Published on Digital Development

What makes a nation smart: the view from Singapore

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It is always exciting to learn from innovators. With its vibrant and competitive ICT sector, Internet penetration levels among the highest in the world and advanced ICT infrastructure, Singapore is a global information-communication hub and leader in ICT-enabled solutions.
The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), together with other agencies are working towards Singapore’s vision to becoming the world’s first smart nation. That’s why World Bank Group colleagues were eager to hear from Mr. Chan Cheow Hoe – IDA’s Government Chief Information Officer (CIO) – and his team during their visit to World Bank on September 24, 2014, about their vision of a “smart nation”.
Mr. Chan opened the conversation by offering his understanding of the basics: what is “innovation”? Innovation, according to him, is a means to very concrete ends: solving people’s problems. When pursuing innovation in certain areas of life, we should first ask ourselves “what problems are we going to solve?” The answer to this question should guide our search for technologically enabled solutions.
A “smart” nation is one whose government employs innovative technologies to effectively respond to its peoples’ needs, improving their social and economic prospects. It does so inclusively, so that all sub-segments of the population benefit. This citizen-centric approach is the key to understanding governance in a smart nation; unlike business entities, the government cannot choose its customers and must serve all citizens. In doing so, the government has to deal with diverse subjects and issues, which adds complexity to the task. For this reason, the government should have a long term view and plan.   
Having laid out the basic goals behind the “smart nation” vision, Mr. Chan elaborated on his understanding of “innovative technologies” that serve as the backbone of a smart nation’s infrastructure. “Innovative” technologies, according to him, should not necessarily be cutting-edge ones; rather, it is the new and innovative way of bringing together existing technologies that makes these technologies “innovative.” The main goal of such innovation is the optimization of existing resources, rather than reliance on new ones.
In Singapore, Mr. Chan pointed out, this need is particularly clear because you can build only so many roads or hospitals, and they will still not resolve problems with traffic, or the growing needs of the aging population. What is needed is more information for citizens to make better-informed decisions.   
He gave an example where traffic data could be made available to citizens. Using this information, a citizen could decide to leave their house 15 minutes earlier when traffic is smoother, versus leaving at the normal time when traffic starts to build up. These are some ways technologies can be used innovatively to improve peoples’ lives.
Mr. Chan continued by elaborating on the role of e-government in advancing the “smart nation” agenda. E-government is only one aspect of the “smart nation” concept, but it is a crucial one: in the Singapore government looks to creating the necessary infrastructure and the ecosystem for the future smart nation. Mr. Chan discussed other aspects of IDA’s work:
  • IDA has been working on creating a common data infrastructure for the entire government, which would solve the problem of the incompatibility of data sets coming from different government agencies. As a result, they created a new platform,, which serves as a central source of government data. IDA also manages the government cloud platform to serve the needs of ministries and agencies. 
  • The complexity of issues that the government has to tackle implies that it cannot act single-handedly, but rather in collaboration with citizens, industry and academia. The government should nurture a collaborative ecosystem and serve as a connector and matchmaker without attempting to dominate. Mr. Chan shared an interesting example of the community working together; when emergency assistance is requested, it takes time for medical personnel to reach the person in need, depending on traffic. Fatality rate goes up as each minute passes before help arrives. He shared an app which allowed  medically trained persons in a given locale to respond to individuals who are in need of emergency help. This kind of technologically enabled matchmaking between the communities could help save lives. 
  • In order to support a required level of agility, efficiency and flexibility, the government needs to review and reform its own structures and effectively manage change.
  • IDA nurtures diversity among its own staff to ensure a variety of views and diversity of skill sets, so that government employees can learn from each other and partner with those outside the government in order to sustain the co-creation and inclusiveness of the ecosystem. 
In the second part of the seminar, Mr. Amos Tan – IDA’s Director of Strategy and Innovation – walked us through examples of concrete initiatives IDA has been working on. He shared the government data portal,, which contains more than 8,000 datasets that are available to citizens, app developers and researchers. These datasets could be used to develop apps, gain new insights or make more informed decisions. Virtual assistant technology helps citizens to quickly find answers to their questions, while helping authorities to understand citizens’ needs; analysis of these questions can reveal larger issues, helping authorities address them before they develop into even more significant problems. 
A network of information centers called Citizen Connect has been established to bridge the still existing digital divide and facilitate free access to government services including eCitizen, an e-government platform, for those who do not have internet access. Similarly, on the eCitizen Ideas Portal, citizens can submit ideas and suggestions to challenges posted by agencies.
There are also several platforms and apps in the pipeline that are aimed at further data integration, cross-agency collaboration and analytics that will enable more convenient, seamless and responsive service delivery. For example, the government recently awarded a tender for the development of the Social Service Net (SSNet), a unified content management system for the social service sector that will facilitate information sharing among multiple social services providers and government agencies. Another app in the pipeline aims to connect several agencies to provide a single front to citizens for municipal related issues.
Cross-agency collaboration, data sharing and Big Data analytics are at the core of the smart nation projects. In addition to citizens as data producers, IDA relies on data relayed by sensors that are being installed on the ground for better situational awareness and resource allocation. For example, more than 1,000 sensors are currently being deployed in the Jurong Lake District, a large commercial and residential center and the nation’s test lab for the smart nation solutions.
At the end of our conversation, Mr. Chan noted that the “smart nation” vision is not only about ICT, which constitute only part of how Singaporeans perceive themselves as a nation. However, this component of the vision of Singapore’s future gains critical importance as citizens become more technologically savvy and demanding. They want to be engaged, and the role of the smart government is to not only accommodate this demand, but also to nurture it.


Yulia Danilina

Consultant, Transport & ICT Global Practice

Oleg Petrov

Senior Digital Development Specialist, World Bank

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