How to have a Smart Nation for everyone

As Singapore progresses on our Smart Nation journey, a range of views have emerged on this initiative to get people, businesses and government to use technology, networks and data to enhance our lives.

These include views from people who are enthusiastic first-adopters, and those who are anxious about security and privacy. In between, many are positive about improved convenience and better services, but want to make sure that no one is left behind.

This diversity of views is not unexpected. It means we can, and must, consider different needs and concerns, and bring every Singaporean along on this journey.

Technology has the potential to enrich and transform our lives dramatically, from the way we use productivity tools in our work, to the ability to monitor the health of our loved ones remotely. We must ensure everyone benefits from the potential of our Smart Nation.

This is not the first time Singapore is experiencing a technology-driven transformation. Since the 1980s, we have introduced information technology in schools, made broadband available to all homes, and transformed many public services using technology and the Internet. Along the way, our approach has always been to be as inclusive as possible, recognising that some groups, in particular the vulnerable and the elderly, would find the transition difficult.

We have had some significant experience in tackling this challenge: the Infocomm Media Development Authority's Neu PC Plus programme (which had its genesis in 1999 as the PC Reuse Scheme) and, more recently, its Home Access initiative, ensure that low-income and disabled households can benefit from computers and low-cost broadband access. The national Silver Infocomm initiative has been established for more than a decade, and has helped more than 130,000 seniors understand and use technology.

But this current Smart Nation journey is different in the potential transformation, the speed and depth of change, as well as the benefits it will bring. Thus, we will need a different, and more comprehensive, approach to ensure that all Singaporeans can participate and benefit.

We need to make three strategic shifts in how we go about this.

  • Design with the user in mind.

First, we need to shift from providing services to designing with the user in mind. Digital natives like my children easily download applications, and teach their grandparents how to configure online accounts. Whether we are designing government e-services, or technologies to be used in the home, the user interface must be so easy to use that almost everybody can start using it with little or no instruction. We should start from the premise that we must design digital services for everyone.

  • Redefine digital access to include equipping people with skills.

Second, we need to define digital readiness as being more than having access to technological devices. No matter how well-designed a product or service is, there will be a small group of Singaporeans who will need more help. We need to understand their anxieties and difficulties, work with them, and have someone they trust hold their hand along the journey.

Today, we have many digital inclusion programmes that focus on giving people access to affordable devices and the Internet. But being digitally ready is not just about access to digital technology, but also having the skills to use digital technology safely and confidently. We must therefore scale up programmes that help people build their literacy and comfort with using digital technologies. We want everyone to be able to participate meaningfully in the digital society. This will take extra effort, but it is worth it. We must put in that effort.

  • Collaborate across organisational boundaries.

Third, we need to collaborate more across organisational boundaries for greater reach and impact. The Ministry of Communications and Information has set up a Digital Readiness Workgroup to study the issues more closely and propose strategies to build digital readiness in Singaporeans. Workgroup members come from organisations across the public, private and people sectors.

The private sector has skills and experience at designing products to maximise their access, markets and client base. The people sector has touch points and programmes that drive skills, literacy and participation among different community groups. We need to put all this together, and drive an approach that encompasses the experiences of all Singaporeans.

The Digital Readiness Workgroup will articulate a blueprint for digital inclusion by design, make recommendations for interventions and programmes to include all Singaporeans and also propose how public-, private- and people-sector organisations will work better together, for greater impact. At the same time, I hope we will be proactive in helping ourselves as well as our friends and loved ones embrace and benefit from technology.

The Smart Nation initiative will have an impact at three levels. It will transform our country so that we continue to be economically competitive and vibrant. It will create jobs for individuals and opportunities for businesses. It will provide better services and more convenience for every citizen, making life better at a personal level.

All three levels are important and inter-connected. But it is at the personal level that we need to put in the extra effort to ensure that the Smart Nation is for everybody.

  • The writer is Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Education.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2017, with the headline How to have a Smart Nation for everyone. Subscribe