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Article Article February 8th, 2017
Cities • Technology • Artificial Intelligence

Towards a smarter Singapore

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Singapore's @GovTechSG agency is driving digital transformation of the city-state's public sector

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How is @GovTechSG making user needs central to the design of government digital services?

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Singapore's @GovTechSG is a start-up in govt – delivering digital reform from within

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Singapore is famous for many things. The skyscrapers which adorn its central business district, its blend of East and West, the eclectic sights and sounds of Marina Bay - the list goes on.

But for many it's the city state's sheer dynamism which makes it special. This is a city on the move, one which has spent the 51 years since its independence relentlessly seeking to advance and has no intention of slowing down any time soon.

No more so is this the case than in its embrace of all things digital. Think bigger - much bigger - than your standard broadband package. In Singapore, new initiatives abound, such as MyInfo, a consent-based service that auto-populates the personal data fields on government forms, helping citizens save time as they need not do so repeatedly for every electronic transaction with the government. Although it was only launched last year, a pilot is already underway for this to be extended to online banking. Another is the OneService digital channel for residents to report municipal issues through the app‘s photo-snap and location geo-tagging functions. Their feedback gets channeled to the right agency at the back-end, and the issue gets resolved quickly and with minimal disruption to citizens' lives. More than 51,000 feedback cases have been submitted through this app.

No wonder the World Economic Forum has judged Singapore to be the country which has benefited most from its technological innovation investments, topping its Networked Readiness Index in 2015 and 2016.

Smartening up the city state

Connecting these initiatives is not just state of the art wireless broadband linking every home and office. Of more significance is its commitment to become a Smart Nation, a country where an intricate network of smart applications and sensors can help policymakers address deep rooted urban challenges. Helping turn this vision into reality is Mark Lim, director of product design and development in the Government Digital Services (GDS) team at GovTech, a recently-launched agency tasked with driving the digital transformation of the public sector.

He is keen to stress that the new vision puts the needs of citizens and businesses first. "One of the key things we are doing in Singapore is adopting a more user friendly design-based approach," he says. "This is very important because, in the past, the work was very much based on what the agency wanted to do. But now we are turning this around and talking to the citizen. Finding out what citizens' pain-points are means we can find the right solution for them, so it is the user experience which now very much informs the design of government digital services."

GovTech - which was launched last October - is made up of nearly 1,800 employees, comprising data scientists, software developers, designers, technologists and engineers. It is focused on building deep technical capabilities for the public sector, with six key areas: application development, data science, government ICT infrastructure, geospatial technology (with the Singapore Land Authority), cybersecurity (with the Cyber Security Agency), and Internet of Things (IoT) and sensors. To do so, it connects and works closely with public agencies, industry and citizens using a wide range of technologies such as data science and analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

Lim believes that GovTech has hit the ground running, thanks in no small part to the agency's ability to balance creativity with discipline. "We want our work to be as creative as possible so that solutions that we couldn't have thought of in a traditional way can be iteratively built up," he explains. "However, to do this well, you need to be very disciplined. The team adopts a very strict process in terms of the deliverables within each stream. So we allow them to be very creative but within a strict and disciplined framework which enables us to put our products and goals into production. This is very important because it helps the team be creative without worrying about whether what they are innovating will ever be used by the government."

He goes on to say that Smart Nation involves three key elements: optimising delivery of smart nation services, designing digital government experiences and encouraging smart citizen involvement. "It's a very big mandate," he admits. "Optimising the delivery of Smart Nation services involves putting in place nationwide infrastructure such as sensors, the IoT and data analytics platforms to enable innovation in domains such as mobility, living and healthcare. Digital government is about enabling citizens to enjoy more meaningful and impactful government digital services, and last but not least, we also want to involve the citizens by ensuring they can contribute and create new opportunities for themselves."

Pushing new frontiers

In addition to supporting all three strands of the Smart Nation initiative, Lim is also involved in other areas, such as how Singapore's policymakers are deploying AI - both internally and externally. "We're already using it for data analytics to improve our policymaking process, and we are also looking at how we can use AI more actively in the delivery of anticipatory services to our citizens," he says.

