Wise up to 'smart city' goals

The use of data analytics to establish consumer patterns and foot traffic in large malls is common enough but smart ways of shopping are rarely offered. If there are several options for a consumer seeking to make a quick purchase, he or she will as likely as not end up browsing very much, as the system is designed to get shoppers to walk around a lot.

Easing residents' daily time-and-motion irritations, not just in malls but in all public places, ought to be a key focus of the drive towards a "smart nation". Designs and processes should be people-focused in every way and, in many cases, one might not need gee-whiz technology to effect improvements. For example, if attention is paid to basics like effective signage, which appears to constantly confound managers unveiling new developments, customers will not wind up being disoriented. Removing every extra keystroke or unnecessary step in daily transactions also calls for common sense more than technical know-how. Like the standardisation of address formats, once a confusion of styles, other aspects of city life can be made more efficient if the will exists.

Gathering data and shaping new applications to serve more than five million people are complex tasks and the justification for the expense that will be incurred. It is a huge undertaking with unrelated state agencies like the Land Transport Authority, NParks and the National Environment Agency having to work in tandem. The payoff will be worth the outlay if it eases the stress of city living by cutting back on wasted time common to life in chaotic cities.

This is a reason trials on the use of sensory hardware about to begin in the Jurong Lake District should have a clear focus on practical value. The urge to splurge on fanciful technologies that excite the imagination but whose usefulness is marginal must be resisted.

Bear in mind, too, that functional limitations may render applications obsolete before their time. A decade ago bus-stop panels intended to show arrival times of buses did not work as planned because technical glitches resulted in unreliable information given and even blank displays. Now, times can be checked easily on a smartphone.

The Jurong tests, involving sensors and above-ground boxes housing a range of data-scooping devices, will bring such benefits as traffic-signal phasing that responds to vehicular volume, as well as zeroing in on illegal parking and HDB void decks in need of cleaning. Such workaday assistance will benefit Singaporeans.

There are many other areas where a "smart" approach can meet the needs of users and suppliers alike. To make it work, organisations and people must be willing to adapt their routines and work together for the common good.