Singapore needs mindset change for smart nation success

Technology innovation and investment alone will not guarantee a thriving smart nation, which also will need user-friendly public services and a population that is willing to accept the wave of changes.

Deploying the most innovative technologies alone will not ensure Singapore can succeed in its smart nation ambition, as this will require a population that is willing to embrace change in the way it interacts with its government.

Since the launch of its smart nation initiative in 2014, the Singapore government has been rolling out various pilots and programmes to put in place the supporting infrastructure and systems. These centred around key objectives, among others, to enable safer and greener urban living, provide more transport options, facilitate better healthcare, and deliver more responsive public services and citizen engagement. Several initiatives had focused on a range of technologies including data analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), and cloud computing.

Microsoft earlier this week announced it was working with the Singapore government to explore the use of machine learning and chatbots to deliver more interactive online citizen services. The goal here was to tap intelligence software tools to create digital representatives that simulate human behaviour, enabling interactions that were more user-friendly and familiar.

Asked if machine learning and artificial intelligence would pave the way for the next generation of smart nation implementations in the city-state, Microsoft's Singapore managing director Jessica Tan acknowledged this trend, but said the country would need to take on a broader focus to ensure the success of its smart nation ambition. Tan, who is also a Singapore Member of Parliament, was speaking to ZDNet on the sidelines of the World Cities Summit held this week.

Just like any business environment, all the right technology toolsets could be deployed but the organisation would need to change the way people worked for these to be effective, she noted.

She pointed to Microsoft's New World of Work initiative, in which the vendor reengineered its Singapore workspace so employees no longer had assigned desks or offices and were encouraged to work anywhere they felt most productive. The company took great pains to prepare its staff for the change and ensure they were willing able to adapt.

Stressing the Singapore government's focus on talent development and training, she said the local population would need the right skills and be ready to embrace the ideals of a smart nation. "You're not going to be very 'smart' if you just want to keep doing things the same way," Tan said. "The [mindset change and willingness] to do things differently need to happen in order for everyone to benefit from a smart nation."

She added that while it might be easier for tech companies such as Microsoft to adapt to change due to the nature of their industry, this might prove tougher for individuals and other local businesses.

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To ensure these pockets within the local population were not left behind in Singapore's journey becoming a smart nation, she said it would be critical to ensure all online citizen services and technology being rolled out were designed to be inclusive.

Vincent Lim, Hewlett Packard Enterprise's Asia-Pacific Japan general manager for public sector, also highlighted the need for relevance or any smart city deployments could end up being white elephants.

Rather than be overly ambitious and adopt a "big bang" approach, he urged governments to first identify and prioritise problems that needed to be resolved urgently.

They should start with small projects, but ensure these were built on a platform that could easily scale out as they added more implementations and services, said Lim.

At the World Cities Summit, HPE had announced the availability of its Future City pitch in the Asia-Pacific region including Japan, which detailed how the vendor's products could be deployed to support smart city rollouts. These included IoT technologies as well as the HPE Citizen Insights Dashboard, touted to allow governments to monitor and assess citizen needs through social media analytics.

When asked, Lim declined to provide details on whether HPE was involved in any of Singapore's smart nation initiatives, citing confidentiality.

So what pitfalls should countries be mindful of in their smart city deployments? Tan reiterated the need to instill a level of comfort when changes were rolled out.

The Microsoft executive noted that that many businesses also had to change the way they operated and interacted with others when technology advancements replaced traditional processes and workflows, such as the way contracts were established and services were procured in a cloud computing environment. "It's no longer a simple buy-sell relationship...businesses have to think about how they restructure their operations, processes, and so on, to support these changes," she said.

Similarly, she added, the modernisation of business models, work processes as well as new capabilities and skillsets would be required in order for citizens and organisations to participate in a smart nation.