Speech by Minister Desmond Lee at the Dentons Rodyk Dialogue 2020

Sep 25, 2020

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, from whichever time zone you are in. I would like to formally welcome those who are dialling in from around the world to virtual Singapore. I would like to thank Philip as well as Lily and the team for letting me join you here today, online, to discuss some challenges and opportunities for global smart cities. 

Singapore’s Geographical Context and Use of Innovation and Technology

For those of you who are dialling in from overseas, you might know that Singapore is a small city state – one city, one country. We are only 720 square kilometres large, or small, and one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with no natural resources other than the creativity and hard work of our people. There are severe constraints that would have otherwise limited our potential.

Over the decades, we have managed to overcome some of our physical challenges, using engineering and technology. For example, we have grown our land by some 25 per cent through land reclamation, which means we reclaim land from the sea. We have enhanced our water resilience, through means such as large scale urban storm water harvesting, to recycling waste-water, and through desalination. 

Our Smart Nation Journey Towards Building a Greener, Liveable and More Sustainable Home

In the same vein, digital technology can help us overcome challenges, solve problems, unlock opportunities, and improve people’s lives.  

If anything, the shock we are all under, brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, wherever we are in the world, would have highlighted the importance of digital tools and solutions, and greatly accelerated global trends towards digitalisation. In short, I believe all around the world, leaders, thought leaders, business leaders, communities, and citizens are aspiring to an acceleration of smart nation initiatives, in order to harness the tools that we need to keep safe, and to seize opportunities in the future.

So let’s take a pause wherever you are in the world, and consider how digital tools and technologies have enabled us to better weather and ride ongoing public health crises, and compare the situation we are in now, constrained though we may be with what would have been like under similar conditions, but without the tools that we have today.

With video conferencing technology, we can connect with colleagues and clients even when working from home, and certainly demonstrated by how we have attended this webinar. Philip has said that this is the first time you are doing this webinar online. Although we would have preferred to meet in person and press palm to palm, because ultimately we are human and want to have emotional connections, the silver lining is that this technology has allowed us to connect many cities around the world.

Technology has also enabled our children to continue their studies, even during circuit breakers and lockdowns. With a public health crisis like this, it is so easy to lose a whole generation of young people, when they cannot go to school or attend institutes of higher learning.

Technology has allowed us to keep more closely and emotionally connected to our elderly parents, whom we could not otherwise meet in Singapore during the two months of circuit breaker, and allowed food and other essentials to be delivered to their doorsteps. For those who are dialling in from around the world, circuit breaker is an equivalent of what many of you would experience as a lockdown where there are constrains in movements, and during that period, many of us could not visit our parents, and technology enabled us to keep in touch – so it is a second best solution.

In Singapore, we have had to come up with apps and technologies in double quick time. We have apps such as TraceTogether and SafeEntry, ubiquitous now to Singaporeans, but to our friends from around the world, perhaps you are hearing this for the first time, but there are apps that enable our health authorities to more effectively contain the spread of COVID-19, through quicker and more effective contact tracing, and to keep Singaporeans safe as we try to resume our daily lives.

Of course, e-commerce has helped keep businesses, including heartland businesses, small businesses such as retail and F&B alive, when tight measures were in place.

Today, let me just spend the next few minutes describing how, in Singapore, we have harnessed data and digital tools to better plan and design urban Singapore, and make our city more green, liveable and sustainable. In short, I am wearing my hat as a Minister for National Development, and Singapore. 

Integrating Technology Into Planning

Our Ministry, together with many partner agencies and the private sector, have been harnessing digital tools for some time, to better plan our city, and to make our city more liveable. In part, the acceleration of digitalisation bought about by COVID-19 will spur us to make better use of these tools, on many dimensions, including public health dimensions.

Urban planners are already using technology to enhance how we plan and develop our districts, towns and neighbourhoods. For a city state as small and dense as Singapore, very good planning, augmented by technology, allows us to make much better use of very scarce space. 

