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

The momentum in Singapore’s Smart Nation drive has picked up but this doesn’t guarantee adoption of upcoming services and technologies, says SUTD’s Poon King Wang.

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

Stan Lee rose through the ranks to become a comics writer, and eventually led the Marvel empire for decades as its publisher (Photo: AFP/Behrouz MEHRI)

SINGAPORE: In mid-November, Singapore was named "Smart City of 2018" at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona.

Having won the award, what is next? Two seemingly unrelated events that also happened in mid-November provide one possible answer. 

The first was the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in San Jose. It was no coincidence it was right smack in Silicon Valley.

According to the Financial Times, "tech companies have been using the event to recruit an unprecedented number of cultural anthropologists". They finally understand that technology is as much about how we live, as it is about how we compute. 

The second was American comic book giant Stan Lee's passing. He created many of the most loved superheroes many of whom are now part of trillion-dollar blockbuster movies. Why were his characters so popular? The consensus is he made them "relatable" to readers.

A costume from the 2002 movie Spider-Man displayed at the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. (File photo: AFP/Ben Stansall)

Spiderman, for example, frequently felt inadequate and had girl problems; the Avengers often fought amongst themselves, not unlike many management teams. Stan Lee’s characters were relatable because they were equal parts superhero and human - with real-life hopes, fears and foibles like us.

Since the launch of Smart Nation at the end of 2014, citizens have been telling us they want to know what being smart means to them. Beyond buzzwords and headlines, they want to "touch and feel" Smart Nation. 

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

Thus, one answer to what is next, is we can make Smart Nation super relatable to more citizens. And a good way to do that is to better understand how we all live in a Smart Nation. That way, we can design clearer benefits and value that citizens can "touch and feel".


Making value and benefits clearer is in fact a shift that is underway in many smart cities movements worldwide. Before, the focus was dominated by visions and technologies.  "Citizen-", "people-", and "human-centric" were often included as hackneyed cliches. 

Then something happened. City and corporate leaders were increasingly challenged why their slick slides said so much about technology, but so little about people. As a result, now, there is greater emphasis on implementation, and on the value and benefits to citizens. 

A good example in Singapore is the app. In just over a year, using the app instead of peeling parking coupons has become the norm for many drivers. Between its October 2017 launch to March this year, 250,000 vehicles used it 2 million times. By early November, 475,000 vehicles had used it 11 million times. 

The Parking.SG app. (Photo: MCI)

Drivers like it because it is convenient, cashless, paperless, saves time, and in some cases, even saves money (when parking sessions ended earlier than planned). Initial reservations have largely dissipated.

The only complaint we still hear is one told to us with an impish grin. Drivers joke they can no longer peel their coupons ten minutes ahead of the time on their watches.

Another example is the Moments of Life app launched in June this year. It is designed around the government services that citizens need at different stages of their lives – such as registering for a child’s birth and locating preschools near them. This makes it easy for busy parents to know and access what they need in one digital platform.

While it is still in pilot phase, and some might criticise the use of life stages as belated (as market segmentation by life stages has been a longstanding private sector practice), the tangible shift to be citizen-centric, instead of government department- or service-centric, is both positive and welcome.

READ: Another Government app? Complain, sure, but after trying it, a commentary

This greater emphasis on implementation, value and benefits has gone hand-in-hand with an expansion in services and projects. The vast adoption of payment services such as PayNow (where funds can be easily transferred within a minute or two), and the proliferation of trials of on-demand buses, autonomous vehicles, and sensors signal that we are one step closer to realising our Smart Nation vision.

As services expand, more and more citizens should be able to "touch and feel" their benefits and value.


It is clear momentum has picked up. But adoption of upcoming services and technologies is not guaranteed.

As part of our research on smart cities and digital economies, we often ask citizens to tell us what they know about Smart Nation. Typical responses that cut across age groups continue to be "not sure" and "something to do with technology". They struggle to elaborate further.

Why is this so despite all the initiatives and successes so far? Our ongoing studies and surveys on technology adoption and experience suggest two barriers have yet to be fully overcome.

The first is disappointment: The new technology neither adds value nor fits their needs. The second is disconnect: The benefits of adopting something new are perceived to accrue mostly to companies and cities, and not to them.

READ: Beneath the digital friendly facade, Singaporeans still reluctant to accept cashless payments, a commentary

People walk out for their lunch break at the Raffles Place financial district in Singapore. (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Over time, this combination of disconnect and disappointment poses a risk. It will increase resistance to adoption of future services. The momentum that has been steadily building up could stall. This will hinder future Smart Nation efforts. 

What an unfortunate irony that would be. Because our research also shows that citizens, across age groups, are optimistic about technology. A recent workshop with teachers from a local secondary school illustrates this clearly.

We asked them to assess how their work tasks would be changed by new technologies. They had to categorise the tasks under four types of impact: "Improve", "Stay the Same", "Replaced", or "Made Worse".

They decided that most of the tasks would fall in the first three categories. Only a couple were put into the fourth. They were clearly optimistic.

Citizen optimism is an asset that we can use to improve adoption. A soon-to-retire Singaporean administrative executive in a global firm told us with pride that she enjoyed picking up new technologies at work.

One reason was they were so new that she found herself explaining them to her teenage relatives. Now imagine citizens – young and old – doing this for one another for Smart Nation initiatives. What a wave that would create.

It would be such a pity if instead this optimism was whittled down by disconnect and disappointment. We thus have to fight the disconnect and disappointment.

In the same way that urban designers are encouraged to think about how people would benefit from the streets, buildings, and neighbourhoods they design, we will have to sweat the details about how citizens will benefit and find value in specific Smart Nation initiatives. 

READ: Singapore's Digital Readiness Blueprint must also address ‘invisible illiteracies’, a commentary


How do we sweat the details? Like the tech companies hiring anthropologists, we can first develop a deep understanding of how citizens live their lives in a Smart Nation. 

That understanding will help us better design clear benefits and value. The ultimate goal will be benefits and value that are super relatable to citizen hopes, fears, and foibles. So that more and more citizens can "touch and feel" what Smart Nation means for them.

And what if we could combine all this with our citizens' optimism too? Imagine what we could achieve.

We could become super smart.

Poon King Wang is the Director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, where he also heads the Smart Cities Lab and the Future Digital Economies and Digital Societies initiative.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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