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Building a smart city: How Singapore is forging a path ahead of the rest

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Walt Disney’s EPCOT was, for many, the first glimpse of what a city of the future could look like. It may not have been the vision the man originally envisioned, but the themed land at Walt Disney World encapsulated the ideas of how the future would look through the eyes of late-seventies futurists. While it’s become little more than a curio by modern standards, it set minds alight about what society could look like in the future.

Fast-forward 40 years and some aspects of Disney’s dream have come to pass. Smart homes are slowly creeping into the mainstream as personal assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Echo talk to our Philips Hue lights or connected Sonos speakers. Devices also know a startling amount about our lives, helping organise appointments, find directions or just start our days the way we like.

Smart cities, however, are something far more intangible. Disney’s vision of a car-free city, where monorails transport people from A to B and green open spaces are plentiful, may be a dated utopian idea, but the smart city is a dream that many governments are still chasing. And in this field, one country is ahead of the curve: the island nation of Singapore.
What Singapore is building may not be quite the same as the vision Disney once had, but seeing all 720km of the tropical island as a virtual 3D model, I can’t help but think the forgotten technologist in him would be impressed.

Virtually Singapore

On paper, Virtual Singapore sounds a tad absurd. It’s a one-to-one scale 3D digital model of the entirety of Singapore, containing an accurate 3D representation of every building on the island. In time, it will map vegetation and the dense network of pipes, cabling and even air ducts and trash chutes.

Virtual Singapore isn’t just a pretty map to zoom around for fun, either: it’s a model built to help government departments plan more effectively. “Because these 3D models aren’t simply graphical objects, they have a relationship with the [virtual] environment,” explains George Loh, director at Virtual Singapore developer National Research Foundation. “Because you know [a building’s] dimensions, you can model things on it.

“For instance, because you know the dimensions of a rooftop, you can calculate its solar potential. You could even model how many solar panels would be needed to power an entire block.”
It allows other departments to see how new buildings will change the city’s skyline and infrastructure before ground has even been broken. Government agencies could see how a building would disrupt traffic flow, how parking in the area could change, how vegetation could be affected by shadows cast from taller buildings. Other departments could chip in on building design to improve airflow or energy efficiency; it’s a model designed to be the ultimate collaboration tool.

“The genesis for Virtual Singapore came from the need for government agencies to address the complex challenges of the nation’s urban setting,” says Loh. “Usually when faced with a problem, an agency, like the Singapore Land Authority, would create a 3D model, but their models would never work with another department’s model.

“We decided that there should be a unified 3D model of Singapore that [all government agencies] could use for research or development. We wanted it to be as accurate as a real-life version of Singapore so we could translate our research outcomes and insights directly into the city.”
The lion-hearted city

To understand the vision for Virtual Singapore, you first need to see where Singapore is on the world stage. You’d expect bigger nations such as Japan, Germany, the UK and America to lead the way in the technology stakes, but Singapore is bearing the torch of the world’s first smart city because it’s in the unique position to do so rather easily.

Only last year the World Economic Forum ranked Singapore the best-prepared country in the world for handling the new digital economy. Better known for being the world’s financial hub, Singapore took the top spot in a list where the UK ranked eighth – behind Finland, Sweden, Norway and even the US.

It reached this position for a number of reasons, primarily the stability of the ruling People’s Action Party. With the same party in power since 1959, it’s much easier for the government to carry out its plans, and Singapore is leading the world in government-led IT infrastructure, educating both its government and citizens about the benefits of technology. Combine this with the tiny population of just five million, and the country’s deep pockets, it’s easy to see why Singapore is the perfect testbed for the city of the future.

The government knows the next step in building a smart nation isn’t just building new government-led services – it has to make every facet of government work seamlessly together alongside both private and public enterprises. Virtual Singapore is the first wave of that initiative, and collaboration is key to its success.
As Virtual Singapore is designed to be the hub that other government initiatives ultimately plug into, it’s built to give the government a city-wide view of what’s happening. Working as either a simulation or live feed, health services could use it to map the spread of infections and the flow of Zika and Dengue-carrying mosquitos around the city. This data could then be used to help quash diseases, inform the relevant department about nests that need clearing out, or simply farm out the information as an API for third parties to utilise. Virtual Singapore can also be used to help with disaster-prevention measures, be they managing the spread of fires, or safeguarding against flash flooding.

“Because you know this is a door, and this is a window, you can work out which buildings in which areas are most at risk in flooding areas.”

