Exploring Singapore’s vision for smart city leadership
Photography: Scott Woodward
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Exploring Singapore’s vision for smart city leadership

Maxine-Laurie Marshall — February 2017

Professor Arnoud De Meyer, president of Singapore Management University, reveals how the city-state is developing technology-led models to enhance its citizens’ lives and working environments.

Cities get a bad press for being over-crowded, polluted and unhealthy places to live. However, from his office in the sun-drenched metropolis of Singapore, professor Arnoud De Meyer argues that this is to ignore the broader dynamics of cities and the direction in which many are heading. “From an ecological point of view a person living in a city has less impact on the environment than someone in the countryside,” he says. They drive less and use public transport more and they consume scarce resources such as housing, healthcare and energy more efficiently.

As the president of Singapore Management University (SMU) and the former dean of Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, De Meyer argues that the array of digital technologies that will be applied to cities in the near future will be key to overcoming many of their negative stereotypes. “I’m convinced there is a huge opportunity here. Once we can tackle the problems [with smart city technologies] we can create very healthy, very pleasant places to live.”

“We have to recognise that in a smart city people will want to have moments where they want to be disconnected.”

De Meyer has good reason to be optimistic. Since 2014 SMU has been working with global ICT company Fujitsu on UNiCEN, a five-year project to explore how computational intelligence can be used to optimize the flow and management of people, infrastructure and resources in urban environments.

Key for the university’s team is building and testing complex models for improving urban mobility. As De Meyer outlines: “We bring the theory, the models, the maths and the conceptual ideas. By using data from transport authorities, shopping malls and other sources, we come up with solutions. And Fujitsu brings all the computing capabilities to power the data analysis. The combination makes for a very strong partnership.”

De Meyer offers an example of how the project could benefit Singapore by sketching out a scenario in which in-car GPS systems could feed traffic data in real-time, working with electronic road pricing systems to provide detailed analysis of traffic and the routes vehicles are taking. Projecting that further he says: “Using sensors you could capture traffic on specific roads and if the traffic is heavier in one direction you can adjust the frequency of traffic light changes. You could also have traffic light systems communicating with vehicles so they are brought to a stop automatically. I would much prefer that my car picks up a signal that a light is going to go from green to red and that my car slows and comes to a halt.”


The role of IoT in smart cities

For De Meyer smart city technologies involve four core elements: sensors that can be used to monitor traffic, pollution, people movement, temperature change, and so on; the massive amounts of data that flow in real-time from those connected devices; powerful systems capable of making sense of all that data; and the ability to take action.

The combination of those elements will create the potential to dramatically enhance city living, but it comes with a caveat. “Data privacy is an important issue that needs to be addressed,” he says. And while in the majority of cases people might be willing to give up some of their privacy in return for better services, there will still be occasions when people want to opt out. “We have to recognise that in a smart city people will want to have moments where they want to be disconnected.”

"From an ecological point of view a person living in a city has less impact on the environment than someone in the countryside."

Singapore is already one of the world’s leading smart cities, especially when it comes to traffic management. It uses a vehicle quota system designed to limit the number of cars on its roads — congestion is managed through an electronic road pricing system that varies its charges throughout the day.
Future predictions 

The Singapore government has also launched a ‘Smart Nation’ program in a bid to enhance residents’ lives with apps that already include personalized health records, first aid response and the reporting of city maintenance issues such as broken street lights. “Initiatives such as UNiCEN are not theoretical research; the strength of what we’re doing is that we are practically oriented,” De Meyer says. “We are already test-bedding solutions, and will be developing prototypes that Fujitsu and its partners can translate into real products that will help to manage large cities.”

Envisaging what Singapore will look like in the not-too-distant future the professor hopes to see three things. The first is autonomous vehicles: “When society shifted from horses to cars we didn’t kill off all the horses, instead horse riding became an entertainment. It could well be that way with cars. The second is we will have some kind of a virtual version of the city with all the data that’s available contributed by both government and citizens.”

Lastly, his hope for smart Singapore is that it will significantly reduce stress levels among its residents. Singapore is a city that is well planned, he says, “but when something unexpected happens the planning cannot always cope. With a lot more data we can manage such situations better and in real time, and ultimately make a happier city.”

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