SMART NATION REPORT CARD

Vivian Balakrishnan on Smart Nation: Buying a couple of decades of global relevance

Dr Balakrishnan notes that people are using the Internet to find common causes and to actually do things. There is a greater sense of community ownership, participation and problem-solving. A woman sending an SMS text to a fire hydrant, one of the ex
A woman sending an SMS text to a fire hydrant, one of the exhibits at last year's Festival of Tech. Challenges in developing a Smart Nation include implementation and data security.TNP FILE PHOTO

The Smart Nation report card may have a lot of gold stars, but where to go from here? The Minister-in-Charge of the initiative, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, tells The Sunday Times about the gains - and the challenges ahead

Q What are the challenges for Smart Nation?

A Implementation is one. I'll give you an example. We have been looking at autonomous vehicles and I've come to the conclusion that technology is actually here.

What we need now is policy implementation (such as) insurance, licensing, liability.

Another challenge is data security. How do you protect data? Because if you don't protect data, people will not share.

Actually, all our medical records are already electronic. But why is it we can't make it freely available? It's because you have to solve security.


Dr Balakrishnan notes that people are using the Internet to find common causes and to actually do things. There is a greater sense of community ownership, participation and problem-solving.

There's always this tension between security and convenience. But at some point, we have to take a risk. But this is something that cannot, should not, be decided by one man or an agency. We need to do it collectively.

Q How do you get SMEs to participate in Smart Nation activities?

A (They should) take advantage of the Budget's targeted assistance - on capability development, providing funds for robotics, for platform technologies.

Don't just (use the funds to) buy a computer. Seriously think about revamping and upgrading your capability and your innovative potential.

It's not just a subsidy scheme. It requires focus and bandwidth.

Whatever business you're doing - running a restaurant, a retail outlet - all this has been transformed. And if you don't transform, you're going to be out-competed.

Q What are your three key priorities for the next 12 months?

 

A The role of the Government in Smart Nation is: 1) making sure our infrastructure is the best; 2) to invest in research, development and education and capability building; 3) policy innovation (where) our policies, rules, regulations need to catch up; 4) Government as a smart buyer, by encouraging the development of prototypes, new products, new service by local SMEs.

These are things that only the Government can do. Then we stay out of the way. Let the private sector and the people get on with it.

Q What help do Singapore start-ups need?

A I'm trying to connect them more globally, internationally. That's why this idea of getting others to come here, getting ours to also establish bases overseas.

Our start-ups need global opportunities because in this digital age, you have to be global almost from day one. Your app is competing, whether it's Google Play or the App Store. It's a global marketplace.

Q Where is Singapore's competitiveness in the global economic value chain?

A We are not Silicon Valley. So we must think carefully about the global value chain and where we are most competitive. I think we can be competitive in a few things.

First, compared with Silicon Valley, our infrastructure will be better than theirs.

I can tell even Google that we will try to solve the policy issues for autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence because we have a single layer of government. We have a prime minister who "gets" it.

So there are some things which we can do, and it's not a zero-sum game. Singapore just needs to be part of this global value chain that will buy a couple of decades of global relevance for Singapore.

Q What is your report card on Smart Nation around a year and a half since it was launched?

A We were looking at three dimensions: jobs, quality of life and society.

On the jobs, you know that there's a shortage (of engineers, computer scientists, cyber security experts and data analysts). That's a good sign because we have generated demand for jobs by Singaporeans.

Then we're bringing in courses like those provided by General Assembly (a global educational company teaching digital technologies to mature students).

The emphasis is not on paper qualifications but on practical qualifications. So on the job front, I'm quite happy that we've been able to move the needle on jobs.

The other index I've been looking at is start-ups.

Launchpad (at one-north) is already expanding into a second phase. It even has a Block 71 San Francisco (a US-based co-working space).

Other countries are also interested in connecting their start-up communities to ours, so there is definitely more buzz in the start-up community.

The third area is quality of life.

Simple things like waiting times (at bus stops), less (bus and traffic) congestion are important.

I must give credit to LTA (the Land Transport Authority). It really used data and data science to help inform their decisions on planning bus routes, on injecting more buses.

On the community space, people are using the Internet to find common causes and to actually do things, whether it's to deliver masks (during the haze) or to help people with special needs.

There is a greater sense of community ownership, participation and problem-solving, and it goes beyond the Government. It's not just about "I wait for the Government to do it".

The fourth thing I'm quite happy with is the level of open data. Go to data.gov.sg

Five years ago, everybody would complain to me: "Oh I can't get data on dengue, on lightning, on floods." Today all that (data) is available real time, online and free.

By looking at these four areas, in terms of jobs, business, quality of life and openness of data and the whole (notion of) creating solutions, I think we have made reasonable progress in the past 18 months.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 22, 2016, with the headline 'Buying a couple of decades of global relevance'. Print Edition | Subscribe