Singapore: becoming the world’s first Smart Nation

Smart cities are ten-a-penny now, with large numbers of the world’s major cities engaged in improving digital services for their citizens. But Singapore is more ambitious. It doesn’t want to be just another smart city; instead, it is working towards becoming the world’s first Smart Nation.

Plans for digital identity speeding up

Singapore set up its Smart Nation Programme Office in 2014 to coordinate plans, but the progress on digital transformation was too slow for the government’s liking. In February 2016, therefore, a new Smart Nation and Digital Government Office was set up, to bring more teams together including the Smart Nation Programme Office. This can be seen, perhaps, as a signal of Singapore’s intent to move quickly.

Singapore already had a form of digital ID, the SingPass, which used citizens’ national ID numbers as a login. However, the system was hacked in 2014, and 1500 users’ details were stolen. Ministers recognised that this was not the vehicle to take Singapore into the brave new world of digital identity.

Plans to trial a digital identity for all Singaporeans were announced soon afterwards. The idea was to link identity to mobile phone SIM cards, and use advanced encryption. The use of mobile phones as a form of ID may raise eyebrows, and start talk about a digital divide, but it makes sense in Singapore, which has mobile penetration rates of around 150%. In other words, individuals can reasonably be assumed to have at least one mobile phone each.

Just 15 months later, things have moved on. The responsible government minister announced to Parliament in March this year that he had asked the team running the digital ID project to look at biometric elements and open APIs as well as encryption. This is an important move, because it will enable use of the digital ID beyond government services. Open APIs will allow third party providers of services, such as banks or payment providers, to link to the digital ID. Biometric information is also very secure, especially if used as part of a two- or three-part system alongside a device such as a mobile phone.

Singapore already has a database of personal information called MyInfo. Using this ‘one-stop’ service, citizens can apply for government services or open a bank account, without having to fill in hundreds of forms. It is relatively simple, but effective, and makes applying for services much more efficient for both customers and providers.

Secure payments and banking

It is not surprising that open APIs are a key part of Singapore’s digital ID project, because secure payments are crucial to the Smart Nation initiative. A new central addressing scheme was due to be rolled out this summer, which would link mobile phone numbers to bank accounts, and remove the need for bank account information when making person-to-person payments.

The scheme is part of the Singapore government’s push to make e-wallets accepted as widely as cash is now. The idea is to streamline payment systems to make e-wallets more attractive, because the current wide range of options is considered confusing and possibly off-putting. The government has set aside $90 million to modernise hawker centres, and particularly to set up cashless payment systems.

The Singapore banks seem enthusiastic about the possibilities of new payment systems. The central addressing scheme will be integrated into current banking apps, and has been approved by the Association of Banks of Singapore, which bodes well for its future uptake. Separately, a consortium of local banks called Nets is updating its point-of-sales terminals to accept payments from all banks and payment systems, and through both cards and mobile wallets, making them more flexible. Again, it bodes well for the future of alternative methods of payment.

Rolling out a new video analytics system

Singapore’s plans go wider than ID and payments, however. It is also due to roll out a new video analytics system later this year, as part of an island-wide sensor platform. The idea behind this is to manage ‘anomalies’ such as traffic congestion. The underlying sensor system is linked to the street lamp network around Singapore.

The precise details and the purpose of the sensor system remain a little nebulous at present. However, the Singapore government is obviously thinking about how to establish a network of sensors that can be used in future. The infrastructure is essential: the use cases may come later, but smart street lighting is a fundamental in many smart cities, as is traffic, air quality, and environmental information. Building for the future is key to future success.

 

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