exclusive Interview: Singapore’s Smart Nation Minister

Exclusive Interview: Singapore’s Smart Nation Minister“Independent Singapore has always had to think in strategic terms, because we were always facing existential challenges,” says Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Smart Nation Minister.

A small city state surrounded by vast – and once hostile – neighbours, Singapore always had to strive to survive. It has done so by riding a wave of globalisation; constantly seeking out new opportunities to differentiate itself.

Fifty years ago, Balakrishnan explains, that meant making the radical choice to be an open city in a region of closed markets. Equally, the city sought to be a “first world oasis in a third world region”, investing in its sewerage systems, planting trees, banning coal fires to retain its blue skies, and fining its people for littering.

Singapore now sees a new opportunity to set itself apart again. The city is embracing new technologies to become an integral node in a digitally connected world. Over the past six months, it has set out an ambitious new programme of digital reforms called the Smart Nation initiative, and Balakrishnan is heading up the office coordinating this.

The programme means massive change for Singapore, its government and its society. Balakrishnan met exclusively with FutureGov to explain how almost everything in Singapore must change.

Why a Smart Nation?

“Something fundamental has changed, and it’s going to change the way we live, work, play, socialise, educate, entertain ourselves,” Balakrishnan says.

New technologies are altering the nature of society, and the Minister lists nine key platforms: computers; connectivity; the World Wide Web; social media; the proliferation of sensors; the internet of things; big data analytics; robotics; and 3D printing.

Singapore’s government intends to harness these technologies, and other digital tools that may arise, to achieve three key aims. First, “we want to improve the quality of life of our people”, Balakrishnan says. In practice, that means better connected, more secure, happier citizens, with better health, education and greater wealth.

Second, “I’m focussed on jobs. What are the jobs that are disappearing? What are the jobs that are going to appear? What are the skills and capabilities that my people need to have to get these new jobs and opportunities?” In practice, that means making available the tools needed to work in a new digital economy, the Minister believes.

What are the jobs that are disappearing? What are the jobs that are going to appear?

When new platforms emerge, great inequality follows where early adopters earn their fortunes and others lose their jobs, Balakrishnan says. The world is currently experiencing that trend, he adds, but greater access to the skills and tools required will build a thriving middle class.

The third aim is a social one: “How are all of these things going to affect the way that we function as a cohesive community given our existential challenges – that we’re actually a very diverse people? Race, language and religion continue to be live issues,” he says. Singapore is a multi-racial city in a region that has suffered its fair share of racial tensions.

Keeping a ‘cohesive society’

The government enforces comparatively strict laws on speech. But new technologies are changing how citizens communicate, and the government is having to adapt.

A “new revolution has democratised publishing: now everyone can consume, everyone can publish,” Balakrishnan says. “If everyone can publish, everyone’s voice can be heard,” he continues, causing the global upturning of “the old ways of organisation, where government has a monopoly on information and a few rich men control the press”.

“We believe that we should respond with greater transparency: sharing data in real time, letting people prove their rightness on the basis of facts and figures and argument, subject to rigorous peer review. It’s actually an age of greater transparency, and an age for people to co-create solutions,” he says.

“We believe that we should respond with greater transparency”

However, the government also is concerned that this democratisation of publishing could cause greater tensions in its society. “We get it that something fundamental has changed. At the same time, we don’t accept that freedom of expression is the ultimate value,” the Minister says.

“Our ultimate objective is to improve the human condition and we view all these things as a means to an end. So in terms of community, I think that these platform technologies allow us to create a society that is hopefully more tolerant of diversity, but insisting on accuracy.”

While the government has traditionally been able to oversee what is published in Singapore, many of the new publishing platforms are based overseas: Facebook, YouTube, even large blogging networks like the Huffington Post. These posts are still visible in Singapore, however, posing something of a challenge to the government. How does it plan to react to this trend?

Balakrishnan notes that “reactionary governments” tend to try to shut these sites down, “which doesn’t work”. Others “just ignore it, which also doesn’t work”. The Minister explains that “what I believe, and it has been strengthened by my experience in the week in which Lee Kuan Yew passed away, is to get the silent majority to step up. Suddenly you realise the tone, even of hitherto raucous, noisy, critical, cynical, gets altered. So the answer is not to reject those technologies or posts, but to mobilise real people to express real views on the basis of data and accuracy.”

Through this approach, the government is keen to see a tolerant society emerge online. “I’m trying to visualise that you can actually end up with a more open, sharing, cohesive, diverse, experimental society, generating new ideas, testing them out, dropping them, failing quickly, moving on,” Balakrishnan says.

How to build a Smart Nation

Singaporean satellite dishes
Singaporean satellite dishes

How, practically, does the Minister intend to build a Smart Nation? Balakrishnan heads up the Smart Nation Programme Office, based in the Prime Minister’s Office, and has set out three key layers on which the plan will be built.

