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Try to imagine just one day without your smart phone. What would you do on the bus or on the train? How would you stay in touch with your friends and family throughout the day?“When one of my colleagues lost his mobile phone in a taxi, it left him in a tizzy all day. I could see how deeply dependent he had become on that device,” shared Dr Vinton Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, and winner of the 2004 Turing Award. “That’s probably how we will all feel about smart cities in the future.” Dr Cerf was one of four panellists speaking at How Smart Systems Enable More Liveable Cities, a public lecture organised under the Global Young Scientists Summit 2017 and held at the Singapore Management University (SMU) on 19 January 2017.

The other speakers were Mr Tan Kok Yam, Head of Singapore’s Smart Nation Programme Office, and Turing Award winners Professor Richard Karp (1985) and Professor Butler Lampson (1993). Noting that smart phone technology has become deeply entrenched in our everyday lives despite being barely a decade old, Dr Cerf predicts that smart city technology will one day be just as pervasive. “In forty or fifty years from now, we will have trouble remembering what it was like living in a city that was stupid,” he said.

Saving lives by app

Mr Tan gave the example of how GovTech’s programmers worked with the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) to develop the myResponder app, which connects volunteers trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to people suspected to be having a heart attack. The app provides the location of the incident, displays nearby defibrillators and automatically calls the emergency services hotline, thus buying the patient and responder precious life-saving minutes. “To get as many people on the app as possible, the developers learnt CPR and went on the app themselves, saying that being able to help save lives has made coding meaningful for them,” Mr Tan elaborated.

“This is something we want to do more of: enabling people to serve people and thereby help commerce, trade and philanthropic work to flourish within the city.”

Compensation for Disruption

But city planners need to be aware that not all the changes brought about by the advent of smart cities will necessarily be positive, the panellists cautioned.While self-driving cars and buses might make transport in cities more efficient and less wasteful, they could also put taxi and bus companies out of business, for example. Furthermore, it may be difficult to predict the scale and reach of the disruption caused by adopting smart city technologies. “An important cross-cutting theme we need to understand more about is what the collateral damage of smart cities is going to be,” Prof Lampson said.

“When you have significant amounts of innovation, the outcome is typically very good if you average the results across the entire society. On the other hand, some individuals are likely to be hurt and in the case of smart cities, it’s quite clear that a lot of individuals might be hurt.” “People who have been hurt must be compensated in some way, but how can you do things in a way that almost everyone will see as being fair? This is a tough question we must grapple with,” he continued.

The future nightmare of work?

In particular, the Singapore government is concerned about the impact of smart cities on job creation and job disruption, Mr Tan said. “As machines get to do more and more, the question of how to prepare not just the future workforce but the workforce of today becomes more pertinent. How do we help them to deal with these changes that are happening so fast in the workplace?” “This is a key challenge we face as a city; as a nation, we must put our heads together and see how we can deal with this as effectively as possible,” he said. The shaking up of the workplace should not put people off from adopting smart cities, Mr Tan added, but instead should spark discussions on how the risks can be minimised or creatively managed.

“Just as how you don’t let your nightmare of the worst possible day in the life of an SMU student stop you from enrolling at SMU, we shouldn’t let all these challenges stop us,” Mr Tan told the full-house crowd. “Instead, we should take practical steps to limit the damage and make sure that the nightmare stays a nightmare and doesn’t become real.” In fact, smart city technology is already making a positive impact on fields ranging from energy, transport, the sharing economy, disaster relief and home medical care, said Prof Karp. And as the number of megacities—cities with a population of ten million or more—continues to grow, the need for well-designed smart cities will only become more acute, he added.

Cities, said Mr Tan, are ultimately platforms. “People move to the city because they want to exchange goods, information and services,” he explained. “Part of being a smart city must be about having platforms to allow these exchanges to be more efficient; something to help sellers to reach buyers, for example.”

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