2012-05-14

Co.Exist

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.

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13 Comments

  • Major Plonquer

    Several years ago, Singapore signed an agreement to provide resources to the Binhai EcoCity near Tianjin in China.  Since then, zero progress has been made.  To put it bluntly, Singapore may be well intentioned, but it has neither the technologies nor the expertise required to build a true smart city. Many deficiencies are cited in this article.

    If you want to see the future, look at what's happening in Portugal at PlanIT Valley, or with the Chinese setting up their new SmartCity Fund to drive the development of 850 new smart communities.  Both of these take the opposite view from other smart city projects around the world.  They don't build the city then try to retrofit new technologies.  They acquire the technologies first then build the cities on top of them.

    That's what I call smart.

  • Jimbo

    For anyone who's lived in SG, this will come across simply as a load of bullshi*

  • Michael32

    This is rubbish it is not even factually correct or well researched and I for one would not even grace this talk\

    Dr Michael Cheong

  • Singapura

    I agree on your comments about Singapore being very well run with an enviable public transport system.  You also have to give a lot of credit to them to having a well run taxi system.  Combined, the need for a car is greatly diminished. 

    I respectfully disagree on your points about renewable energy.  The space footprint needed for solar or wind is just too great for a city-state that is already scarce on space.  Offshore wind might be a consideration but the wind resource is pretty weak relative to say the wind resources in Northern Europe.  There is potential for solar but given that most housing is apartment style HDB, you couldn't get enough solar on the roof to cover the whole building's desired consumption.

    Additionally, any offshore energy option like wind or even tidal could be impacted by the need to maintain shipping routes - one of Singapore's key economic drivers.

    You're dead on about the need to innovate, they are fairly risk averse.  I think energy efficiency technology would be a great opportunity and again, one they could export expertise on.

  • global_lingo

    You've listed just a few of the reasons we opened an office in Singapore. From a business point of view it's the perfect hub for the rest of Asia. The infrastructure already there, made our opening very easy.

  • Almondsfast

    Our world class water management system filters our toilet water. Hurrah! Thanks for plugging our country, we really need that. The less than democratic political system may not be too sustainable though.

  • Brayden

    Aw, come on, tell him the truth! The liquids in the toilet bowl goes into the drinking water.  That's why all the expats buy bottled water by the cartons. Oh yeah, don't forget the 30 year repayment schedule to pay off the "subsidized" public housing.

  • Xiaxue

    You have not taken our MRT metro trains. Not a day goes by without a train breakdown, delaying thousands of commuters who need to get to work!

  • Xiaxue

    In my opinion, comparing Singapore MRT to those in Madrid and Buenos Aires is a mismatch. I have also taken metro trains in numerous cities like Shanghai, Paris, Bangkok, Barcelona, Tokyo, Hong Kong, just to name a few. The Tokyo metro is the one that I admire most and can truly say That it is world class, in terms of connectedness, cleanliness and timeliness. Singapore ought to emulate that. However, of late, even newly commissioned lines like the Circle Line that only went operational last year, has had frequent breakdowns, leaving commuters in the lurch. This speaks volumes of the quality of engineering of the transport providers.

    As for your point of the MRT being a victim of its own success, I offer another alternative. Perhaps it was not meant to carry so much people in the first place? Because of the liberal immigration policy where bring in large amounts of low wage foreign workers in such a short time, this has inadvertently created undue stress to a transport system not designed to ferry so much people at one go.

    I have not been to Buenos Aires, but I am guessing that itI maybe Kuala Lumpur MRT would be in the same league as them. Singapore would not do well if she were to benchmark herself against such players.

    Nevertheless, you have managed to be an impressed tourist of Singapore. Thanks for contributing to the GDP of SG!

  • boyd cohen

    I actually did take the MRT numerous times when I was there and I can tell you compared to many places I have lived including Madrid and now Buenos Aires, the MRT is way more punctual, clean and smart than some other major cities.  I have heard of problems with the MRT but luckily for me I didn't experience any. I suggest that Singapore is a bit of a victim of its own success as the MRT system is very well used by the public, creating additional demands on the system.