What is Singapore Doing to Cope with the Future?

HCLI Research
Published 26 October 2016

In face of the challenges of a growing city, the potential issues surface around densely populated cities signal the need for strategic plans, and building a smart nation could be the solution for the future. Steve Leonard, former Executive Deputy Chairman of IDA Singapore and current CEO of SGInnovate, shares with HQ Asia how IDA envisions the future of Singapore towards a smart nation.

What are some of the challenges around the movement of people from rural to urban cities?

It is well known that there is a big migration of people from rural environments into cities, causing the population density of cities to increase. The complexity of issues like public safety, energy, water and food increases as the cities become densely packed.

This brings us to IDA’s work in Singapore, in how we move, protect and care for people. These implications too, become bigger as more people move into the city. If we look around Asia, we see that a lot of cities here are becoming denser in population versus other parts of the world. This also explains why Singapore is trying to become a leader in tackling these challenges arising from a densely populated area, building people, talent and companies.

What do you see as the future of cities?

As cities become denser, we have to keep thinking about challenges like health and education, and we look at how technology can enable solutions to these changes that people are comfortable with. In other words, technology can solve a lot of challenges but people have to use it and feel comfortable with it. Hence, we are focusing a lot on how to simply help people adopt technology that is already available to facilitate their comfort with technology.

Another aspect of the future of cities we want to look at is how we can nurture younger generations who want to be builders and creators of technology. By engaging this group of people, we bring about opportunities for cities in Asia to become an important player for the next chapter of the 21st century on a global standpoint.

How would this affect mobility for places with limited land like Singapore?

When you have many people living in a small space, you have to rely a lot on public transportation and Singapore continues to invest heavily in public transport. However, there is always this “last mile” or “last kilometre” challenge, which is the last stretch of the journey you have to get to your destination after taking the MRT or other public transport. Today we turn to taxis or private cars to reduce this “last kilometre” effect. We are now looking at how car sharing can be increased and how we can help Singapore become “car-light” as we call it. Not “car-free” but “car-light”.

The question now is what role would an autonomous or driverless vehicle play in the future of Singapore. People could be moving around in a shared asset instead of owning a car they only use for 30 minutes a day. This is the part of the experimentation that we are trying to pursue.

What initiatives have IDA put in place to prepare Singapore to become a smart nation?

We spend a lot of time thinking about talent and development of talent in Singapore. We work with people from different profiles: different industries, technology companies, universities, schools at all age levels. We have a lot of relationships with universities and we are trying to encourage these people to feel comfortable, confident and curious with technology. These people are curious about how things work. They like to understand and are confident enough to try new things they never tried before.

Helping people with those skills as opposed to approaching it as a software coding issue is something we are working on. We are looking into how to help equip people with qualities like confidence and curiosity to become builders of the future, and not just users of technology. We spend a lot of time thinking about that with the different parts of Singapore.

What are the talent implications as the shift takes place?

Talent is going to be the key for almost anything we do in Singapore, or anything that anyone does, and every innovation. Every step forward always starts with someone imagining and others making that imagination become reality. Whether in the arts of the sciences, or any other aspects of imagining, in health, education or manufacturing, talent is the key. Talent is the beginning, middle and end of all these challenges.

What do you think other countries can learn from these initiatives?

It is not about the technology, policy or legislation, although they play a key role. It is about the mindset: for instance, the confidence to try new things. This confidence allows for many possibilities but as long as citizens do not feel ready to adopt the new practices, it is not going to happen. For example, looking at the future of health: there are a lot of different ways to provide healthcare that does not involve visiting a doctor or a hospital except during an emergency, but the doctors have to feel comfortable providing care and the patients need to feel comfortable receiving care through this new method. Do not underestimate the power of mindset or the cultural journey towards a smart nation.

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