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Commentary: The revival of the digital economy – building citizen confidence as Smart Nation momentum picks up

Smart Nation has been firing on all cylinders since it started, and building citizen confidence will be crucial as its implementation scales up to achieve its vision, says Poon King Wang of Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Commentary: The revival of the digital economy – building citizen confidence as Smart Nation momentum picks up

A file photo of Singapore's central business district skyline on May 10, 2019. (File photo: Reuters/Kevin Lam)

SINGAPORE: In November 2014, the Singapore government launched Smart Nation, an initiative that aims to transform and better Singapore’s government, businesses, and society with digital technology.

Five years on, how should we assess the initiative’s progress and impact on citizen lives?

The digital economy’s short history gives us a guide. The digital economy is not new – the widespread interest now among governments and companies is in fact a revival.

READ: The rise of the digital economy: What is it and why it matters for Singapore

It first became popular in the 1990s, where with the advent of the Web, visions of something new and unprecedented abounded.

But reality eventually fell short of those visions of a “new economy”, as it was popularly called then.

Doubt, disappointment, and even cynicism set in, symbolised most conspicuously by the dotcom crash. It would be 15 years before the digital economy became the next big thing again.

READ: Commentary: Give workers permission to disrupt – one way Singapore businesses can accelerate digital transformation

Today’s enthusiasm for the digital economy makes it easy to forget that it took almost half a generation to restore interest and confidence in it. But we would be wise to remember it.

In creating the world’s first smart nation, Singapore is also creating something new and unprecedented, and thus must avoid falling into a similar situation. It must tackle the risks posed by the current gap between vision and reality. It must also sustain citizen confidence and support until the gap is closed.


Two panel discussions on digital transformation across nations and cities were held as part of the Smart Nation Innovations Week opening symposium on Jun 5, 2018. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

This is especially so if Smart Nation is to maintain its momentum. It has been firing on all cylinders in pursuit of its vision to transform the whole of Singapore – economy, society, and government – so as to improve lives for all citizens.

Smart Nation has been investing heavily in many initiatives, including six national strategic projects to set up the enabling infrastructure and technology such as e-payments and smart sensors that make up the backbone of this ambitious plan.

READ: Commentary: Lessons from San Jose and Stan Lee as Singapore’s Smart Nation efforts enter new phase

An example of such a project is the National Digital Identity system which allows citizens and businesses to transact online more seamlessly. With National Digital Identity, users can do a range of things online more conveniently and securely, from using e-government services to signing digital agreements.

Another example is the Moments of Life initiative. This bundles services and information online into one app according to what citizens may need at different life stages and milestones, such as starting a family, or raising a child.

READ: Commentary: How do we know when we've become a Smart Nation?

These moves towards digital transformation -- including the recently announced National Artificial Intelligence Strategy to drive AI innovation, and the Punggol Digital District which integrates advanced technologies into sustainable urban management – over the past five years is why Singapore ranks highly on many smart city indices.

Set aside for a moment the growing fatigue around the mushrooming of such indices. The clear, consistent consensus across them is that Singapore is taking steady steps towards its vision.


But as Smart Nation scales up, Singapore will encounter a difficulty that has plagued smart city efforts worldwide, but will feel more acutely because of the scale of its ambitions.

Through our research at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), experts we have spoken with worldwide concur that there are currently no smart cities, only smart city projects. Many of these have not scaled beyond pilots and test beds.

3D model of Punggol Digital District at the Smart City Expo World Congress.

For example, many cities are still testing smart lamp posts and autonomous vehicles, and have not deployed them city-wide.

Those that have scaled are efforts to digitise existing paper-based or manual processes, which feel like a catch-up with what is already experienced elsewhere, such as in e-commerce.

Citizens thus feel that the benefits are either limited or incremental. There is hardly the transformative impact that smart city visions promise. The risk is that like the digital economy’s first era, citizens lose confidence in smart cities due to this gap between vision and reality.

