Singapore: Smart City No. 1

Sidewalk Labs is about to make a proposal to Alphabet Inc., its parent company, to start a new business: developing smart city infrastructure. It would partner with city municipalities which would like to integrate a lot of new technologies into some districts to increase their management efficiency. There would be used a lot of innovations such as higher-tech electrical grids or self-driving cars. Sidewalks ambitious business would have a difficult start: it would be challenging to get exemption from many urban-planning regulations and to find investors who would commit to such costly and long-term projects.

The situation looks completely different in city-state Singapore: the government’s Smart Nation programme, launched in November 2014, is successfully being implemented. It has taken off so well that leaders are already considering exporting their smart-city technology abroad. In the Asian market alone, its sales “[…] will reach US$1 trillion a year by 2025”, estimates research firm IDC Government Insights.

The smart city idea has been tested in Singapore’s Jurong Lake District. There are over 1,000 sensors. Their videos are analyzed by advanced software to improve the efficiency of city management. For example, sensors monitor traffic, street lights, the cleanliness of public spaces as well as queues in shops and offices to see if extra staff is needed. There are also cameras which detect smoking in prohibited areas. In addition, residents’ smartphones are used to measure the bumpiness of bus routes to see if it is time to repair roads.

The Smart Nation programme consists of the Future Cities laboratory, a multidisciplinary research programme. Over the past 5 years, scientists have been intensively collecting data on various aspects of city life. Their aim is to build a ‘responsive city’: to provide residents with access to all the information on the city so they can make suggestions for its design and management. “In a smart city you have all the data you need and more, but with Information Architecture people can, through the devices they have, start to interact in a responsive way with the city,” explains Prof. Gerhard Schmitt, Director of the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability.

At the moment, Singapore’s government is deploying sensors and cameras across the rest of its territory. The collected data will be fed into an online platform, Virtual Singapore, and used for various purposes: city monitoring, urban planning, traffic and crisis management, improving public services and residents’ connectivity as well as stimulating innovations in the private sector, to name a few. Addressing privacy concerns, the government assured that new sensors will be deployed only when there is a clear public interest. Data will be anonymized to ensure their protection.

“We are trying to virtualize the whole city,” says Prof. Low Teck Seng, CEO of the National Research Foundation (NRF). “Singapore is doing it at a level of integration and scale that no one else has done yet,” observes Guy Perry, Executive Director of Aecom, an engineering design firm.

The next point on the Smart Nation’s agenda is to create precise 3D models of every building in the city, reveals Prof. Low. Sensors will collect information on their design, dimensions and building materials. A 2D online city map is already available for public use: residents can check parking spaces or flooding levels.

References:  [1] Eliot Brown, The Wall Street Journal / [2] Jon Fingas, Engadget / [3] Jake Maxwell Watts and Newley Purnell, The Wall Street Journal / [4] Daniel Besant, Southeast Asia Globe / [5] Madhumita Venkataramanan, Wired UK