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Health + Tech /26 Aug 2015
08.26.15

Building a Smart Nation: A Nuanced Understanding of Hyper-Connected Singapore

As Singapore celebrates its 50th year of independence this month, the wealthy Southeast Asian country is also undergoing an unprecedented digital transformation. Starting this year, cutting-edge electronic sensors, digital cameras and information communication technologies (ICTs) are being integrated into the infrastructure, homes and even everyday objects to create a hyper-connected nation. Announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in August 2014, the Smart Nation initiative will see Singapore transform into the world’s first smart nation – a hyper-connected country where the pervasive use of the latest technology promises to bring about an overall improvement in the quality of life of its people.

While a number of smart cities have sprung up around the world in recent years, Singapore is by far the first country in the world to boldly embark on this digital initiative on a national scale. By connecting “everyone to everything, everywhere, all the time,” a hyper-connected Singapore promises not only to be smarter and cleaner but also more efficient. Nevertheless, as Singapore completes this extraordinary digital transformation, one can be assured that socio-economic, technical and security challenges will emerge. More importantly, the success of this digital initiative will depend in large part on how the Singapore government addresses these unintended consequences.

Located in Southeast Asia, Singapore is flanked by Malaysia to the north and Indonesia to the south. Slightly more than three and a half times the size of Washington D.C., it is a densely-populated city-state with a highly-educated population of about 5.5 million. One of the wealthiest countries in the world, Singapore has a per capita Gross Domestic Product or GDP of $56,000 in 2014.

Already one of the most wired countries in the world, Singapore now has the world’s highest smartphone penetration rate of 85 percent. In recent years, the relentless pace of urbanization coupled with a rapidly ageing population have prompted the government to examine how technology can be harnessed to help ease congestion, reduce pollution, conserve energy and in general, make life more convenient for its people. The outcome was the Smart Nation initiative.

Key features of a smart nation

So how might a hyper-connected Singapore look like by the time the Smart Nation initiative is fully implemented circa 2030? A detailed examination of Prime Minister Lee’s speeches, government plans and news on the subject reveals tantalizing clues.

A major aspect of the Smart Nation initiative is tele-medicine. In the near future, the healthcare sector in Singapore will see widespread use of wearable technologies such as fitness trackers, smart watches and even smart clothing to monitor the well-being of patients and senior citizens. Picture a fitness tracker that not only monitors its wearer’s activity levels and vital signs such as blood pressure, oxygen saturation, heart rate and body temperature but also transmits the data via the Internet to healthcare professionals and family members. Used in conjunction with a webcam, such a fitness tracker will enable doctors to treat their patients remotely. At the same time, physiotherapists will be able to conduct online therapy sessions for patients in the comfort of their homes. As an added bonus, family members will also be able to keep a close eye on their loved ones wherever they are simply by viewing their health metrics online. As far-fetched as it may sound, such a fitness tracker is being developed right now and will in the very near future end unnecessary visits to the hospital and long waiting times for patients in Singapore.

The country’s transportation system will be receiving a high-tech boost as well. Thanks to killer apps and beacon technology, commuters with smartphones will soon be able to navigate the increasingly complex public transportation system with ease. In future, commuters will even be able to find out through their mobile devices whether an oncoming public bus or subway train is overcrowded or delayed. On the other hand, vehicle owners will also benefit from smart technology that not only informs them of difficult road conditions ahead but also suggests alternative routes. Meanwhile, sensors beneath every parking lot will let drivers know if an empty slot is available nearby. Public buses may soon be unmanned now that autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars have become a reality. With just 12 accidents (which resulted in no injuries) after more than one million miles on the road, Google self-driving cars are proving that autonomous vehicles can be as safe as – if not safer than – vehicles driven by humans. Safer and indefatigable, self-driving buses are expected to reduce waiting times and crowdedness for commuters making for a smoother and more pleasant travelling experience. Lastly, with autonomous cargo trucks operating only at night, roads will also become less congested during the day.

In a country where much of its energy is imported from abroad and utility rates are twice as high as anywhere else in the United States, a smart Singapore will become more energy-efficient and eco-friendly. With smart sensors embedded inside, lights and household appliances will automatically turn off when no one is at home. Offices with smart lighting systems that detect motion and adjust automatically to ambient conditions can now be found in Singapore. A clean source of energy, solar panels will one day be a fixture in the nation’s landscape. Smart waste bins that transmit a signal when full will enable city officials to implement a more efficient waste collection regime thus reducing the number of sanitation workers needed.

