Vision of 'e-topia' calls for smart choices

The key choice that can be deemed truly smart in building "smart cities" is to not get carried away by gee-whiz technology and focus on people instead. This ought to inform Singapore's ambitions as it establishes a Smart Nation Programme Office headed by a minister to oversee the development of vast infrastructure to connect people and things extensively and intensively. Among the tools to be launched is an integrated 3D map that can throw up detailed information about buildings, land and the environment. The overall undertaking is one of breathtaking proportions but many will find it hard to fathom the point of it all at this stage.

The key questions are how it will benefit the people, private and public sectors; the costs involved; and the impact of pervasive technology on jobs, services, security and privacy. As a lifestyle choice, would people prefer to interact mainly with super-efficient machines and virtual organisations or crave the buzz from organic forms of "culture, commerce, community - all of which are very inefficient", as the Benetton Group's communication research chief, Dan Hill, put it?

What many are likely to agree on is the need to find new ways to improve city life within a small, crowded island coping with a tempo that's necessarily dictated by the outside world. Singapore, like many leading cities, is already tapping technology for health care, education, crime prevention and traffic management. The smart nation model brings together all piecemeal efforts with a view to multiplying possibilities. It is a long-term effort that involves entrepreneurs, service providers and citizens as much as government planners and technologists.

One can expect some applications that emerge to offer just marginal value, while others might fail outright, as is the nature of new technology. Sharing data widely and trialling new systems in the Jurong Lake District can help to ensure outcomes are indeed useful to all, including youth, seniors and local businessmen.

Acceptance of smart concepts will also hinge on affordability and accessibility. To Professor Mark Deakin of the European Union's Smart Cities project, smart urban thinking is "very much linked to the idea of governing in a good way - making cities more socially inclusive and with better access to services".

With that in mind, Singapore's smart nation experiment must stay focused on improving the lives of all citizens and not get carried away by a grand vision that might mainly thrill technophiles and IT-minded city planners. Practical value should rank above sheer novelty. And low-tech interfaces are not necessarily bad when a reassuring palimpsest is offered of what's familiar to the majority.