Singapore government warns digital revolution will impact jobs

Country must be prepared for jobs and middle-class white-collar wages to be affected, says Singapore's smart nation minister, as he reveals plans for 10,000 government employees to be trained in data science.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

As technological advancements continue to impact societies, businesses and citizens in Singapore must prepare for jobs to be affected and learn to use new digital tools more effectively.

The government itself would need to ensure its employees could do the same, said Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-in-Charge of Smart Nation Vivian Balakrishnan. He revealed that the Singapore government's CIO agency GovTech today signed an agreement with the National University of Singapore (NUS) to jointly develop processes and ways to boost cybersecurity in the public sector.

The university also would provide training for 10,000 public servants in data science over five years, said Balakrishnan during his keynote Wednesday at the IoT Asia 2017 conference.

Noting the role of Apple iPhone in driving the smartphone market over just a decade since its debut, the Singapore minister said the volume of mobile internet traffic also had rapidly increased since 2007 when it was measured in petabytes. Today, online traffic from mobile devices was measured in exabytes, clocking 7.2 exabytes a month at end-2016 compared to just 15 petabytes in 2007.

He also recalled how he talked about Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot at the same conference last year, which was able to open glass doors and regain its footing after slipping. Today, Atlas was able to rollerblade and jump over obstacles.

The vast improvements in languages, game playing, and agility, amongst others, within one year demonstrated the pace of learning and skills acquisition of robots far exceeded that of humans, he said.

Jobs would be disrupted and middle-class white-collar work as well as wages would be impacted, Balakrishnan said, noting that this was a real-world challenge that politicians anywhere in the world could not ignore.

He added that it would be "far too simplistic and populist" to use walls and barriers as a prescription, likening such efforts as using anaesthesia to numb the pain. Instead, he stressed the need to help businesses and employees adapt to the digital revolution.

"People, companies, and nations that master technology first will have enormous reach because their market is global. Our challenge is to democratise these new technologies so as to empower all our citizens to harvest the opportunities more broadly," he said, adding that this, in turn, would generate jobs.

GovTech's collaboration with NUS, for instance, would develop the necessary syllabus to help public servants better use data and digital tools, he noted. This would improve government services and the way performance was measured. He also urged local companies and employees to determine if their skills were updated and ready to ride the digital revolution.

Balakrishnan also pointed to the Singapore government's various smart nation initiatives, which focused on tapping digital technologies to improve efficiencies and service delivery. Such efforts included the development of a national IoT (Internet of Things) and sensor communication backbone, also dubbed the Smart Nation Platform. This network would facilitate the sharing of data sensors rolled out by government agencies such as lamp posts, which would be tested as nodes for deploying sensors, beacons, and connectivity.

The minister added that four banks--DBS, OCBC, UOB, and Standard Chartered Bank--currently were part of a pilot to access personal information via the Singapore government's MyInfo portal, which enabled citizens to provide their data that then could be used for electronic transactions. In the trial, for instance, citizens could log into their SingPass account so their personal data could be passed on to the bank to facilitate the opening of an account.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) also was putting in place plans to deploy a Central Addressing Scheme this year to facilitate digital cash transfers. This would enable mobile phone numbers or business unique entity numbers to be linked to bank accounts, so funds could be transferred without the need to give out bank account details. In addition, MAS was working to introduce a Unified Point of Sale terminal at checkout counters to eliminate the need for different POS terminals and simplify payment platforms for retailers.

The government was keen to encourage the use of electronic payments with such initiatives, Balakrishnan said, noting the current lack of incentive to move to a cashless environment because other payment modes including cash and credit worked so well in the country.

Charles Reed Anderson, founder of Charles Reed Anderson & Associates, also lauded the Singapore government's recent move to reorganise its organisational structure to finetune its focus on smart nation.

This had led to the creation of a new Smart Nation and Digital Government (SNDG) Group, parked under the Prime Minister's Office, to enable the government to be "more integrated and responsive". The new unit would comprise employees from three existing government departments including the Ministry of Finance's Digital Government Directorate and the Ministry of Communications and Information's Government Technology Policy department.

Speaking during his keynote at IoT Asia, Anderson said internal collaboration and coordinated efforts were key to successful implementations of IoT and smart city projects. This also would provide a common platform for data sharing, which was critical in IoT-driven initiatives.

Balakrishnan said: "Collectively, the SNDG group will tighten linkages between planning and implementation, and allow us to be more agile in driving digital government and building Singapore as a smart nation.

Don't forget citizens in smart city efforts

Citizens, too, needed to be consulted early, said John Baekelmans, managing director and vice president of Belgium-based research institute IMEC, which specialised in nanotechnology and digital technologies. The company currently was helping the Belgium city of Antwerp with its smart city initiative, officially launched in January this year.

"You need to work around a quadruple helix setup--comprising citizens, private companies, research organisations, and the public sector--where typically the citizen centric approach is the most important to consider [but] typically forgotten in a smart city environment," said Baekelmans, who was a speaker at the conference. "One lesson we learnt is that citizens have to be consulted early. Trials can then be run based on the problems they want to solve."

From there, data collected through IoT sensors could provide policy planners a picture of how to address the problems, he told ZDNet, adding that more datasets could be further collected to assess if improvements had been made.

"It is crucial that citizens believe in a project [and] that their lives will be improved by it," he said. Putting in place the right customer panels for smart city applications and securing customer buy-in proved most challenging, he said, adding that once these use-cases were established, the rest would fall in place. He noted that technology selection should be the last piece of the puzzle, not the key driver of smart city projects.

"Many smart city projects are top-down driven because you need the government to be able to effect changes to infrastructure. However, this also means that sometimes citizens are not consulted early enough and their needs not reflected," Baekelmans explained. "Having that focus on citizens makes it more likely they will take up your digital service."

He added that it remained challenging to seamlessly connect the different technologies since not all were open or based on industry standards. Security and privacy also were key considerations across any smart city framework, which meant IT vendors sometimes would have to be pushed to ensure compliance.

To better drive its smart nation trials forward, he suggested Singapore worked with its citizens in a "living lab" model and prepared to accept failure in order to understand why some technologies were rejected and learn from that. For instance, projects could fail because citizens felt the services were unnecessary or intruded on their privacy.

Balakrishnan also stressed the importance of cybersecurity, which he said was a key prerequisite of Singapore's smart nation efforts. "Critical control systems must be protected even as we make them smart. We must ensure our digital identity framework and e-transactions are secure and robust," he said, adding that the government would continue to work with industry players and experts on this.

He also pointed to GovTech's collaboration with NUS, which would include establishing methods to bolster cybersecurity for government agencies.

Through such efforts and its smart nation initiatives, the Singapore government hoped to ensure the country was ready to embrace market changes "from a position of strength".

"There is a digital revolution that is disrupting jobs and having a major impact on wages," the minister said. "The [global] political disquiet is reflective of a revolution and the real choice for governments worldwide is whether you try to insulate, build walls, and avoid facing the reality of this revolution; or take the opposite approach to be open and prepare your people with the relevant skills and abilities so we can ride and surf the waves of this revolution."

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