The bottom layer is infrastructure. Singapore is already a major node in the global submarine cable network. The city’s homes are also well-connected by fibre optic cables, and the government intends to do more. “On infrastructure, we intend to beat the world, have no doubt about that. And in a sense, it’s an unfair competition because we’re small”.

“On infrastructure, we intend to beat the world, have no doubt about that”

The next layer is ensuring the ability to work on cutting-edge software. That requires technical education, and Singapore will try to teach everybody some computational thinking, if not to code. The country will also retrain workers to adjust to the loss of jobs that become less relevant as they’re taken over by robots and digital technology, Balakrishnan says.

Third is research and development: “We will invest or co-invest with laboratories, companies, hospitals who are developing new technologies and ways of applying them,” he says. That involves the nation’s universities, research institutes, commercial labs and also the attraction of foreign companies. On top of these three layers, the government will focus on a number of critical domains: education, transport, health care, homecare, community development, but “it’s not an exclusive list”.

The plan

The priority areas have been determined “opportunistically”, Balakrishnan says, and if there’s an opportunity in any other sector, the government intends to quickly jump on it.

This flexibility is enabled by the unique structure of the Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO), the Minister says. “It’s a whole of government effort, and that’s why [the SNPO is] parked under the Prime Minister’s Office”. The office is “a very small outfit: our job is to engage, communicate, coordinate, match, push all the actors on to the stage.”

The key task of his unit is “to inject a sense of urgency”, Balakrishnan adds. “I don’t just look at it in terms of deadlines, but for every layer, or every domain, a simple question is: where do we stand compared to the competition?” When areas are falling behind, the SNPO will flag it and get action to be taken.

Its position within the Prime Minister’s Office is vital for getting this quick action: some decisions involve trade-offs between agencies, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has set out this vision as a priority for Singapore over the next decade. The SNPO exists to “crystallise the issue, bump it upstairs, get the Prime Minister to decide one way or the other. The point is not to be held up by bureaucratic inertia or infighting.”

Equally, Singapore has an inbuilt advantage: a city state has only one layer of government, “so if autonomous vehicles became the standard, even if they’re not invented here, the first place that could do it on a national scale would be us,” he says. “We should be the first or one of the first to digitise in 3D high resolution every road, every river, every canal, every tunnel in the country.”

Driverless car
Re-engineering government

Many of the Smart Nation objectives require government to be restructured behind the scenes. For example, the recent launch of the OneService MSO app needed agencies to agree to a common response time and work through the Municipal Services Office to respond to citizen feedback.

“I view the digital revolution as an opportunity to re-engineer your processes, so if you haven’t changed the way you transact, the way you process requests, the way you deliver services, it means you haven’t got it,” Balakrishnan says.

First, he says that agencies must be putting data out in real time to enable developers to help out. “If someone else invents a better app which makes it easier for people to complain, we will give them access to the same backend database and to the same backend that will trigger actions within government to go and resolve a problem”. The Minister wants a “healthy competition” between in-house apps and third party apps “because it ends up in a more responsive level of services.

Second, government should be looking to make its databases machine readable and accessible through APIs. “That’s what I mean by democratising government and services using technology”.

Third, agencies should be looking to work together on problems. “What we’re trying to do is improve the synergy and responsiveness to citizen complaints, and to completely reengineer the backend”.

Fourth, automation can really help. For example, he notes that 70,000 cleaners are currently employed to clean the streets of Singapore, and cleaning the drains requires somebody to manually reach in to drag out trapped leaves. The city would be open to robots automatically cleaning out the drains, making it more efficient.

Seeking expert opinion

The Singapore Government is admitting that it doesn’t have all the answers, and asking for advice and support from the community. But, unlike some governments, it is looking to actively incentivise submissions, rather than just expecting that they will flow freely.

“Issue challenges, see what people come back with. You’ve got to reward them by deploying the technologies; buying the services,” Balakrishnan says. Ultimately, there needs to be an ecosystem, he adds, with government funding research and developing, paying to use prototypes, scaling up businesses. “This is a free market economy, and that way you incentivise people”.

Much of the technology will not be invented in Singapore, he says, but the government is attracting tech firms to test their solutions in the city. “My pitch to Silicon Valley is that there are some things that you can do here faster: prototypes that you can roll out; systems that you can implement.”

The SNPO was born on 24th November last year, and since then, it has worked behind the scenes to put together a comprehensive vision for the Smart Nation initiative. At the national level, the government is looking to create a national sensor network. Meanwhile, at the local level the government wants to deliver small projects to allow citizens to immediately see some difference. “Even simple things like having the GPS location of every single bus and taxi in real time, and for that data to be available to any app developer,” Balakrishnan says.

Over the next few months more will be announced, and a demonstration area will be unveiled to show the full Smart Nation experience in the wild as it grows.

“Technology has changed. It’s a major tsunami, it’s going to change everything,” Balakrishnan says. “But this is about people, their quality of life, their opportunities in the community.” The SNPO has been set up to surf that wave, keeping Singapore floating on a tide of prosperity and tech-driven innovation.

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