Now, behind the scenes, unseen by most people, our Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) – that is the central planning agency for Singapore – has developed a range of digital planning tools. One important tool that we have is a tool known as the ePlanner. Quite a nondescript name, but in fact, this system helps URA analyse different datasets from different parts of government, in order to improve the design of urban spaces.

For example, URA can use our datasets to identify areas with higher concentrations of elderly, and to analyse how easily they can access healthcare facilities and services. This is especially important as Singapore’s population ages. With this data and the flow movements that we can generate through the ePlanner, we can then decide whether we need to put in more services to meet the needs of the demographic group.

We are also looking at using anonymised data from motion sensors to provide insights on human traffic patterns. This will improve our location of community amenities and retail shops, and in time, can guide how we plan future towns and neighbourhoods, especially as Singapore revitalises our urban spaces.

Using Technology to Better Design, Build and Manage HDB towns

Data and technology have also helped us to design, build and manage our public housing estates. For friends dialling in from different time zones, more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing. The agency known as the Housing & Development Board (HDB) now uses environmental modelling tools and computer simulations to analyse wind flow, solar heat and noise within towns. This allows us to design and position newly-built homes to conserve energy, and optimise resident comfort.

We applied this on a town-wide level for the very first time, for a new town known as “Tengah”. It is a town that we are now building. Some blocks are already up, and some of the amenities are up, but the design of this entire town made good use of these environmental modelling tools.

Singapore is an equatorial and very densely urban country, and this technology, far from being purely theoretical, can bring about real benefits. HDB also has a “Smart Hub”, which acts as a “brain” for municipal operations. This Smart Hub, which is a central data repository, collects, integrates, processes and analyses data on municipal services across all our public housing towns. HDB’s planners, using the Smart Hub, can better understand the usage patterns of common amenities, and they can do many things with these insights, such as carry out maintenance works more efficiently and promptly, and maybe even preemptively before things fall apart.

For example, by using sensors, HDB can collect data from lights in common areas. This “smart lighting” system helps us to optimise lighting provision based on human traffic patterns and habit, potentially saving energy in the process. HDB is also designing flats that are smart-enabled, which will allow residents to more easily adopt a range of smart home solutions, providing that platform, providing that grid for people to adopt solutions to improve their quality of life.

With families spending a lot more time at home during the COVID-19 period, because of telecommuting and home-based learning, these kinds of digital solutions and enablers are in fact, more relevant than ever before. While they are useful to allow life to continue, some semblance of normalcy during the pandemic, I am sure this will set the stage for far greater penetration of digital tools into everyday life, as a silver lining.

Using Technology to Transform the Built Environment Sector

In the coming years, technology and digitalisation will play an even greater role in the life cycle of the urban built environment and infrastructure that we enjoy today: from design and conceptualisation of building infrastructure, to its engineering construction, to its downstream facilities management and maintenance.

This is important as a transformation because it greatly enhances how efficiently we can manage and maintain buildings and facilities, and reduce overall life-cycle costs. In fact, when I spoke to some facilities management enterprises two years ago when we started this transformation work, some of them shared this rule of thumb – if it costs $X to build a building, then as a very rough rule of thumb, maintaining the building through its life cycle, the maintenance costs, energy usage can cost four times or more than $X, and that depends on how efficiently and effectively we design the building.

This pandemic has starkly shown us that we need to transform the way we design, build and maintain our city, so that we move away from a heavy reliance on manpower and labour, while the use of digital tools and technology have a potential to create good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans.

Let me just briefly describe this transformation. In the good old days, when we designed a building, every segment operated sequentially, and in the past, we used two dimensional drawings. But with computer and digital technology, we can design a building conceptually, but also right down to the shop floor drawings, and the pre-cast drawings of the building in three dimensions. This is what is known as the Building Information Model or BIM.

Pushing that further through the tools of Integrated Digital Delivery (IDD), we can string the entire construction and facilities management process from start to end, from conception all the way to the end of the life of the building through a digital spine known as IDD.

