The rise of smart cities

With more than 60 per cent of the world's population expected to be urban residents by 2050, the challenge to build more "smart cities" has become urgent. With the advent of digital technology and big data, changes are afoot, be it in public transportation, citizen services or the way businesses are run. To discuss these changes and evaluate the processes under way, one of France's leading newspapers, Le Monde, in partnership with The Straits Times, is organising a conference titled "Smart Cities: Which visions and models for the 21st century?" at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy today. And, in a four-page special, The Straits Times and Le Monde showcase Asian cities that have, in their individual ways, applied smart city solutions to enhance the quality of life.



E-payment and digital identity part of Smart Nation push

Imagine the convenience of transferring money to a friend or a vendor just by using the other party's mobile phone number instead of his bank account number.

This may happen before the month is out.

A Central Addressing Scheme slated to be rolled out will dispense with the need for bank account numbers - a bugbear of e-payments now.

Instead, the scheme - backed by the Association of Banks in Singapore - will map mobile phone numbers to bank account numbers for funds to be credited, saving senders the hassle of asking for and entering a recipient's account number.

The new function will be integrated into banks' existing apps, such as DBS PayLah, UOB Mighty, OCBC Pay Anyone, Maybank Mobile Money and Standard Chartered's SC Mobile.

It is believed that the service will bring down the merchants' costs of going digital, allowing even hawkers and owners of small shops to go cashless.

E-payment is a key part of Singapore's Smart Nation drive, which received "turbo-charging" following a reorganisation of the public sector teams involved in its design and implementation.

Singapore wants to make e-wallets as universally accepted as cash, just like online payment solution Alipay in China.

Part of a $90 million fund to modernise hawker centres has also been set aside to install cashless payment systems to open up e-payments at hawker centres.

Separately, Nets - a consortium of local banks - is upgrading its point-of-sale terminals to accept payment from all banks and payment networks, and through cards or mobile wallets.

As Minister in charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said in March, Singapore is "a victim of its own success" in the e-payment space as it has many options but none quite as universally accepted as cash. It is hoped that the Central Addressing Scheme will provide the streamlining needed.

Singapore is also working on developing a digital identity for every citizen. Last July, the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) engaged digital security systems maker Gemalto to trial a mobile digital system in the banking and healthcare sectors to securely identify every Internet user - just like a digital version of the NRIC, or identity card, in the physical world.

It is believed that a digital ID can better protect online identities as threats of fraud and identity theft mount. Furthermore, it will allow users to ditch multiple e-banking tokens with different banks, and do away with the hassle of remembering different usernames and passwords. Singapore's digital ID could be in the form of a software-based security token.

Later this year, a video analytics system - part of a larger shared sensor and communications backbone code named Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP) - is also slated for roll-out. The video analytics system is meant to help detect anomalies to predict, say, potentially unruly crowds or traffic congestion, and is being developed by GovTech, working with various unnamed agencies.

A key part of SNSP is being piloted with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and rides on LTA's network of street lights. It will be used to carry all sorts of data - from temperature to humidity - and could see the 95,000 street lights islandwide become interconnected lamp posts.

The Smart Nation Programme Office, created in 2014 to bring these plans to fruition, now comes under the new Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, which will also have technology teams from other agencies.

"In this way, we will be more coordinated and will move forward on the key digital government (and Smart Nation) programmes in the coming year or two," said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in March.

The reorganisation of the public sector teams came after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in February that Singapore was not moving as fast as it ought to on digital transformation.

South Korea

Green spaces and good schools win kudos

SPH Brightcove Video
South Korean smart city Songdo is built on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea, off the country's western coast. Its crown jewel is the technology-packed green oasis Central Park, a favourite with its 100,000 residents.

Parents are strolling with their children in South Korea's own Central Park on a Thursday evening, cooing at deer and tinkering on a "magic piano" with a leaf-shaped lid. The relaxed mood is in stark contrast to the shiny glass facades of skyscrapers surrounding the park, and yet, they exist in quiet harmony.

This is Songdo, South Korea's first smart city, built from scratch on 53.4 sq km of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea on the country's western coast. It is also designated as a free economic zone with the aim of attracting foreign investments.

When it first broke ground in 2003, Songdo was envisioned to be a "city of the future" that is green, sustainable and yet integrates the best of available technologies to make modern living a cinch.



Ambitious plan to improve quality of life

India wishes to build or to redesign 109 "smart cities" in a huge country where urbanisation is rapid and nightmarish.

Half of the most-polluted cities in the world are Indian and a third of the urban population does not have access to tap water. In Delhi, only 17 per cent of households are connected to the sanitation system.

In other words, the "smart cities" initiative launched by the Indian government in 2015 is extremely ambitious.



Yinchuan leads the way in using tech to improve daily life

SPH Brightcove Video
Future City is one of 20 smart communities in Yinchuan, China. The condominium has free wifi in public spaces and noticeboards that give to-the-minute weather, traffic and bus arrival information.

When retiree You Yulan began her search for a new home in 2015, her main requirement was that it had to be served by a lift.

"My (ailing) mother had to be bundled in a blanket and carried down the stairs as the stretcher could not fit her doorway," the 65-year-old recalled. "That was when I knew I had to move out of my old apartment, which didn't have a lift."

But Madam You, who bought a 92 sq m apartment that year in a new condominium called Future City, discovered that its name was not an empty boast: It provided one vision of how life can be improved by technology and sensors.



Small but smart cities woo business and young talent

The Startup Cafe, run by the Fukuoka City government, provides consultation services to budding entrepreneurs keen to launch businesses in the city.PHOTO: CITY OF FUKUOKA

As Japan faces the grim prospect of a population that is shrinking as fast as it is growing old, a nationwide movement has begun to revitalise rural areas and woo people from the megapolises of Tokyo and Osaka.

This is above and beyond the central government's vision for a Society 5.0 - with elements similar to Singapore's Smart Nation drive - that centres on using artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to better the lives of Japan's residents and ignite its economy.

Several cities and towns have embarked on local initiatives to ease regulations and come up with urban solutions to attract new businesses, and, in turn, more working-age residents.


Hong Kong

Ramping up efforts to lead the next wave

Hong Kong was a pioneer in urban modernity well before the concept of "smart city" was invented.

It is an ultra-modern, vertical and electric city that still owes part of its reputation to its past audacity. It broke the codes, openly displaying its frenetic ambition to be a global city and began attracting the youth of the world to the Pearl River.

Since then, other key cities have overtaken it. Hong Kong now ranks 14th in the Global Innovation Index, having fallen a further three places.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2017, with the headline The rise of smart cities. Subscribe