"Innovative Solutions for a Smart City" Conference at World Cities Summit 2016

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1              Thank you and welcome to Singapore; our little, tiny island one-degree North of the equator. It is an exciting time to be alive, and I am also aware that people nowadays have very short attention spans so there are only five points I would like to make:

  1. Openness to experimentation
  2.  Open Standards
  3.  Open Source
  4.  Open Data
  5.  Open society

2              If you forget everything else, then just recall these five points. Now let me construct a framework around this. My first hypothesis is that technology changes everything. If you don’t believe me; think about it from the point of view of a city or a village. Eight to ten thousand years ago, the first real revolution was the agricultural revolution. It transformed us from hunters and gatherers into people who settled agrarian lands, planted crops, harvested wheat and tended to sheep and cattle - that led to the onset of villages.


3              The city as we know it today is a result of the industrial technological revolution which began about 250 years ago. It began in England, Germany and Europe; changed the way we organise our cities, economies, politics and even our family structures - from extended to nuclear families - because of this inflection point.


4              The question now is ‘Are we at another inflection point?’ where digital technology has converged and the way we live, work, play, organise and mobilise ourselves, the political structures we create; are they all going to change too? My hypothesis is, and I suspect many of you would agree; that we are at such a defining moment. If you look at the digital revolution - some people call it ‘Industry 4.0’ - there are a few characteristics that differentiate it from past revolutions.

5              Let me give you a few examples. Today, we have got lots of memory - not from a biological point of view, our brains haven’t increased; but we have outsourced our memories to our phones and ultimately into the cloud, so you have unlimited access to memory. The cost of copying a document or an idea is zero. The cost of transmitting an idea or communication is also trending to zero. If the cost of replicating and transmitting information trends to zero; what is the new currency, where are the new sources of value generation and what are the new sources of competitive advantage?

6              We say that data (and nowadays the term big data is in fashion) is the new currency, but raw data is commoditised, everyone has access to it. The real value is in insight and the ability to synthesise and generate new perspectives and the ability to exercise judgement and wisdom to create new ideas, products and services. So this is a transforming moment, and cities, economies and politics will change.

7              And that is why I have constructed these five points.

8              The first point – an openness to experimentation or ‘hacking,’ and ultimately even ‘hacking’ government itself. We have got to stop looking for final solutions. In this day and age it is an ever evolving set of interim solutions to address problems - whether it is in healthcare, transportation logistics - it will always be Version 0.9, it never quite reaches Version 1.0, and this requires a transformation within government because we need to be prepared to experiment, to get it wrong and to keep on improving. The old ways of delivering software projects cost millions of hours and dollars to create a monolithic, obsolete product the moment it reaches the market. Today we are developing services within government differently, and even the way we develop software in the government, is a completely iterative and experimental process.

9              A second aspect is open standards. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) defines open standards as standards made available to the general public, developed, approved and maintained through collaboration and consensus in order to facilitate interoperability and synergy. In other words, we have got to get away from these walled gardens. The reason you want open standards in government, and indeed in society, is so that people can interoperate and collaborate; no one derives competitive advantage by erecting walls.

10           The third point I want to make is on open source. If you live in a world where ideas can be replicated, transmitted and data is free; there should be no black-boxes. One thing that irritates me is all these black-boxes on television sets with proprietary programming. It is again an attempt to lock in the people. Open source means the solutions are there in the open for everyone to improve. The challenge is in execution because it is verifiable, improvable and a platform for collaboration.

11           The fourth thing we need to do different is open data. Many governments and cities are doing this. We have all got our open data portals, but really it goes deeper than just having a portal. It is about making a commitment that as much data as possible will be available so that people can generate new and collaborative solutions, become co-creators and own the problem and can offer novel solutions. In Singapore, the chief proponent of open data has been our Prime Minister who has been haranguing all government departments to put all that data on data.gov.sg. And it is not enough to put a raw dump or a PDF file; but to make sure that it is available through application programming interfaces (API), accessible in real-time, accurate, verifiable and usable.

12           The fifth thing - after having done all that is to have an open society, one that is characterised by high levels of trust, collaboration, security and equally important, the protection of privacy to the maximum extent possible while still providing open data and open collaborative platforms. So beyond getting into the technical aspects of what are the latest toys and services that cities have, the point I am making is actually a deeper, philosophical one: that technology has changed everything. The way we organise our societies, plan our cities and deliver services also have to change.

13           I will give you one example, and this is a shout-out now to Microsoft and Jessica Tan. If you think about the way governments have provided services to citizens; the old way is for you to come and ask for it, fill up a form, queue up and wait. After a few weeks, months or sometimes years depending on where you are; the service is finally rolled out to you.

14           The next stage is to make it available online, then basically all you have done is transferred form-filling to filling it online. But if there is not an equivalent transformation in your backroom or if there isn’t a process re-engineering, it does not necessarily improve the efficiency or efficacy of your services.

15           And so the next move is to go onto the World Wide Web saying well, let’s have real-time services instead. So for instance in Singapore, the majority of us file our income tax online - I think it is about 80% – 90% of who do this. For most of us, this process only takes about five minutes because it is all pre-filled. You would just need to verify the details and of course, having simple and efficient tax laws helps.

16           I think we need to move beyond paper, electronic form-filling and just online services. What we are trying to do now is to work with Microsoft on the concept of ‘conversations as a platform’. Some of you may know them as chatbots. If you ask most people today, most of our interactions with friends and peers are through emails, instant messages and other similar platforms - conversations.

17           Now the question is, why shouldn’t the same capability be available for government? Which means not queuing and waiting for a person to attend to you, but interacting with an intelligence with access to all the data and the ability to personalise and respond to you in real-time, to guide you to access the most relevant services and to make the most efficient use of government resources. So in a sense, what we are trying to work on with Microsoft is to create a new medium based on conversations. Citizen engagements with government, and each other will be conversational. It could take the form of typing, or through natural language communication.

18           So this is just one example but in order to do that, you realise this goes far beyond just the Artificial Intelligence or language processing, but requires a whole-of-government reorganisation, reengineering the backroom, and of the way services are delivered, packaged and how we engage our citizens.

19           Thank you.

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Last updated on 15 Sep 2021