What could smart cities deliver? Safer roads, efficient public transport, and better traffic and parking management could have a transformative effect on city-dwellers' stress levels, exposure to pollution, time management and efficiency.
Better health delivery and advice, remote monitoring of conditions, targeted preventative care and telemedicine could improve outcomes and cut hospital waiting times.
ML-based crime and emergency prediction and management, and faster emergency response times could improve public safety. Cashless payment systems could speed up transactions.
Applying smart, shared technology such as AI and ML to systems of local government could speed up decision-making times and limit waste. And, of course, all of these measures (and more) could also save vast amounts of money.
All of these approaches are being enabled – right now – by the rollout of highly sophisticated telecommunications and IT aided by AI, IoT, big data and ML. Some approaches, like smart street lighting and smart parking systems, have already been rolled out in many cities.
So what drives smart cities to be smart? Growth is one answer. By 2050, 70% of the world's population will live in cities. How can city authorities fund and build infrastructure and services to meet the needs of all these people? Cost-effectiveness is another. Smart applications reduce the operational costs of running cities and help to aid efficiencies.
But new technology development is also an important driver. In 1980, says Mark Thomas, managing director of Serviceworks Group Ltd* (pictured right), who is chairing the Smart Cities stream on Day Two of DATAx Singapore, there were fewer than 100,000 transistors in a computer microprocessor. Today, there are more than 10 billion.
There are outside pressures too, says Tim Hill, research director at Eco-Business Research** (pictured left), who is speaking at the event. Competition is one.
"Multinational companies (MNCs) like to attract talented employees who like to work in innovative exciting cities," Hill notes. "This in turn attracts financial institutes and other network resources and infrastructure to support these companies. Therefore, cities have a big incentive to embrace technology."
Access to talented employees also means that a lot of their innovations and prototypes can also be trialed locally before expansion to other cities and countries, says Hill.
In smart city rollout, by any measure, Singapore is a leader, as already noted at 2018's Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona where it won the title of Smart City of the Year.
Some of the reasons for this are specific to Singapore. As Hill says: "The stable political system means that long-term government initiatives such as infrastructure spending can be mapped out without fear of disruption."
As a small affluent city-state with a reputation for embracing technology and infrastructure, Singapore has the important attributes noted earlier such as MNCs, financial institutes and a talented workforce. But it also has competition as a headquarters for MNCs from Malaysia and Hong Kong. This, says Hill, "ensures that the government is constantly looking for ways to keep Singapore ahead of the alternatives".
"But the key Singaporean trait has really been innate innovation," Thomas adds. "Singapore became the first country to establish a Smart Nation Minister in 2014, but this just builds on a culture of permanent transformation established under the country's founding leader Lee Kuan Yew and which most Singaporeans embrace."
But are there also needs that are specific to Singapore's case? Limiting traffic congestion is clearly one. For example, Singapore is actively testing autonomous vehicles in certain business parks and campuses across the Lion City.
Also, Thomas notes: "Singapore will become the first city in the world to introduce a satellite road pricing system by 2020, building on its existing world-leading electronic road pricing system."
Another strong driver will affect many parts of the developed world.
"Singapore has a significant percentage of people aging. By 2030, one in four will be over 65 – double the rate in 2016. Such a big change in a relatively small time has led to two of Singapore's six smart nation priorities directly addressing these issues – specifically health and urban living smart solutions."
This impression of leadership is backed by independent assessment. A 2017 report by consultancy Juniper Research (Smart Cities – What's in it for Citizens?) made Singapore a front-runner in a number of areas. They include smart, connected traffic solutions, technology-driven healthcare service provision for the elderly, smart video surveillance to detect criminal activity, encouraging digital innovation to address city challenges, and giving citizens the ability to access digital services and city information.
Leadership is not an excuse for complacency of course. Hill says: "In Asia there are numerous cities and countries that have developed innovative and useful systems that Singapore has publicly praised and said it would like to emulate (for example, Japan's recycling efforts, China's development of renewable energy systems and payment systems)".
It won't all be plain sailing either, as new challenges present themselves over time.
"Climate change can ruin everything – particularly for a low-lying city-state such as Singapore which is prone to flooding and extreme precipitation," Hill says. "Plus, as we move increasingly toward AI and autonomous technologies we are going to be creating severe unemployment for our less educated citizens."
To deal with these challenges, Thomas suggests that as moves to share and open source expand, future-proofing will become something a city's community can assist it with.
"This means the city can be more focused on the input variables that it is expert about: How the city will grow, what workforce patterns are likely, and what physical and natural environment changes need to be accommodated."
Challenges apart, other cities can learn from Singapore, says Thomas.
"Many admire Singapore's well-planned and well-managed approach, but risk-taking has been a key part of this development. Singapore is not shy of making mistakes as part of determining the optimal solution, and it also puts considerable resources into economic development and seed funding startup and entrepreneurial projects."
"All smart city initiatives are a work in progress," says Hill. "However, one factor that I think Singapore probably excels at is the shared values and objectives of government agencies. Hence, initiatives that have been approved by the government can be rolled out rapidly without having to 'win over' different stakeholders."
Both men are experts in sustainability. How important do they feel smart cities – properly managed – are to a sustainable future?
Hill says: "By 2030, according to our research, most city office workers believe they will be working in a smart building. Smart buildings will also be on the cutting edge of sustainability in terms of energy use, waste and water management, and integration with – renewable energy-powered – public transport systems.
"Smart buildings will reach a tipping point by the mid-2020s because of the cost savings in energy, the premium that can be charged to tenants, the demand from talented employees and the contribution that it will make to corporate sustainability reporting. It will simply make business sense."
In fact, the whole smart city concept not only makes sense but is probably essential to our future.
As Thomas says: "With the increasing global challenges the earth faces, including climate change and population pressures, the idea of using technology in a smarter way to help solve city problems should become business as usual."