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Opinion

 
Carlo Ratti And Matthew Claudel For The Straits Times

A smart city needs a dose of chaos

Published on Jul 4, 2014 11:00 AM
 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Smartphone, smart kitchen, smart city… as the label "smart" is applied across an increasingly broad swath of contemporary life, Singapore is about to pioneer something entirely new: the "smart nation". What lies ahead as the island becomes networked and intelligent?

The Smart Nation project (SNP) launched last month is part of the Government's Infocomm Media Masterplan. The first phase will focus on the deployment of hard infrastructure, related especially to connectivity and sensors.

Next will be initiatives that address various dimensions of the island's life and operations. You could think of these operations as making up a "city operating system" - a system that makes an urban city run, in the same way operating systems already run most of today's smart technologies, from laptops and iPads to increasingly networked domestic appliances.

While the masterplan spans the whole island, the new Jurong Lake District development will become the heart of research and application, serving as a site where innovative solutions can be nurtured, deployed and subsequently transplanted elsewhere in the city (or across the planet).

It will become an applied research test-bed commonly known as "urban living lab" in smart city jargon.

The goals of the SNP are ambitious. First and foremost is a concerted push for urban efficiency. Second, the plan seeks to promote an ecosystem of entrepreneurial innovation. Are these two objectives - efficiency and innovation - attainable? And, most importantly, are they desirable?

The first goal is quantifiable, and strategies for optimising the city's function have the potential to have a radical impact on daily life. Who would not want to live in a city that consumes less energy, or where traffic jams are reduced to a minimum?

Singapore is probably one of the world's best test cases for cutting edge urban developments. The nation is small, dense, tech- savvy and, most importantly, can now draw on an overt commitment from the Government.

This attitude has transformed Singapore repeatedly since it became independent.

Transportation is a key example: Singapore pioneered one of the world's first Electronic Road Pricing schemes, later copied by cities elsewhere. The system dramatically reduced vehicle traffic on roads, alleviating congestion - primarily in the central business district during peak hours.

The public transit system is no less a model of efficient operation. Since its inauguration, it has been rated the best Asia-Pacific metro system and most technologically innovative. It is also among the most resource-efficient transit networks in the world, as evaluated by the international Metro Rail Awards.

Today, car autonomy - think driverless cars - is on the brink of entering the consumer marketplace, bringing significant benefits to society, drivers and pedestrians. Singapore, once again, could become a world leader in testing future mobility. This is particularly promising in small controlled sites - such as the Jurong Lake District or Sentosa, where autonomous driving projects have already been proposed.

But how will all this spark innovation? Unlike efficiency, innovation cannot be institutionally purchased or mandated from the top down. It demands a complex and delicate ecosystem based on the bottom-up, concerted effort of many individuals. Here, Singapore's forward path will be more challenging.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew famously urged Singaporeans to take more risks, a vital component of his three attributes of global competitiveness: entrepreneurship, innovation and management. "The American economy has taken off because of the enterprise culture and willingness to try," said Mr Lee in an interview with the New York Times in 2001. "I think it's going to be a very arduous business changing the mindsets (of Singaporeans)".

In the course of our work on the island, we have personally noticed a pattern - Government and business eagerly seek novel and innovative ideas at first, but soon furtively ask: "How many times has this been implemented before?" (By definition, if a technology has been implemented before, it is no longer novel!)

Contrast that with the prevailing attitude in California's Silicon Valley - one of the world's most productive innovation ecologies - where risk-taking is rewarded, while failure is tolerated.

Singapore needs this bold entrepreneurial spirit to exploit the cutting edge tools that will be deployed in the course of the media masterplan. Fostering an innovation culture will not be easy in a country where the educational system has historically been shaped by the stigma of failure. Innovation demands an environment where top-down ideas are challenged, so that new and better ones can advance.

In some cases it will also need a good dose of chaos - the opposite of optimal efficiency. The most creative solutions often emerge and thrive in less regulated and "messy" environments.

In other words, at times "less smartness" might be needed if "smart" is to be more than an empty label.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Carlo Ratti directs the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is a principal investigator at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology. Matthew Claudel is a research fellow at the MIT Senseable City Laboratory.

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