“We don’t use technology, we live technology.” These poignant words by film director Godfrey Reggio are slowly materialising as Singapore swiftly evolves into a Smart Nation. Despite being in this journey for the long haul, technology has unknowingly become second nature to Singaporeans. Groceries and laundry could be delivered to your doorstep. Cashless payment is nearly ubiquitous on the island. Even the highly secure SingPass is accessible through mobile facial recognition. Schools are teaching computational thinking and data literacy. SkillsFuture and various workshops are targeting at training working adults in data science and AI skills, to prep the nation in terms of digital readiness.
The nation should get smarter but it shouldn’t lose its soul. – Delane Lim
However, a tech-savvy, digital utopia does come with its concerns. “Model” smart cities like Songdo and Masdar have suffered from mediocre population despite being stupefying in every aspect of technology, cleanliness and architecture. Residents complain that while the cities are well designed, they lack a vibrant community and distinct identity.
As Shakespeare puts in his book Coriolanus, “what is the city but the people”? While technology is cardinal to society’s advancement, it easily brings with it chilly modernism. The ease of mobile communication reduces physical, face-to-face interactions between individuals, possibly resulting in a lack of community spirit. Afternaut’s Director of Business and Corporate Services Delane Lim stresses that the human touch is simply not replaceable with technology. A city is more than just a location on a map. Unique visual, cultural, social and environmental qualities provide meaning and a sense of belonging. To foster this distinctiveness, cities must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that put the people at the heart of things.
We are constantly in a race to ensure liveability. People live, work and play. If we could use technology to do these three things better, it will increase the viability of the nation. – Chong Zhe Wei
Technology can only serve as a vehicle to improve the quality of life. The question we need to ask is how a digital revolution can further connect and inspire people; create more meaningful jobs and opportunities; realleviate differences and build inclusivity. Most importantly, how it can negate the Iron Triangle and create a positive social impact. The Iron Triangle was first coined by William Kissick in his book, Medicine’s Dilemmas: Infinite Needs Versus Finite Resources (1994), identifying the three competing concerns of healthcare - Access, Cost and Quality. They share a complex and dynamic lationship, whereby not all three values can co-exist. Unfortunately, this long standing conundrum is not limited to healthcare. A low-cost, high quality and wide-access system is a seemingly unattainable concept for many communities. More often than not, cost considerations drive down potential quality, and hinder the degree of access.
Afternaut Co-founder Chong Zhe Wei believes that the groundwork should start from bringing value to the small things that matter in everyday life. A good example would be smarter parking processes for drivers. The Parking.sg app, introduced in 2018 allows motorists pay for public parking electronically and by the second. This year, trial smart sensors will be installed to provide real-time availability of kerbside parking lots.
Besides government initiatives, private enterprises can also play a role in the cultural landscape of our Smart Nation. Zhe Wei points out that it is all about “putting people in an environment where they can thrive in their synergies”. Popular co-working spaces place the community at the centre of their services, bringing people together even during the 9-5 grind. The revamped Sheraton Hotel brand celebrates community spirit with upcoming new additions such as a designated on-property "community manager", community tables, lounge, booths and studio spaces; that could be booked through an app.
“We eventually hope to activate spaces. There are parts of the built environment that are outdated and need refreshment. It could be places like an old school or stadium that needs gentrification. That’s probably the next stage for us.” – Chong Zhe Wei
Zhe Wei believes that there’s much that Afternaut can value-add to the Smart Nation initiative, especially when the company can engage at the urban planning level. These new introductions must apply a bottom-up approach to keep Singaporeans as the soul of our increasingly smarter nation. More time needs to be spent on encapsulating the values, customs, characteristics and quirks that make Singapore a place worth caring about. Failing to understand the cultural nuances, will produce technology that’s neither smart nor sustainable. Only when citizens can enjoy technology, these efforts can be considered successful.
Take quick wins and low hanging fruits, solve problems bit by bit and of course, continue to do the small things right. – Chong Zhe Wei