Are we really ready for SmartNation?

After Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the SmartNation initiative in 2014, people raised many questions. What does it mean to be a smart nation? Can we now teleport? Are we going to lose our privacy?

The underlying concern that we have stems from how digitally advanced we’re growing to be. From initiatives like SgSecure to already ubiquitous systems like ez-link card payments, digital technology revolutionises the way we live – like how the industrial revolution changed the lives of the people in the 18th to 19th century.

Because of technological advancements, our doctor at the polyclinic knows about your past visits through the Electronic Health Record System. Commuters know when their bus is arriving. We can easily transfer $1.20 to that friend who helped to buy you a cup of teh peng, when you’re short of coins.

Apart from convenience, SmartNation initiatives have the potential to bring communities closer. In 2015, the Yuhua estate was decided to be the test-bed for a smart estate. An initial trial of 10 households in Yuhua yielded positive responses on the ease of use and non-intrusive nature of the devices, which includes the Elderly Monitoring System that provides peace of mind to caregivers of elderly loved ones, and the Utility Management System that help manage household utilities usage.

A number of other countries have also pushed for “smart nation” features. The mobile payment volume in China more than doubled to $5 trillion in 2016, according to Analysys data, with mobile payment available in most places — you could even buy from a roadside stall using AliPay or WeChat Pay.

In Glasgow, intelligent street lighting was installed to improve safety at night. When there is activity detected in the area, the street lights will become brighter, which improves visibility especially if assaults were to take place. On the other end of the globe, Songdo, designed to be Korea’s first smart city, has a smart waste-management system implemented.

A few considerations are involved in these smart systems. 9 in 10 households have broadband connection, based on the speech in 2014, leaving a number of households unable to install smart devices requiring an internet connection. On top of that, a smartphone and mobile data are needed to utilise a number of apps under the SmartNation initiative and other cashless payment apps. And in order for these to be used, one must be digitally literate, which may exclude the senior generation who didn’t grow up with devices like the millenials did.

In implementing these measures under the SmartNation initiative, we must utilise a framework of thinking called ‘design thinking’. Design thinking comprises 3 aspects — feasibility, viability and desirability, as defined by Ideo, a design consultancy. In corresponding order, these are the important questions for us to ask: Are we able to make it happen with current technology and resources? Is it sustainable in the long run? Does it solve a problem for people?

The heart of design is about solving problems for people, and in order for us to do so, we must empathise with them. Why do they not use smartphones? How does a regular walking stick make them feel as compared to one that is actually an umbrella? Will they be able to integrate this into their lives? In order for us to design a solution for people, we must not be fixated on simple technological advances, but purposeful ones.

And the pursuit of a SmartNation is not an upward climb in technology. It is one for improving the lives of citizens.

“Therefore our vision is for Singapore to be a Smart Nation – A nation where people live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all. We should see it in our daily living where networks of sensors and smart devices enable us to live sustainably and comfortably. We should see it in our communities where technology will enable more people to connect to one another more easily and intensely. We should see it in our future where we can create possibilities for ourselves beyond what we imagined possible.” – PM Lee (at the Smart Nation Launch), 24th November 2014

by Desiree Ng