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Challenges of a Smart Nation

The reality of a Smart Nation seems closer than ever, so why are we not there yet? Afternaut’s Co-founder, Chong Zhe Wei and Director of Business and Corporate Services, Delane Lim discuss and share their thoughts on the challenges of developing a Smart Singapore.

Fusing technology into everyday life is becoming an attainable dream for many, especially with the rise of smart cities. The UN projects that 68% of the world population will live in urban areas by 2050, a 13% increase from current figures. [1] The justifications behind smart cities are countless, from dealing with climate change to balancing out economic inequality.

However, many people don’t realise that smart cities go beyond a smart lifestyle. Each city is unique in its constitutions and functionalities. Hence, there’s no one-size-fits-all structure to follow. This creates endless possibilities. In 2014, Singapore launched our Smart Nation initiative to propel the garden city into a tech-led era. [2]

" Singapore is known as a SMART nation in our region and we are continuously striving to become a SMART-er nation." - Delane Lim

From fuss-free food delivery to effortless automated parking, data seems to have the magical ability to eliminate first-world hassles, dangers and injustices. However, the Singaporean digital dream doesn’t come without its challenges.

Prioritising Data Privacy and Security

Citizens went into outrage when Straits Times first reported the news of Singhealth’s data breach in mid-2017. While day-to-day operations of Singapore’s largest health group were not affected, data of nearly 1.5 million patients were stolen together with the prime minister’s particulars. [3] This sophisticated, well-planned cyber attack might just be the first of many for our burgeoning smart nation. E-nation Estonia too suffered from a debilitating wave of digital assaults in 2007 which resulted in disruption in online services of banks, media outlets and government bodies. In response, they fortified their highly secretive Cyber Defence Unit and became one of the world’s leading countries in cyber defence. Similarly, Singapore has now further enforced cybersecurity and data protection laws to deter history from repeating itself. This year, a new “digital defence” pillar was added to Singapore’s Total Defence framework.

"In Singapore, data protection is a key priority. Even if, Singapore hopes to go towards China’s direction but we will need a system in place to hold and protect data first." – Delane Lim

On the flip side, countries like China embrace more liberal data privacy laws to adopt one of the world’s most powerful face recognition technologies, in exchange for a safer lifestyle for its people. The system has capabilities that track more than a billion people, making sure no crime goes undetected. However, this bold move does not come without criticism. [4]

"There is a constant balance that we always have to draw. Who in the ecosystem does this responsibility lie with?" - Chong Zhe Wei

Afternaut’s co-founder, Chong Zhe Wei points out that in an ideal scenario there should always be a balance and its trade-offs. What the people value, is the bottom line.

Underprepared for a Digital Transformation

There’s no running away from our country’s digital transformation but new technology can’t be assimilated overnight either. A relatable situation that exemplifies this concern for the layman is e-payment. Over the last two years, the Singapore Government has been aggressively pushing for cashless payment across various industries, especially after introducing a plethora of different providers from local apps such as DBS PayLah! and GrabPay to options from international tech giants such as Google Pay and Apple Pay. Arguably, a first-class payment ecosystem is not only efficient and secure but is also fundamental to the development of a digital economy.

However, the adoption rate is persistently low considering the amount of effort to promote cashless payment by the Singapore Government, especially in small business establishments. Nine out of 10 consumers still prefer to pay in cash at wet markets and hawker centres in Singapore. [5] Reason behind the low adoption rate lies in lack of seamlessness between the variety of e-payment solutions available. A large majority of Singapore’s hawkers fall into the senior population, who are already ill-equipped in terms of interoperability to begin with.

As a solution, NETS was later appointed to unify all e-payment vendors this year. Eliminating the need for multiple terminals or quick response (QR) codes, regardless of the type of cashless system. While customers still enjoy the liberty of using a variety of e-payment options. Monthly transaction fees for the next three years are also waived by the government, to further expedite and provide an incentive cashless payment adoption.

Source: Unsplash

"Digital transformation is an ongoing process that evolves to meet the needs of different stakeholders. " - Delane Lim

Afternaut’s Director of Business and Corporate Services, Delane Lim believes making technology part-and-parcel of everyday life is all a simple matter of time and readiness. Citizens must first understand the rationale for implementing smart technology and enjoy its benefits. So much so until it becomes irrefutably ingrained into their habits. However, the government must also provide means of a seamless ecosystem to facilitate usage. After all, practice makes perfect.

Embracing the Falls

"Our timeline and plan for digital transformation are now inevitably questionable, unless we start reviewing and reducing unnecessary corporate red-tape for commercial industries." - Delane Lim

Source: Unsplash

SMEs fill the heart of Singapore’s economy, representing close to 99% of all local enterprises. They are responsible for nearly half of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Despite the Singapore Government’s initiatives to urge a digital transformation, many are still resistant to implementing new ideas. [7] Japan suffered two decades worth of economic stagnation, the period aptly named “Lost Score” was a by-product of a conformist culture that puts a premium on stability and success. The fear of failure and rise-aversiveness of the Japanese crippled a desire for exploration, allowing the world’s second-largest economy to drop to third place. [6] It’s a good lesson to learn, especially in a coveted, white picket fence of a country like Singapore where merit is judged by traditional metrics.

"There needs to be acceptance. We should have a boundary for people to fail and try in a disciplined and accountable manner. If we don’t embrace change, innovation and failure, it will become a stigma in society." – Chong Zhe Wei

No matter how calculated a move, the risk is never absent. Small companies with big ideas should be embraced. Zhe Wei emphasises that to build a smart nation, a degree of willingness to try, test and experiment is required. Only with a mindset shift of tolerance and belief, enterprises would be encouraged to create traction within the economy and bring upon a brighter, smarter future.

[1]https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html

[2]https://web.archive.org/web/20160318193506/http://www.pmo.gov.sg/mediacentre/transcript-prime-minister-lee-hsien-loongs-speech-smart-nation-launch-24-november

[3]https://graphics.straitstimes.com/STI/STIMEDIA/Interactives/2018/07/sg-cyber-breach/index.html

[4] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/shaming-jaywalkers-china-facial-recognition-technology-privacy-11196684

[5] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/hawkers-cashless-payments-need-help-barriers-to-adoption-11042450

[6] https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2016-10-31/japan-may-be-too-scared-of-failure-to-succeed

[7] https://news.microsoft.com/en-sg/2018/10/23/singapore-smes-who-embrace-digital-transformation-expect-to-see-average-revenue-gains-of-26-asme-microsoft-study/

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