Imagine the developer or architect designing, conceptualising the building, the engineers coming in to add on the engineering elements, the pre-casters coming in to extract the models for pre-cast elements, all the way down to the main contractor, sub-contractors, specialist builders, tradesmen, all operating out of a common unified building information model. To be able to then construct without abortive work, to be able to virtually land the construction of a building, before you even set foot on a site, and then after that is done, to be able to use that model with all the information about material, material resilience, and data about the building’s operations to then use that model for facilities management, maintenance, security, environmental services and landscaping, all operating with a common digital spine. 

In fact, what’s to stop us from moving these downstream elements, the day-to-day that we often take for granted – maintenance, security, cleaning, landscaping –  and bringing it upstream so that we design it into the building model, and ensure that we design not just for aesthetics and user comfort, but also for all these downstream reasons.

In fact, many government agencies and private developers have begun to embrace this. One of our major statutory boards, JTC, which does a lot of industrial buildings, uses a range of digital tools to track, analyse and optimise the performance of their buildings, to gather feedback from tenants and automatically route it to a Facilities Manager on the ground, to be able to take action. There is a central command center in JTC, which is plugged in to all the sensors in all its industrial buildings all across our city state, to be able to monitor the performance of chillers, of lifts, of infrastructure, of all its facilities in order to take preemptive action, and to take remedial action where necessary.

As part of the work of the Emerging Stronger Taskforce, digitalisation of the construction sector and the facilities management sector is one major piece of this work. The taskforce was set up so that we keep an eye on the bends in the road that COVID-19 will bring to Singapore, and to countries around the world. We have identified digitalisation as work that has been accelerated, both in Singapore and around the world, and we are actively seeking to find opportunities for Singaporeans, and for Singapore, and for our enterprises to seize opportunities in the digital realm.

Using Technology to Plan Nature Areas and Parks

I have talked a lot about urban design, urban planning, and urban life. For those who have not yet visited Singapore, although we are small and highly urbanised, we also aspire to be a City in Nature. That is really part and parcel of quality of life, and that is part and parcel of our role as a steward of our natural resource and our natural capital.

From urban to green – it is merely a matter of minutes in small Singapore. Therefore, we have to use technology and harness its tools in order for us to better plan our green spaces, our nature reserves and our parks. Because unlike many of you where your green spaces are pockets in the city with large natural tracks outside the city, hours' drive away from the city centre, in Singapore, our nature reserves are at the heart and centre of our city, completely surrounded by urban Singapore.

By using geospatial modelling tools and GPS technology for instance, we have been able to not only benefit human visitors who use these green spaces for respite and recreation, but we have also been able to use these tools for the conservation of biodiversity in urban Singapore, such as migratory shorebirds, forest birds, butterflies, coral reefs and mangroves.

Our park authority, known as the National Parks Board or “NParks”, uses GIS modelling for example, to determine the path of least resistance for forest birds and butterflies across our urban landscape. We can then situate nature ways for these faunas to move between green spaces in our city.

NParks is also using predictive models to understand how coral reefs, mangroves and intertidal flats are connected within our coastal waters. This then allows our city planners to craft management plans and strategy, as well as interventions to safeguard valuable areas of biodiversity. In a city like ours, the tension between development and conservation is understandably a very tight one, and therefore, technology enables us to make decisions based on very tight dreams.

In fact, insights from highly technical models can lead to national policies, such as the decision to establish new nature parks. NParks’ modelling in the north of Singapore, near our bridge crossing with Malaysia, done at the Mandai Mangroves and Mudflat several years ago, determined the importance of the area to mangrove dispersion and reproduction there, as well as in the nearby Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve, Lim Chu Kang and Kranji. 

By doing satellite tracking of migratory shorebirds, seeing where they go in this world during their migratory travels, also determined that our small island is a major pitstop for the long-distance migratory journey of these birds. Studies also found that both Mandai Mangroves and Mudflat, and Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve, are ecologically inter-dependent habitats for these birds, as many of them roost at Sungei Buloh while also flying to forage for food at the mudflats in Mandai. 

