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Singapore Is On Its Way To Becoming An Iconic Smart City

You might think of it more for its stringent penal code, but the Asian city is fast becoming one of the most forward thinking in the region.

This past week I had the pleasure of being invited to Singapore to present my research on smart, innovative cities. Tropical greenspaces throughout the city are juxtaposed with remnants of its past through an authentic China Town, Little India and others—all of which mixes with a modern, robust, waterside financial district, as well as upscale, North-American-style malls and entertainment districts. That’s a lot for a small island with about 5 million inhabitants.

For those of us interested in smart city evolution, Singapore is a fascinating place to explore. I was lucky enough to have Andreas Birnik, the former director of smart cities for Ericsson and current adjunct professor of sustainability at the National University of Singapore, as a guide.

Nearly 90% of the Singaporean population owns their own home or apartment. The underlying principal here is that social housing will only succeed when the tenants have an incentive, and an equity in their buildings and homes. This may be one of the reasons, along with very punitive criminal laws, that Singapore has such an incredibly low crime rate.

While Singapore has one of the highest home ownership rates in the world, the politicians are doing their best to keep vehicle ownership rates (and subsequently traffic and new road infrastructure) as low as possible. Singapore has an auction system just to obtain the rights to purchase a car. Depending on the type of vehicle, auctions this past year have run between $50,000 and $75,000. On top of that, the government imposes massive taxes (100% or more) on the purchase of vehicles.

On top of all this, Singapore has implemented electronic road pricing (ERP)—a set of automated tolls throughout the city which vary depending on the hour in an attempt to incentivize off-peak travel over peak time.

Singapore is definitely pushing the envelope on innovation in policy and infrastructure. Its MRT metro system is fantastic and pretty smart. The stations are clean, the system is robust, reliable, and modern, and as a result the MRT is very popular.

On the sustainability side, Singapore generally gets very high marks. In fact, in the most recent Siemens Green Cities research, Singapore was the highest rated city in all of Asia. Singapore has a world-class water management program consisting of rain water catchment, waste water recycling, and desalination. The latter of course requires a lot of energy, but the government is working with the private sector to explore energy reduction technologies and strategies. According to Birnik, concern over the future access of potable water from Malaysia prompted the government to innovate solutions for self-reliance. This was smart thinking, because now the country is starting to export its water management expertise to other parts of Asia.

The government is regularly investing in ICT technology, from ubiquitous cameras for security and a plan to roll out a fiber network to every neighborhood to sensors in public housing buildings that sense earthquake tremors and send real-time texts to city engineers to request building inspections. The government, according to Birnik, "has a very sophisticated traffic management system including a monitoring center that looks like something from NASA," allowing them to monitor traffic flow, dispatch emergency services, or detect obstructions.

Of course, not all is perfect. One concern I had, given my interest in the promotion of sustainable and smart ventures, is that the culture appears to be quite risk averse. I believe smart cities must provide support in the form of supply-side tools such as tech parks and tax breaks as well as demand-side tools like procurement, regulations, and standards to encourage local innovation. Some of the major universities on the island are involved in supporting the creation of dedicated tech parks, but I do not believe Singapore is doing enough to encourage local innovation to meet the needs of its smart infrastructure. It appears the bias is much more on tried and true products from branded multinationals.

Another issue Singapore faces is growing inflation rates and relatively high cost of living. The government seeks to engage in what they call "economic restructuring" to find ways to increase incomes of low-wage earners by supporting productivity improvements. I suggest that they look to energy efficiency (and renewables) as a way to improve corporate and municipal balance sheets, allowing for salary increases. Singapore is consistently hot (average annual temperature is in the high 80s Fahrenheit) and I observed plenty of wasted energy, from air conditioning units running full with doors and windows open to design choices that do not optimize passive ventilation or energy efficiency (e.g. single pane windows even in modern buildings).

While the local utility has made a significant transition from coal to natural gas, there appears to be little effort to make the next step to renewables. Just as the island made a transition to a world-class water management system to avoid dependence on importing water, I suggest Singapore begin to do the same with renewables. The island has few natural resources and energy costs are already quite high at more than 20 cents a kilowatt. Perhaps it could start with a feed-in tariff to incentivize large companies and building owners to invest in renewables.

Still, Singapore is one impressive city. Given that it was relatively poor only a few decades ago, it is impressive to see how Singapore is now a robust, vibrant, multi-cultural, clean, and safe place to be. Singapore appears to be on the right track to becoming one of the iconic smart cities in Asia.