In a similar vein, the country will see smart streetlights that not only detect motion and adjust automatically to ambient conditions but also send a signal to city officials when faulty. Once fully in place, these smart technologies will work together to reduce energy wastage while promoting a greener living environment. In short, the country need not cut back on consumption in order to be environmentally sustainable but rather, can continue to grow simply by being more efficient.

Hyper-connectivity as a policy tool

The smart technologies listed above may sound like the stuff of science fiction except that they are already here and merely hint at the kind of technology-augmented future ahead. In a decade or two, Singapore will be transformed dramatically as smart technology becomes ubiquitous and pervades the lives of its people. More importantly, smart technology holds out the promise of solving some of the most pressing healthcare, infrastructure and environmental problems facing Singapore today.

Already the world’s third highest, the population density of Singapore is expected to increase even further as the government looks set to expand immigration and welcome more foreign talent into the country to reinvigorate a rapidly ageing population. One of the fastest ageing countries in the world, Singapore is undergoing rapid demographic transition. According to the United Nations, slightly more than 11 percent of its population were aged 65 and above in 2014; but by 2033, that figure is expected to reach a whopping 25 percent. Considering that current measures such as domestic caregivers and nursing homes do not scale very well, innovative solutions that harness the power of technology are needed to meet the needs of a fast greying society.

Pictured: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In recent years, the country’s public infrastructure has become thinly-stretched as evident from the severe bed crunch at public hospitals, overcrowded buses and periodic breakdowns of subway trains. And in spite of tough government measures to curb private car ownership, Singapore still has one of the highest ratios of vehicles per kilometre of road in the world – higher than Japan, France and the US – resulting in regular traffic congestion along major highways during rush hour. From rapid demographic transition to breakneck urbanization to severe overcrowding, the State must now grapple with a new set of issues that not only cut across different domains but also defy easy resolution. More than anything else, a Smart Nation promises to resolve (and if not, at least ameliorate) many of these complex issues. But as a cautionary tale, unintended consequences will emerge for sure as the country marches toward hyper-connectivity.

Taking another look at hyper-connectivity

A chief concern of hyper-connectivity is that it will inadvertently open up more pathways to cyberattacks. Coordinated cyberattacks on Singapore’s most critical sectors such as energy, banking and telecommunications can potentially cripple the country, and a Smart Nation with its deep reliance on ICTs will definitely be vulnerable. At the moment, hackers have yet to actively target smart technologies presumably because not enough electronic gadgets are connected to the Internet for a cyberattack to be worthwhile. But this is likely to change by 2020 when the number of smart devices produced hits an estimated 26 billion units from roughly the three billion smartphones, PCs and tablets currently in use. By then, cyber criminals will almost certainly start scouring the technology for weakness. Most troubling is that smaller smart devices are less likely to have encryption and authentication capabilities due to their more limited computing power. It is not just the individual and his or her smart devices that will be targeted by cyber-criminals, organizations will also become vulnerable when employees bring their unsecured smart devices to work. As the recent spate of cyberattacks on US federal agencies and companies illustrates, even large well-resourced organizations are often ill-equipped to protect their own data.

To enhance cyber-security, the Singapore government has established new agencies such as the Cyber Security Research Centre and Cyber Watch Centre but more can be done. The government needs to place tough restrictions on data collection and storage by businesses to limit the amount of damage in the event of a cyber breach. The government also needs to work closely with smart technology vendors and service providers requiring them to incorporate encryption into their products so that even if data were stolen, it cannot be read. Thirdly, the government should make it mandatory for all local websites and servers to utilize the more secure “https” prefix. While imperfect, this set of rudimentary stop-gap measures will at least make it more difficult for cyber-criminals to exploit known weaknesses in the technology. It has been reported that some countries such as the US and China are working right now to develop a computer that cannot be hacked; but until such an “unhackable” computer becomes a reality, cyber security will be a major concern as Singapore prepares for hyper-connectivity.

A second major concern of hyper-connectivity is that it will bring about thorny socio-economic consequences. As key public services become fully automated, there is little doubt that Singapore will reduce its dependence on low-skilled workers. As an example, by facilitating a more efficient waste collection regime, smart waste bins will eliminate the need for many sanitation workers. Likewise, self-driving vehicles will reduce the need for many transportation workers. If used freely in smart Singapore, 3D printers, drones and advanced robotics will ultimately destroy the jobs of many service workers. If the 2013 estimate by McKinsey that up to 140 million workers worldwide may be replaced by automated systems in the next 10 years is anything to go by, then Singapore must be prepared to tackle this paradigm shift in labour trend. Foreign migrant workers in Singapore can simply return to their countries when they are made redundant but local Singaporean workers will be in a bind since they do not have that option. Over time, an unintended consequence of a smart nation might well be the emergence of a persistent underclass and a “digital divide” between those who thrive in the new hyper-connected economy and those who lose out.

