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Singapore uses its smart city tech to help citizens cut through the red tape

Getting your driver’s license renewed. Finding a certified day care center nearby. Getting the street cleared when a tree falls across the road. These things should be easy to accomplish in a connected city.

Singapore thinks so, too, and so it has been working on what is, in effect, smart city version 2.0 — a metropolis that can deliver not only technology but practical solutions to life’s more stressful moments.

“It’s not just about infrastructure,” Chan Cheow Hoe, Singapore’s chief digital technology officer, explained in an interview with Digital Trends. “It’s also about the ability to engage citizens.”

Singapore’s chief digital technology officer, Chan Cheow Hoe GovTech

Singapore, a city-state in Southeast Asia, has been a paragon of smart-city initiatives. The city has been working toward a cash-less goal, for example, enabling citizens to pay for services online with their phones. Singapore also has an extensive mobility program, including numerous autonomous and electric initiatives; an e-scooter program includes geo-fencing, for example, so that the two-wheelers aren’t left indiscriminately in unsafe locations. And, it recently issued one of the world’s first technical regulations governing the deployment of fully autonomous driverless vehicles in Singapore.

Such efforts have earned the city numerous accolades. In 2017, Singapore placed sixth in Bloomberg’s Innovation Index — ahead of technological behemoths like Japan — and last year it was chosen as the Smart City of 2018 by the Smart City Expo World Congress.

Beyond the hardware

In many ways, building the hardware infrastructure for intelligent systems has been less of a challenge for this country of nearly 6 million people living on an island that’s less than 279 square miles.

“Because Singapore is so dense, we have 4G in 95 percent of the country, for example,” Chan said. Being physically built-up means there are also structures like lamp posts everywhere that can be used to build additional networks. Now, the focus is on using those networks to deliver the smart services people need — and want.

china town in singapore
Spintheday/Getty Images

“People go to Amazon because they want to,” Chan said. “But people come to the government only because they have to.” So the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) that Chan leads wants to change that by providing digital solutions to what they call “moments of life.”

Singapore is providing digital solutions to what they call “moments of life.”

Examples of these moments include enrolling your child in school for the first time; entering the work force; and bereavement. These are some of the most important times in a person’s life, but most people discover they are also beset with bureaucratic red tape and confusion. So GovTech is working on smoothing out those transitions for Singaporeans.

Within one online portal, new parents can find out how to register their children for school, obtain tax incentives, as well as get information and literature about early childhood development and learning, for example, according to Chan.

Digital IDs essential

Another smart city linchpin is to eliminate the redundancy and frustration for citizens of constantly filling the same information for different departments and needs. Chan said this used to involve more than two dozen agencies, so Singapore has instituted a national digital identity system that uses two-factor authentication and can be used to access all government services.

Introducing SingPass Mobile. Say goodbye to passwords and tokens!

To address privacy concerns, consent must be given before an organization can access a person’s digital ID, “and there’s an audit trail so we can see who accessed it,” Chan said. Each piece of personal information is verified, and the government’s stance is that all the information belongs to the individual, not to the government. With the added security protection, the digital IDs can even be used to open a bank account — without having to fill-in endless forms all over again.

A commission reviews how the data is managed “because the minute people don’t trust you, it all falls apart.”

It’s convenience like that which has helped overcome people’s concerns about the information being abused or stolen, according to Chan. And to further address those concerns, collected information is anonymized and a personal data privacy commission reviews how the data is managed and used, “because the minute people don’t trust you, it all falls apart,” Chan said.

If a tree falls

The participation of citizens in such smart digital initiatives can extend beyond just using the services — it can be critical to creating them as well.

Like many developed countries, Singapore has an aging population. With the challenges of congested urban streets, it can be difficult for first responders to reach those in medical need in time. So Singapore launched an app called MyResponder. Medical professionals who download the app can then be automatically alerted whenever someone within 500 feet of them suffers a reported cardiac arrest. Such voluntary assistance can help people survive a heart attack until an ambulance arrives.

One example of how @GovTechSG helps citizens: #myResponder saves man's life from heart attack #RHSummit

— Kimberly Craven (@kimberlycraven) May 3, 2017

There are now 300,000 people using MyResponder, Chan said, and the app only cost $200,000, five people, and six months to develop. According to information from the Singapore Civil Defence Force, since its inception the MyResponder app has now been used nearly 1,700 times to render assistance to cardiac arrest victims. Most recently, Singapore added the ability for volunteers to sign up via the app to assist in fighting local fires.

The app has now been used nearly 1,700 times to render assistance to cardiac arrest victims.

Such digital integration is essential in leveraging the intelligent infrastructures being built in cities and countries. And Singapore is looking to add more intelligence to its services. As one example, Chan pointed to common issues like dealing with a fallen tree after a storm.

Usually, people simply call the police department, which then wastes time redirecting people to other municipal departments (approximately 65 percent of calls to the police have nothing to do with law enforcement). So GovTech is working on a way for customers to simply take a picture of, say, a downed tree and have the report automatically routed to the right service department.

It is services like this that are hallmarks of the next phase smart cities will undertake: leveraging the infrastructure investments municipalities have already made and the technology already in people’s hands.

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John R. Quain
John R. Quain writes for The New York Times, Men's Journal, and several other publications. He is also the personal…
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