"One of the most important things we want to use AI for is a thing called 'Moments of Life'. The idea behind this was instead of asking citizens to go to different government websites and different apps, we could anticipate the services they require at key moments in life by using AI. However, we also discovered that to make this work, it is very important the AI has the appropriate data and transaction details. Without this, the AI will only be able to give advice - it cannot transact. But I want the AI to be able to do more than just advise. So for example, if you are renewing your passport I want the AI to help the citizen understand all their requirements and then help guide them by remembering their passport details, the expiry date and so on."

Of course, there are many around the world who are nervous of AI and its seemingly limitless potential. Given that in Singapore there are three mobile devices for every two of its citizens, it should come as no surprise that Lim believes there to be fewer sceptics than elsewhere. "A lot of people are very excited about it because you can use it to create a seamless user experience and, in general, Singaporeans are very tech-savvy," he says. "But there are always going to be some who are worried about AI and the amount of data that we are collecting. So we need to work towards building this trust and remind them the system is there to provide services for them, rather than be Big Brother."

Similarly, Lim is in little doubt that digital technology is a valuable tool for governments in need of enhancing their legitimacy in a fast-changing world. "For example, we have an open data initiative where we are releasing relevant and useful government data, and sometimes this includes a lot of information about Singapore, the government and how Smart Nation is being developed," he says. "We also have some other platforms including a citizen engagement platform called 'Reach' where we allow a lot of our policy proposals to be put up there for citizens to understand and comment on before the policy is incorporated into legislation."

And he also cites myResponder which seeks to use technology to crowdsource lifesavers and improve out of hospital cardiac arrest survival rates. "The idea is to crowdsource those people who can perform CPR and are near the victims to try and save their life," he explains. "This is close to my heart because Smart Nation is not all about government - Smart Nation is also about what we, as individual citizens, can contribute back to Singapore and their fellow Singaporeans."

With more than 11,000 volunteers now registered as first responders and over 8,500 successful activations, this initiative is just one of many to have had quite an impact. Lim believes that this success, and that of Singapore's as a whole, is down in large part to having the right culture. "If you create the right culture, then people will flourish and be empowered," he says. "In our case, we have sought to reform from the inside out by creating a start-up culture within government, working with people who have a different mindset and do things iteratively. These are the type of people we want now in government. There is always tension and conflict but you should accept this if you want to make real changes and transformation."

With the journey from start-up to Smart Nation already well under way, it seems fair to assume that Singapore looks well placed to continue taking similar strides long into the future.



  • Sustaining Singapore's success: lessons of growth and delivery. Singapore is not only a bridge between east and west but also a beacon of political and economic accomplishments that have given it a magnetic allure for governments around the world. The chairman of its Economic Development Board, Dr Beh Swan Gin, tells BCG's Vincent Chin about going from third world to first - and how to stay there
  • Singapore: moving from strength to strength. Singapore's transformation from small fishing port into global powerhouse continues unabated. But the building blocks for this enduring success stem not only from decisions made by its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, but also the consultative approach of his successor, Goh Chok Tong. We hear about the importance of inclusivity in achieving long-lasting impact
  • Briefing Bulletin: Going digital - how governments can use technology to transform lives around the world
  • Going digital  - how governments can pick up the pace. When it comes to digital government, the gap between rhetoric and reality remains far too wide, says Florian Frey, but it can be closed. Here, he sets out five ways government could improve its digital deployment.
  • Unlocking the digital door for developing countries. Although universal access to the internet remains some way off, Hans Kuipers explains what steps can be taken to bridge the enduring digital divide
  • Transforming technology, transforming government. Rare is the policymaker who doesn't see digital as a doorway for strengthening public services. But as Miguel Carrasco explains, the pace of the digital evolution means there is always more to do
  • Opening the digital playbook. A multi-year veteran of government, think tanks and professional services, William Eggers has devoted his career to addressing the twin challenges of reform and renewal. He tells us how governments can more fully embrace the digital revolution
  • Pushing people power through technology. mySociety founder Tom Steinberg knows a thing or three about ‘civic tech' - the online technologies that enable people the power to achieve change. He tells us about its influence and impact in government
  • In conversation with… Francis Maude and Mike Bracken.  Francis Maude and Mike Bracken are the guests in the latest CPI Podcast. They tell us about setting up the UK's Government Digital Service, making change sustainable and the lessons of transformation
  • Power to the people. Few countries have embraced the digital era as successfully as New Zealand. We talk to one of its government's key digital transformation leaders, Richard Foy, about how they've done it

Written by:

Matthew Mercer Senior Editor
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