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

Sensors, sensors everywhere.

Sean Pavone / Alamy

There are few places better positioned to become a "smart city" than Singapore.

That's an easy statement to justify. Singapore is an island city-state just 30 miles across that has been governed by the same party for decades. Putting the implied democratic flaws to one side, the geography and political stability of Singapore have aided the city in preparing for the future.

Two years ago, those preparations got a name: "Smart Nation," an ambitious program to push the city, its residents and its government into the digital age. Or perhaps, even further. A fiber network already stretches the length and breadth of the island, bringing high-speed internet access to every home and office; there are already three mobile devices for every two of its citizens. This is about the next step.

The Smart Nation initiative looks to turn the island into a "living laboratory" -- a kind of playground for testing smart solutions to urban issues. Part of that plan is a network of sensors placed across the island that officials hope can solve the fundamental issues of Singapore's high-density living.

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.

Again, this tech is being sold on its immediate benefits to citizens: "The next-generation ERP system can also provide value-added services that are beneficial to motorists," Dr. Balakrishnan said. Roadside parking meters will be scrapped, as fees will be generated and paid automatically, just like road tolls. This ties into another government push, away from cash and towards electronic payments. The traffic system will also aggregate data to provide "timely and accurate traffic information to motorists."

Virtual Singapore

Taken on their own, each of these initiatives is small, but the sensors all come together to form a platform called "Virtual Singapore." Being built, again, through a public-private partnership, Virtual Singapore is a model of the island built not just to scale, but with fastidious detail. It contains the exact dimensions of every building, where the windows are located, and even what it's built out of. Think of it like Google or Apple Maps' 3D modes, but with the ability to enter every building and see its layout. On its own, the model will be impressive, but it's when sensor data is fed in that things get interesting, offering an unparalleled view of the city.

Consider this for a moment. The data of an entire city, contained within a scale model. The movement of every car; the flow of water, electricity and waste, all in one place. Now add in the output of each security camera; air-quality measurements (a pilot program has students wearing sensors to detect such environmental factors), crowd-density views, noise levels and more. A living, breathing city. Or at least a to-scale model of one. It's the sort of thing city planners dream of.

And it'll be open to everyone -- to an extent.

Dr. Balakrishnan explained that Virtual Singapore is intended to be a "collaborative data platform where researchers, citizens and businesses may contribute." It'll help visualize all the data being collated and allow for complex simulations. Plug the plans for a new building development in, and the model might reveal how it would affect airflow, telecommunications signals or plant life in the nearby areas. It could show where more buses are needed, or which transit stops are being underused. In health care, it could be used to predict how disease might propagate -- Singapore has the third-highest population density of any city, and protecting against a pandemic is a high priority.

Some of this information is already available to the public; Singaporeans can access traffic and parking data, security cameras and other public data online. With Virtual Singapore, there will be better data, and much more of it.

A smarter world

Singapore's unique geopolitics are key to positioning itself as a living laboratory. All these ideas can be tested, and potentially commercialized, without the usual difficulties of regulatory approval. Rolling them out worldwide will be more difficult, for sure, but Dr. Balkrishnan believes the initiatives can be "customized and applied to other cities around the world."

While it's difficult to see New York City putting satellite-navigation devices into cars, there are ways similar data could be collected. The world is pushing rapidly toward autonomous vehicles, and within the decades, it's likely that the majority of cars will be collecting far more data on their environments and traffic conditions than they are now. It's not impossible to see a future in which this data is anonymously aggregated and used to improve our road layouts and traffic flow.

Virtual Singapore can be used to run simulations.

The same logic can also be applied the home. Our apartments and houses are increasingly becoming smarter, with utility companies offering real-time updates on usage. By the will of the market alone, we will be in a position in which troves of figures are being pooled by energy companies. If Singapore can prove there are good uses for this data, then we may see it, again, aggregated and used in similar ways.

And that's a side-goal for Smart Nation: to make the country the benchmark for how future cities should function. "If you visit Singapore," Balakrishnan said, "you should be able to say, 'I have seen the future -- and it works.'"

Trust and transparency

Whenever I've explained Smart Nation and Virtual Singapore to someone new, their reaction roughly falls into one of three camps: "That's amazing," "That's creepy" or "That's amazing and creepy."

There are obvious privacy and security issues with almost every aspect of the initiative. To understand why people might have reservations, you need only look at the political landscape of the country itself: Singapore places 74th on the democracy index, which lists it as "flawed"; the independent democracy watchdog Freedom House lists the country as only "partly free," ranking it four out of seven (one is best) for freedom, civil liberties and political rights; and that's not to mention the government's broad-reaching online surveillance powers.

But despite its issues, only four countries' governments are more trusted (according to Edelman's "Trust Barometer) than the Singaporean authorities, and the country ranks exceptionally high in quality-of-life studies. There are a few nods to privacy and transparency in the Smart Nation plans. For example, Dr. Balakrishnan said that only "anonymized traffic data will be collected and aggregated" when cars are not on priced roads. (Given that there are many toll roads in Singapore, and the system will also record when cars are stopped in paid parking spots and public lots, though, there will still be a lot of location data on offer.)

Dr. Balakrishnan also spoke of "open data" and building Singapore into "an 'open-source' society that's characterized by high levels of trust, transparency and openness." Additionally, officials will "engage independent security consultants" to audit the system to ensure it's "secured and trusted throughout its operation."

But just how trusting are Singaporeans, knowing just how much data will be gathered? I spoke with people from the business world and the press to gauge their reaction to Smart Nation, and none took real issue with the plan. "The threat of letting our government have all this data is not significantly different from all the data we're letting Google [as a private company] have," one business owner, speaking anonymously, said.

But it's not just the government involved. A large part of the Smart Nation pitch is about bringing government, businesses and citizens together to find solutions. Citizens increasingly "demand higher quality public services" that "respond in real-time, preferably immediately," said Dr. Balakrishnan. And the private sector is key to achieving that.

The government has committed to releasing more government data "in a machine-readable format" while "streamlining approval processes" so that public and third-party devs can access the relevant APIs faster. This approval system will be key. Businesses will obviously be approaching the data with an eye on profits, and deciding which companies can access what data will require a firm understanding of all the industries involved.

"It's likely that at some point the parties involved -- government, private sector and hopefully citizens -- need to have a dialogue about defining the parameters of a win-win situation," said a business owner.
"[One] where private-citizen data is used to create schemes that result in economic good as well as a proportional growth in the average citizen's quality of life."

For Singaporeans, it's all a question of balance: How much private data do you want to hand over in the name of economic growth and convenience?

For now, the answer appears to be "a lot."