On December 12, the LKYCIC Director Poon King Wang and myself were invited to the Smart Cities Dialogue Platform in Berlin. It was an opportunity to liaise with other cities on their Smart City initiatives and share the work of the Centre, as well as for us to highlight the attempts of some countries in Asia to be smart cities – China, South Korea and South East Asia. Singapore is seen to be a leader in implementing the smart city concept and its moves to be a smart Nation is being closely watched. I discussed our smart journey and pointed out why we succeeded and where the further challenges lie.

Ever since IBM began a “Smart Planet” conversation in 2008, ‘smart’ became a buzzword globally. It is an assertion of a new worldview of how the world has changed in the way it works. Technology will enable us to be more productive, efficient and responsive. Most countries in Asia get it. They know they have to embrace smart to manage megacities.

We all want to run a smart economy. We need connectivity.

A Huawei Global Connectivity Index shows that a high GCI score provides an environment for innovation, productivity and drives competitiveness.

China took to the concept of smart city as early as 2010. In 2012 China’s Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development launched an urban nationwide testbed effort for smart city innovations which now covers 300 cities. This effort was given a special boost with the “Internet Plus” presented by Premier Li Keqiang. The government wants the new technologies to be integrated with traditional manufacturing and agriculture and stimulate China’s domestic tech industry, e-commerce, industrial networks and internet banking. China wants to help internet companies increase their international presence.

China’s success in implementing smart cities has been described as uneven with bright spots. Regulation and the ecosystem of technological innovation is a work in progress.

South Korea’s development of its ICT industry since the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 has been impressive. It is No 1 in the world on the ICT Development Index. South Korea had to solve the problems of urban congestion, environmental degradation and poor building standards with the growing population moving to the cities. It turned to smart technologies. In 2007 Seoul rolled out a Smart Seoul plan to become one of 5 most competitive cities in the world. It is seen as the go-to place to get a blueprint for smart city development. If you think of smart technology city technology, probably Seoul did it first. Seoul wants to be smart and green now.

There are many smart cities in South Korea and Songdo is the most well-known. It was described by a visiting writer as Futurism that is incremental, not future scifi. It is not a utopia or a vision of the future but a “testbed.”

Southeast Asia. All the 5 major countries of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have high ambitions to harness technologies, and run an efficient e-government but are constrained by budgets, quality of the infrastructure, legal framework and  skills. Only Malaysia and Singapore have been more successful and Singapore is way ahead, counted among the leaders of digitised government.

Singapore. The republic is a country without natural resources. Consequently to enhance its competitiveness it adopted the IT Revolution.  Singapore’s journey was planned and systematic. It went through six phases of development and constant upgrading starting as early as 1980. Each phase marked by a specific 5 yr or 7 yr plan building on the previous. Beginning with spreading digital literacy in the civil service was key for this meant a huge sector of Singapore could go digital. Then it spread to the local industry, growing the IT skills and professionals and expanding the software engineering and services. Later it focused on building infrastructure.The 1990s were significant as TadeNet, Portnet, Medinet and Lawnet were set up.  The Integrated Land Use System (ILUS) a GIS information based system was set up for urban planning and road planning.

Key to Singapore’s success is the constant review and upgrading. It invests in times of crisis and even financial crisis. In 1999, Singapore started the Technopreneurship Fund to invest in start-ups in Singapore and overseas– in the US, Israel and Europe.

We can encapsulate the smart journey in the following phases. Vision. Policy. Resources. Technology. Resources. Advance Technology. Setting the Legal framework right is a constant.

My full paper, which lists six sources for strength for Singapore and three challenges it faces in the road ahead, can be found here.

– Prof Chan Heng Chee