READ: Commentary: Why aren’t more Singapore businesses transforming? Mindsets aren’t the key obstacle

There are warning signs. In 2016, an Economist Intelligence Unit survey found that 52 per cent of citizens across 20 Asia-Pacific cities (including Singapore) had difficulty identifying the value of smart city initiatives.

In 2018, in a World Economic Forum survey with internet platform Sea, 40 per cent of Southeast Asian youths felt technology would reduce the number of jobs available (in Singapore, it was 53 per cent).

Last year, through our research, we heard growing worries worldwide that smart city projects risk suffering “pilot paralysis”. If pilots do not scale to benefit more people, the gap between reality and vision cannot be closed.


The best way to tackle this vision-reality gap is to close it with implementation. Singapore knows this – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself publicly said in 2017 that he would like progress on Smart Nation to be faster.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivering his speech at the Smart Nation Summit's closing dialogue on Jun 26, 2019. (Photo: @SingaporeMCI/Twitter)

Implementation, however fast, will still take some time due to the scale of the initiatives. In the interim, sustaining support and citizen confidence will be crucial.

There is some urgency – the Institute of Policy Studies found that 53.4 per cent of Singaporeans polled in 2018 were optimistic about Smart Nation initiatives for the next 12 months, compared to 55.9 per cent in 2017.

There are three quick ways to increase citizen confidence in Smart Nation projects. They build on what has already been done.

READ: Commentary: The next frontier for Southeast Asia's growth? Digital skills

The first is for the Government to draw a direct and integrated link between its various initiatives, their implementation progress, and their impact.

Currently, these exist in different documents. For example, showing how the National Artificial Intelligence Strategy’s five projects (such as in transport, healthcare, education, and smart estates) line up with the six Smart Nation Strategic Projects, and how citizens can and have benefited is an easy but powerful way to help people understand and feel the impact of Smart Nation.

READ: Commentary: Singapore must maintain formula of good government that has worked well for many years

The second is to borrow another page from the digital economy’s first era. 

A strategy then was to think about the ideal creation of value as a 10x innovation instead of a 10 per cent improvement. For example, filling in tax forms digitally is 10 per cent; Singapore’s no-filing service for some is 10x.

10x innovations that help citizens tackle everyday challenges could thus be articulated and designed. When citizens see and feel this 10x difference in their lives, they will feel more confident and lend support to further efforts, boosting the transformative impact of these innovations.

Workers cross the road in the central business district of Singapore. (File photo: AFP/Simin Wang)

The third is to help citizens who tell us they need step-by-step help with their professional transformation.

At the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities in SUTD, we show how they can do so with confidence with our task-by-task, step-by-step transformation roadmaps of eight professional, manager, executive and technician (PMET) occupations across four industries.

READ: The rise of the digital economy: Where the jobs are and how to get ready for them

Designed collaboratively with France-Singapore think tank Live with AI, AI consultancy DataRobot, and several companies, these one-page roadmaps predict the impact AI will have on jobs, and map out how PMETs can transform step-by-step.

These have been recognised by policymakers and regulators in the National AI Strategy as building trust in AI because they balance fostering business innovation and safeguarding citizens’ interests.


Like the digital economy in the 1990s, Smart Nation faces a vision-reality gap. Unlike it, Smart Nation need not wait half a generation to close the gap.

Doing so will sustain Smart Nation’s strong start. It will also show Singapore’s continued capacity to crack problems that others find hard to crack.

Most importantly, it will uplift lives and citizen confidence for generations to come.

Poon King Wang is Director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre of Innovative Cities at Singapore University of Technology and Design.

In March 2020, the inaugural CNA Digital Economy Leadership Summit 2020 will bring together some 200 key decision makers from Government, diplomatic circles and the private sector from around Asia, to explore key issues that include: How to grow and innovate in a digital economy, as well as how to manage talent and ensure sustainability in the digital economy. 

More details are available at:

Source: CNA/el(sl)


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