What makes a Smart Nation?
By Lim Chinn Hwa, Senior Director, Smart Nation Platform Solutions
This is a question we have been asking ourselves since PM Lee Hsien Loong launched the Smart Nation initiative in 2014 with a vision to weave technology into nation-building.
As PM Lee has put forth, our key objectives from the beginning were to “use technology extensively and systematically, … integrate[d] … into a coherent and comprehensive whole,” to “make our economy more productive, our lives better, and our society more responsive to our people’s needs and aspirations.”
This required a collaborative approach whereby different citizen groups, organisations and government agencies co-create the best solutions to achieve our goals.
On the Government’s part, we are spearheading the systematic use of technology, building the infrastructure and frameworks, and developing secure and trusted systems. At the ground level, we aim to create a community connected by technology to improve the overall quality of life in Singapore.
“Smart Nation is our aspirational stepping-stone and contribution to the world.”
However, not everyone can take to technology like a fish to water.
The challenge here, is making sure that we don’t lose anybody along the way. In the process of implementing Smart Nation technology, it is imperative for us to constantly reflect if the technology actually improves the quality of life of our citizens, and not get carried away with fancy technology for the sake of “implementing technology”.
Concurrently, we need to take reference from the rest of the world and stay relevant in economic, social and political spheres so we can continue to participate and add value to global conversations.
In building the Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP), we have taken a step in actualising this vision.
How the Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP) can realise the Smart Nation goal
SNSP, in a nutshell, is about having a conversation with objects — the tangible objects we interact with within our physical environment. While other Strategic National Projects like National Digital Identity focus on the social aspect, SNSP is focused on the physical world.
SNSP focuses on creating the foundation and infrastructure that keep a city running. This involves two key components: sensors and infrastructure — which include everything within our built environment such as roads and buildings.
We have half a million sensors throughout the city in order for us to obtain information in a timely manner, process and provide it for analysis in the right context. The timely delivery of information is crucial for decision-makers to run the city, maintain it and make policies. SNSP facilitates the conversation between the cyber and physical worlds by taking in all the raw data collected from sensor devices, contextualising it, and presenting these insights in intuitive ways for decision-making.
The volume of data generated by all these sensors means it’s not possible to be handled solely by humans. We had to look at technologies to augment the processing of these large volumes of data. Creating insights from raw data is one of the fundamental challenges of SNSP as we have to clean it up and process it before passing it out. Machine learning and deep learning are quick and efficient ways in which machines can help us process data into more meaningful information.
In the first few decades of Singapore’s development, our economy relied heavily on manufacturing. As we have transitioned to a more service-oriented economy and culture, digital information — and how we process it — is where we can scale a lot quicker and faster. This is where SNSP — with the data it generates and its data processing technologies — hopes to add value to the economy.
With digital services, we now have a foundation for industries in the digital space, that is a lot more scalable and faster paced. The goldmine is in the insights that SNSP creates through data processing. The platform takes all that insights and circles back to the device layer to have a conversation with the physical environment. Some examples include how to make a place more sustainable, how to utilise less power to drive something, how to create public safety and security with such information, how to improve public mobility and deliver better municipal services as well as community engagement that improves our quality of life.
Ultimately, SNSP hopes to share the data it collects with businesses and citizens for their own applications to spur innovation in our economy and create new solutions together.
How does the SNSP Framework drive the actualisation of the Smart Nation vision?
The SNSP Framework consists of five layers of products and services that enable us to connect the cyber and physical worlds using sensor data.
It begins with the sensing or data acquisition layer: this is where we talk to things in our environment through the use of sensors. We deploy static and mobile sensor platforms island-wide to collect this data. We began by installing smart lampposts to collect localised data, and since then, we’ve also branched out into using autonomous mobile robots carrying sensor payloads to expand coverage beyond the range of static sensor locations. The goal is to develop a 360° understanding of what’s going on in Singapore.
Next is the connectivity layer. SNSP provides Whole-of-Government connectivity services ranging from Wi-Fi to 5G, supporting the different connectivity requirements of different sensors and devices. Connectivity is what allows us to transmit the data collected from devices for processing to ultimately gain insights. One of the interesting connectivity projects we are currently working on is connecting the Southern islands and other remote areas in Singapore with technologies like TV White Space.
This data is then sent to the data processing layer, where it is contextualised to create useful insights for decision-makers. Within this layer, SNSP provides services across the sensor data lifecycle, including device management, data exchange, data fusion and video analytics.
To bridge the cyber-physical worlds, we need to be able to act on the data and insights acquired. The services under the operations and standards layer enable us to reach back into the physical world and act on it. For example, the software capabilities we developed allow us to use autonomous robots for different tasks such as delivery, mapping, inspections — and even safe distancing during the COVID-19 period. SNSP is also supported by virtual and physical command centres providing 24/7 situational awareness.
To make SNSP a truly useful platform for Singapore, we need to make sure that developers can build applications from our data and technologies. One such application that we’ve built is SenseOps, a COVID-19 operations dashboard tool that makes sharing of information across different agencies and generation of insights much faster and more efficient. In the future, we also intend to extend APIs to other developers in the industry, who can take data from SNSP to develop other applications that improve the quality of life for the citizens.
Finally, interoperability is the key to making IoT solutions scalable. This is a challenge that engineers in both the private and public sectors continue to face. This is where global IoT standards are needed to enable all sensor devices and IoT systems to talk to each other to unlock the full potential of sensor data.
“We need to find problems we can solve and fire up the passion that we have for lifelong learning.”
Challenges in Building a Smart Nation
Building a Smart Nation comes with its own set of challenges. The government cannot create a Smart Nation alone. While we work on creating core national technologies like SNSP, we need to put these tools in the hands of our citizens so there is a partnership between them and the government, and to also establish the spirit of problem-solving among the future generation.
A Smart Nation should also use technology to solve and alleviate national challenges like sustainability. To do so, we need to find the right talent to develop solutions for these challenges through encouraging citizen engagement, greater collaboration and innovation.
Finally, how do we create technology that we can eventually scale beyond our shores? How can it help us achieve our goals in a much faster, productive and efficient manner? Developing the right business model and entrepreneurial aspect is crucial to sharpening our economic edge.
The future of a Smart Nation
We have come a long way in transforming the technological landscape of Singapore. Moving forward, my hope is that in time to come, with strong personal privacy protections in place, we can facilitate greater sharing of data among a wider range of users in government, private sector and citizens.
I believe that this can only be achieved by continuing to have conversations between the government and citizens. With more conversations between all stakeholders, we can improve the implementation of citizen-centric policies that will help us take bigger strides towards realising the Smart Nation vision.
What is on your wish-list for Smart Nation and SNSP? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas.
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