Behavioural change key to Smart Nation lifestyle

Experts say it is difficult to do, and urge technologists to focus on user convenience

File photo showing pedestrians on the road in Singapore's central business district during the lunch hour, on June 29, 2018. PHOTO: ST FILE

Being a Smart Nation with a sustainable lifestyle starts with behavioural change. But, as experts and attendees at a conference yesterday noted, change is one of the hardest things to do.

For instance, how do governments convince citizens to take public transport and go car-lite?

The question from a conference attendee drew spirited responses from panellists at the East-West Centre's International Media Conference.

Dr Limin Hee, the Ministry of National Development's director at the Centre for Liveable Cities, said that although technology provides citizens with more choices, they would inevitably choose one option over another for convenience.

"It is not because they want to be more sustainable or save the planet," she said, urging technologists to focus on user convenience.

Associate professor of transportation and urban planning Chris Zegras of Boston's Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) agreed.

He noted that data such as the availability of buses, shared bikes or autonomous vehicles via smartphone apps is what gives citizens a better sense of their mobility options. This might, in turn, give them more confidence in the public transportation system and prompt behavioural changes.

He is upbeat that Singapore could inspire the necessary behavioural change, citing its support for innovative projects such as autonomous vehicle trials.

nuTonomy, a software company founded by MIT academics and McKinsey management consultants, started testing driverless taxi services in Singapore in 2016.

People might not necessarily want to get their driving licence once shared autonomous vehicle services become available "because that (would) seem so passe", said Prof Zegras, who is also the lead principal investigator for future mobility at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

Looking ahead, he said that data that allows the dynamic pricing of road tolls and train and bus rides - similar to Uber and Grab's demand-based pricing - is what will truly transform people's behaviour.

"ERP 2.0 will be the real thing, where resources are priced according to scarcity," he said.

ERP 2.0, or Electronic Road Pricing 2.0, will rely on satellite navigation technology to keep track of the vehicle population and road usage to determine the road tolls motorists need to pay. The system is expected to be in force from 2020.

The panel discussion on Singapore's Smart Nation journey took place on the last day of the three-day conference held at the Singapore Management University's School of Law.

The session was moderated by Professor Steven Miller, Singapore Management University's vice-provost of research and professor of information systems.

Panellists agreed that Singapore's smallness gives it a natural advantage when implementing nationwide projects.

Mr Kok Ping Soon, chief executive of the Government Technology Agency of Singapore, the agency behind public sector technology transformation, said that some cities do not work together for nationwide rollouts.

"You can't have a regional digital identity system; you need to have it on a national level," he said.

To another question on how Singapore motivates the elderly to get ready for a digital future controlled by sensors and where cashless payments rule, Mr Kok said that the answer lies in its digital inclusion programmes.

Earlier this month, the Singapore Government launched its digital readiness blueprint with 10 recommendations, including providing one-on-one assistance for the elderly and developing government apps in the four official languages to reach out to Singaporeans who do not speak English.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2018, with the headline Behavioural change key to Smart Nation lifestyle. Subscribe