Built and funded by the National Research Foundation, in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), Dassault Systèmes and and led by Singapore’s government technology agency GovTech, Virtual Singapore is also designed to benefit private companies. Singapore’s other government tech department – the Info-communications Media Development Authority, or IMDA for short – has been working with private companies to drum up interest and find use cases for Virtual Singapore.

These range from simple things such as firming up internet infrastructure in new buildings to more experimental services such as creating mapped roadways for delivery drones. Every datapoint in Virtual Singapore can be drawn upon by private companies via APIs to help build apps and services for consumers – heck, someone could even make use of its street-level view to build games or educate tourists on what Singapore has to offer.
Talking traffic
Singapore’s tech talent is also hard at work supporting another project in Singapore that will eventually prove itself as an incredibly useful part of Virtual Singapore: Vehicle to Everything. Vehicle to Everything, or “V2X’ for short, is the automotive initiative that Singapore needs to truly transform it into a smart city.

In development at Nanyang Technological University, a team of researchers are working in tandem with NXP Semiconductors NV and ten other automotive and communications companies to build the future of the connected car. Located on the more spacious western side of the island, NTU’s campus has become the testbed for the technology and provides us with our first real look at what a smart city could mean for drivers.

V2X comes in two parts: vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I). V2V allows two cars to securely communicate with one another without the need to connect to a wider network; V2I allows traffic lights, road signs, and security cameras to talk to each other, to cars on the road and straight back to a centralised government agency.
Both are impressive to see in action, although V2V seems like something that will benefit autonomous driving more than it does manned vehicles – the pop-up alerts are more distracting than helpful. V2I, however, is the technology destined to make Singapore’s future infrastructure truly smart.

In a V2I future, cars will actually understand the cities they exist within. Cameras located at crossings could tell cars that pedestrians are ahead well before a driver – human or autonomous – will have seen them. Traffic lights and road signs will be able to self-regulate the flow of traffic around a city, and cars will know of traffic diversions well ahead of actually encountering them.

V2I will also flow back into Virtual Singapore, so there’s a live update of traffic around the city. Not only is this excellent for traffic modelling when developing in the city, it’s perfect for emergency services to know the fastest route to any incident, taking traffic flow into account. It could even be used to help delivery services like Stuart that are working out these efficiencies themselves.
For Singapore, another benefit of a V2I system is its use in improving the city’s Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system. Introduced in the 1990s, this Congestion Charge-like toll currently requires huge over-road installations to execute NFC-like payments from a card reader installed in your car. In 2020, it will use GPS and an odometer to calculate such charges, doing away with the gantries. With V2I, ERP could be calculated easily, and accurately, by using the lampposts, cameras and road signs in an area.

How to build a smart city
To us Brits, all this incredibly forward-thinking technology seems right out of a science-fiction novel. Britain may have been the home of the Industrial Revolution, and is still one of the leading nations in science and technology, but in regards to actual government investment, it’s clear we’re far behind many other nations in the world.
Singapore has managed to get where it is today thanks, in part, to the government’s investment in R&D. Unlike many other nations, Singapore invests 1% of its GDP into these new projects. In 1991, this resulted in S$2 billion (£1.1 billion) of investment; last year, that translated to S$19 billion (£10.4 billion) – so it’s clear this is the place to be if you want to be part of some well-funded research.
This push for new technologies means it was one of the first countries in the world to bring in contextualised road pricing. It’s also led to a nation where, according to IMDA assistant CEO Khoong Hock Yun, fibre-optic internet of up to 1Gbits/sec covers more than 85% of the country, and is also one of the cheapest networks to access in the world. There are even free public Wi-Fi hotspots almost everywhere in Singapore’s central areas.
Aside from the big glass skyscrapers, SingPass – the system that allows Singaporean citizens to access government services with a single, unified login – is another reason that the country feels like it’s from the future. Created in 2003, SingPass has evolved to become a digital identification system to access more than just the services it was intended for initially, now working with banks to automatically fill out forms or vet users for eligibility in a first-aid smartphone app.
In the future, SingPass is going to be used to automatically bill ERP road users, and it’s already rolling out as a way to securely store medical information so doctors and nurses can easily access it. SingPass is setting up Singapore with a firm footing for the future and, for any nation trying to build itself into a smart society, a national ID service like SingPass is essential.

The trouble with all of Singapore’s progress is that, despite how amazing it is to see in action and hear the potential it holds for the future, it’s all unique to Singapore. Sure, the lessons learnt from Singapore’s pioneering spirit can act as a tutorial for other nations embarking on their own journeys into the unknown, but for many countries around the world – Britain sadly included – it’s so wildly unattainable that it might as well be science fiction. I can only dream of the day when Britain is as forward-thinking as Singapore when it comes to building a truly digital nation of the future.

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