A proactive government, a tech-savvy population, use of data and the right psychology have enabled Singapore to become an outstanding ‘smart city’ in the space of just a few years. L’Atelier takes a look at what makes this city-state so special.

Singapore: a smart and sustainable city-state

UK-based mobile, online & digital market research specialist Juniper Research has ranked Singapore top of the list of Global Smart Cities for 2016.  For its calculations, Juniper took account of over forty criteria, including information and communication technology, transportation, energy and the economy in general. So how has this 719 km2 city-state with its five and a half million inhabitants managed to climb to the top step of the podium, just above Barcelona? As with Copenhagen, its success stems to a large extent from strong political resolve. For instance, as part of the Smart Nation programme launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in late 2014, the archipelago was equipped with thousands of sensors and cameras.

Singapore was already forging ahead in terms of communication technology in 2014, by which time 9 out of 10 homes in the city already had broadband Internet access and 85% of the population already owned a smartphone, compared with 80% in South Korea. Singapore has also proved adept at capitalising on technology that was already in place to speed up the shift of its administrative services to digital channels. The ‘Switzerland of Asia’ has also been making great strides in terms of mobility and energy. “We’ve tried to combine many aspects and to see things from different angles because a sustainable city doesn’t just mean a city that takes care to reduce its CO2 emissions; it basically means a city where it’s good to live,” stresses Anil Das, Director for Corporate Planning and for Innovation at the Singapore government agency JTC. L’Atelier caught up with him on the sidelines of the Greater Copenhagen Smart Solutions event, and he described for us the changes that have been taking place in his native city in recent years.

The Singapore government is trying to free the city from traffic congestion – photo: Filipe Frazao/Shutterstock

Mobility a central issue for the smart city-state

Anil Das admits that Singapore still has “a lot to do in terms of our carbon footprint.” Accordingly, the city-state has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030. The basic strategy is to encourage Singaporeans to use their cars less. And if you want to do that, there’s nothing for it but to improve public transport. “We analyse data on traffic patterns and behaviour. Three years ago, there was traffic congestion both on the roads and in the metro at rush hours, especially between 8 and 9 o’clock”, recalls Anil Das, explaining: “In order to improve the situation we began to offer free travel to those who arrive at their destination before 7.45…. and it works. Many people have changed their habits and now go to work earlier.” This type of initiative has made Singapore a world leader in terms of transportation networks, points out Steffen Sorrell, a Senior Analyst at Juniper Research who authored the report. Singapore is the first country in the world to set up an electronic road toll system, with charges varying according to actual traffic levels, a strategy which is backed by substantial investment in smart car parks and self-driving cars.

In August 2014 the government signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding for the rollout of a Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI), and has just this month  opened a research and test centre for autonomous vehicles in partnership with Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Meanwhile automotive technology parts supplier Delphi recently announced that it was going to start up a pilot programme for an on-demand autonomous taxi service in the city-state. This will involve deploying six autonomous taxis on a specified route, initially with a human backup driver, with the intention of dispensing with the backup driver in three to six years’ time.

While waiting for these initiatives to bear fruit, Singapore is also betting on shared electric vehicles in a further bid to dissuade citizens from buying cars. Due to the existing high road tax and other charges, only 15% of all Singaporeans actually own a vehicle today. “This is the next challenge: we have to disassociate owning a car from having one available. Being the owner of a car has nothing to do with the material sense of well-being, which is all about having the freedom to move around,” argues Anil Das. Accordingly, a fleet of one thousand electric cars was deployed nationwide this summer in cooperation with Blue SG, a subsidiary of the French Bolloré Group.

Using data and the right psychology to save energy

Singapore’s environmental conscience is not a new attitude. With its drive to take the Garden City concept further and turn itself into a ‘City in a Garden’ Singapore boasts a plethora of outstanding green spaces that make up half its territory. The Gardens by the Bay nature park, with its 100,000 species of plants, is in friendly rivalry with the Botanic Garden, which is home to the largest collection of orchids in the world – and these are just two of the city’s green spaces. In order to preserve its parks and protect the environment, Singapore used to have a very strict energy savings policy. “There was a time when water was rationed and people were taxed if they used more than the authorised daily amount. Now we go about things in a completely different way,” points out Anil Das. The new policy is based on similar methods to those used in order to avoid having too many people taking public transport during the rush hour: “We don’t tell our citizens how to behave any more, we use influence to encourage them to behave as they ought to,” he explains.

Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, one of the city-state’s ‘green lungs’ – Photo: Tristan Tan / Shutterstock

Green competitive companies

In order to prove that a determination to be a sustainable country or company does not detract from competition, the JTC has launched the CleanTech Park. This business complex hosts ecologically-oriented firms working in environmentally-friendly buildings. “It’s an area where startups and companies working on sustainable solutions, in cleantech or green energy for instance, can set up.” There is also an ecological garden, which serves as the area’s ‘green lung’, where “firms working on water-related technologies can test them in real life, without having to restrict themselves to a laboratory or a highly-controlled environment”. 

The CleanTech Park is part of a 620-hectare zone hosting the university (NTU), various companies and startup enterprises, plus some residential areas. The Jurong Innovation District is a sort of campus designed to encourage collaboration between different players and the government has launched an appeal inviting companies to come and test out their innovative solutions within the zone. “It’s not ready yet. Construction will take at least another ten years and firms will meanwhile be gradually setting up there,” Anil Das revealed. The first phase of the project is scheduled for completion by 2022.

Singapore’s secret: fast adaptation to new technology?

of its citizens has also changed. “Expectations have changed: my parents’ generation were happy with a safe environment and proper public transport infrastructure. For my children it’s different – the city now has to be at the same time a safe, unpolluted place where you can have fun and enjoy a good lifestyle,” Das underlines, pointing out: “Nowadays companies are getting involved with universities earlier – not just for research or recruitment, but because they’ve realised that students are also their future customers.”

Both government and regulators in Singapore are also able to move fast. The sort of administrative gridlock experienced by some European countries is not part of Singapore’s reality. The country is regularly listed among the world’s leaders in e-government, as demonstrated by a report from Waseda University in Japan – which has in fact ranked Singapore number one since 1998 – and an earlier report by consulting firm Accenture. The legislators “get involved very early on in the process and help it along and sometimes even carry out feasibility studies.” The Singapore Corporate Planning Director cites the use of drones as an example. “The main issue is about public safety and limited space, given that we’re very densely populated.” On the island of Pulau Ubin for instance, “people are connected to the Internet and do their shopping online. Instead of delivering the goods by ferry, some companies want to use drones. The regulators agreed to designate a specific traffic-free aerial corridor, on condition that drone pilots keep to this corridor.” The trial was a success. All that remains now is for the online retailers to ensure that this approach is profitable from a business point of view.

In addition to being an outstanding example of a progressive ‘smart city’ and one of the most harmonious cosmopolitan societies in the world, Singapore is of course also a great economic success: the World Economic Forum recently ranked the city-state as the second-most competitive economy for the fifth year running.

By Sophia Qadiri
Managing Editor & Journalist