This enabled us, in October 2018, to announce that Mandai Mangrove and Mudflat will be conserved as a nature park. This may seem a simple act, to conserve and protect these habitats, but the satellite tracking we have done allows us to know that doing so can contribute to the long-term survival of these birds, some of which are globally endangered.

Technology and Active Citizenry

Technology also allows us to harness the energy of greater citizen participation. It meets the aspirations of Singaporeans who wish to play a greater part in making decisions on matters around them, that impact them. But it also allows us to harness their energy. Let me give one example. 

We have an app designed by our Municipal Services Office, known as the OneService App. Singaporeans will know what it is. The OneService App was originally conceived to allow users to give feedback easily on the go. When they encounter municipal issues in their daily lives, they can send that feedback through the app, and this feedback is automatically routed to the agency-in-charge. The app’s geo-tagging and photo-taking functions enables agencies to ascertain the exact location and nature of the issues, so that they can respond in an efficient and timely manner. 

Moving beyond that function, the app is being transformed into a one-stop community platform to meet the diverse needs of Singaporeans. This includes the “What Say You?” survey feature, where Singaporeans, residents can participate in surveys on issues such as local improvement works – taking small but meaningful actions on issues that concern them.

Making Technology Inclusive for All

I have talked about digital technology and smart nation in urban planning, and I have talked about its functions and capabilities in our biodiversity conservation efforts. But to do all of this, it needs to be undergirded by digital inclusion – that is critical, and we have been working hard to ensure that in the race to be digital and to be a smart nation, no one is left out in these efforts.

Our leading authority, IMDA, set up the SG Digital Office in May this year. Our SG Digital Office’s role is to accelerate our adoption of digital tools, and to raise the digital literacy of less digitally-savvy individuals and businesses, because you want to carry everyone along even as we accelerate in our Smart Nation efforts.

For a start, the Digital office recruited 1,000 digital ambassadors from all walks of life to help our senior citizens, as well as heartland stallholders, go digital under programmes that we call the “Seniors Go Digital” programme, as well as the “Hawkers Go Digital” programme.

The Seniors Go Digital programme promotes digital literacy amongst our seniors through one-on-one coaching in the heartlands, and in the communities, through small group learning as well as online classes. We are setting up over 50 physical learning hubs across the island for our seniors to receive infocomm training on topics that are as basic, such as setting up good passwords, how to make e-payments, how to make video calls to their friends and family, how to search for information online, and very importantly, cybersecurity guidance, so that even as they explore the digital realm and get connected, they are protected from scams.

We aim to help 100,000 seniors go digital by the end of this year, and IMDA has worked with several telcos to roll out subsidised mobile and data plans for our seniors. The Digital Office will continue to drive our national digitalisation movement, so that everyone has a place in our digital future, here in Singapore.

This pandemic has necessitated a shift to home-based working and learning, and over the last few months, less-privileged families needed some help to make the shift because of the stresses and strains that they face, and I am glad to see that both government agencies and civil society have stepped forward in quick time.

For example, IMDA and MOE supported low-income students who lacked digital equipment, so as to enable them to participate in home-based learning. By partnering with industry and community self-help groups, IMDA provided them with subsidised PCs, and options for free fibre and mobile broadband. Other NGOs and civil society organisations such as Engineering Good, SG Bono and ReadAble also donated and refurbished laptops for these families to enhance their digital connectivity.

Future-proofing Singapore

The global pandemic that has ensued this year is unprecedented in scale. It caught the world unaware and has had far-reaching impacts. But even before COVID-19, many cities, including Singapore, have already been striving to deal with increasingly complex and global problems, and to adapt to technological and social shifts.

For us, becoming a Smart Nation, making it a reality, and bringing everyone along with it, is integral to our future. Emerging technologies can enhance our strengths, help us transcend our limitations, and seize new opportunities. Through it, we can make our home more green, more liveable, and sustainable for ourselves, our children, and our future generations

Thank you.