Instead of fostering social inclusiveness by bringing different communities together, hyper-connectivity could potentially end up segregating different segments of the population and polarizing the country. One only has to look at how much wealth was accumulated by a handful of entrepreneurs in the global IT industry to see that such a digital divide is a very real possibility. Of course, the answer is not to reject technology but rather to manage it and contain its pernicious effects. Hence, the government must be prepared to introduce a range of financial aid and skills re-training programmes to mitigate the impact of hyper-connectivity on low-skilled workers. While private charities can play a role in helping those who have been marginalized, the government must lead the effort since only it has the long-term financial and planning capabilities to tackle the issue in a comprehensive manner.

How cyber and personal interactions might be affected by hyper-connectivity is also a mystery at this point. The irony is that as we become more connected to others via modern ICT, we have also become more detached from one another at the personal level. A fitness tracker that enables one to keep an eye on a loved one from a distance is axiomatic of that kind of effect. Simply watching a loved one over cyberspace is clearly no substitute for face-to-face communication. Even worse, it might provide one with the excuse that personal interactions have become unnecessary. Social cohesiveness results from frequent interactions and cooperation between members of society and hyper-connectivity unfortunately limits direct face-to-face contacts.

As people retreat into their digital worlds and take each other for granted, society as a whole might grow to be less cohesive. In Singapore, the advent of social media and affordable mobile computing devices – though beneficial in terms of facilitating informational exchanges – has also added a level of coldness to our communications with others; and a smart nation might just make things a lot colder. Against this backdrop of unchecked exchanges over cyberspace, strengthening social cohesion must take center stage to limit the danger of hyper-connectivity tearing the country apart inadvertently.

The third major concern of hyper-connectivity is technical malfunctions and how the general public will react to the inconvenience and disruption caused. As with all technologically sophisticated systems, we can be assured that a smart nation will experience technical glitches. No system is perfect and as smart technology evolves and matures, mechanical malfunctions will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid. From the mundane such as a smart waste bin that failed to signal that it needs to be emptied to the deadly like a lethal accident involving self-driving vehicles, isolated incidents are unlikely to trigger a serious backlash. But the danger with high-tech systems is that they are often inter-connected so much so that a malfunction in one part can potentially set off a chain reaction that leads to a system-wide shutdown. And when a glitchy system is combined with a less than cohesive society, the appeal of smart technology might be lost by the very people whose lives it is supposed to improve. Indeed, with the public still reeling from recent subway breakdowns, one wonders how the country might take to more disruptions resulting from hyper-connectivity.

In theory, a cost-benefit analysis can be carried out to help establish whether a high-tech system should be incorporated into the national infrastructure. Specifically, if the estimated cost outweighs the estimated benefits of the system, then it should not be adopted (and vice versa). However, due to the difficulty of assessing all costs and benefits in a precise manner, it makes sense to build in layers of failsafe and redundancy into high-tech systems even if their cost-benefit ratios appear favourable. Even more importantly, apart from building in multiple layers of failsafe and redundancy, the government will need to promote more robust national resilience so that when technical malfunctions do strike, the country can swiftly bounce back and return to normalcy. Rather than aim for a perfect system that never fails, this might indeed be a more realistic approach.

The idea of a more resilient society is not new to Singapore with the concept subsumed within the nation’s broader defence strategy of “Total Defence.” Drawing on the country’s social capital – such as a strong national identity, a sense of pride, rootedness and belonging shared by the citizens, and community spirit – national resilience is the ability to weather and even prosper in times of adversity. In terms of building up the nation’s resilience against disruptions resulting from hyper-connectivity, there is no question that more needs to be done as Singapore transforms into a smart nation.

Finally…

As Singapore transforms into a smart nation, challenges will surface. While by no means comprehensive, the security, socio-economic and technical challenges highlighted herein are certainly noteworthy. Cyber security will be a major concern since connecting an increasing number of electronic devices and everyday objects to the Internet will open up more pathways to cyberattack. Meanwhile, a “digital divide” (between those who thrive in this new hyper-connected nation and those who lose their foothold) together with a highly-contentious social media could potentially rip society apart if not managed properly. Importantly, frequent disruptive technical glitches may well lead to deep public resentment of the system in general. Apart from hardening the nation against cyberattacks, the government also needs to foster social cohesiveness by ensuring that no communities are sidelined. Lastly, it must build up the nation’s resilience by preparing the country for technical disruptions. Whether the Smart Nation initiative turns into an overwhelming success or a costly blunder will ultimately depend on how the government manages the negative consequences of hyper-connectivity.

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