Shaping the urban future with high-tech planning today


One day, you will be able to sit back and relax as a robot car weaves through rush-hour traffic and drives you to work. It will even know of the jam along Lornie Road that it should avoid.

As you enjoy the view, sensors on your body will help you monitor your health. Tap on your phone, and it may even suggest that you avoid nasi lemak and have a low-salt lunch instead.

“Smart” technologies such as these that promise to change the face of urban life as you know it are already being imagined by researchers, businesses and governments.

Last week, the topic hogged discussions at the World Cities Summit.

Such mobile apps and driverless cars already exist. Other technologies involve using powerful computer analytics to crunch down and make sense of masses of data from sensors, such as tiny microchips, closed-circuit television cameras and mobile phones, and social media.

Experts said that behind the high-tech gizmos is an ability to improve people’s day-to-day lives.

“The end result for people should be a city that is more liveable and uses less resources,” said Professor Carlo Ratti, principal investigator at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart), and director of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Cities around the world are all readying plans to become smarter.

Britain’s Smart London Plan envisions a future where the entire city’s underground is 3D-mapped, reducing the need for noisy roadworks and excavations.

In Copenhagen, the Danish capital with one of the highest cycling rates in the world, a smart bicycle has been developed with sensors that send real-time information on air quality and traffic congestion to both riders and the authorities.

Brazilian city Rio de Janeiro is leading the way in some respects with its Operations Centre.

This helped it win the top honour at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, last year, edging out cities like Berlin and Copenhagen.

Developed with technology firm IBM, the centre’s smart map analyses – under one roof – data from about 30 government agencies. It gives officials a bird’s-eye view of information such as video feeds from subway stations and weather predictions.

All this has already helped them to respond faster to city-wide problems such as floods or power failures – it lowered emergency response times by 30 per cent.

Singapore has also been no slouch in this area. In 2006, it launched its Intelligent Nation Masterplan, which aims to make the nation the world leader in harnessing infocomm technology for the economy and society.

The country already has 86 per cent smartphone penetration, placing it top in a global survey last year.

The Government’s smart-city research cuts across all sectors, with a range of agencies all having a finger in the pie.

In April this year, the Singapore Land Authority sent two light planes into the sky to map the entire island’s topography in 3D over 40 days, using lasers and high-resolution cameras.

The map is expected to be ready by 2016, and national water agency PUB could use it then to model flood patterns and better manage them. The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore could also use it to plan more efficient landing paths for jumbo jets.

Meanwhile, driverless buggies will be given a test run in Jurong Lake District later this year.

Outbreaks of food poisoning could be nipped in the bud quicker in future too, if the National Environment Agency’s research with IBM bears fruit. Their computer models would alert officers if people complained on social media of being sick after eating at a particular restaurant.

Smart technology could even make public flats more windy, and hence cooler.

Last Wednesday, the HDB unveiled a prototype of a city-modelling system it is working on with French energy firm Electricite de France and environmental services firm Veolia. It is expected to be ready by the end of the year.

The model simulates a city’s sprawl and the impact on the environment, resources and people. Among other things, it could enable HDB to design new housing blocks for ideal wind flow and help it plan cycling paths.

In future, trains could run extra smoothly, police be deployed faster and water leaks repaired more promptly – all thanks to sensors and computers that assess where incidents happen and how to respond.

It all comes down to the gathering of facts, said IBM’s general manager for Smarter Cities, Mr Michael Dixon.

“While for generations, people have used experience, good judgment, education and certainly advice in making decisions, we’ve now come to a point where the real decisions are being made based on facts.”

Singapore, though, should not stand still but nurture its start-up and “hackathon culture” further, suggested Smart’s Prof Ratti. This is so that smart technologies and apps are created not just by the Government and industry but by ordinary people too, he said.

Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan said in Parliament two weeks ago that the Government would try to share more data, for example, through the Open Data initiative, to encourage citizens to do so.

The initiative aims to make public more government data to drive innovation. Since 2011, more than 130 apps have been created through this. These include The Great Singapore Rat Race, which visualises how starting pay varies with university and course of study.

Amid the worldwide clamour for smarter everything, there are also voices calling for some balance.

Professor Chan Heng Chee, chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, which researches cutting-edge urban solutions, told The Sunday Times that several delegates she spoke to at the World Cities Summit shared her view that smart technologies may in turn create unrealistic expectations of governments.

She said: “There are great strengths… but we should be careful that it does not create the expectation of instant response. I think governments all over may find that not so easy to fulfil.”

Any smart-city approach must also be inclusive, said IBM’s executive manager for Global Smarter Cities, Mr David Post.

“You have to get the vulnerable involved in the policy process,” he said. “You can’t solve inequality out of the box. You can put technology in place but… urban development is a human process.”

Still, for people uncertain of its benefits, Prof Ratti chose to remind them of taxi-booking app GrabTaxi, which since last year has been helping to connect taxi drivers and commuters here more easily.

“Think about how difficult it was just a few years ago to call a taxi. Think about how GrabTaxi makes it much easier.

“Multiply that for every dimension of your life and you will see an incredible change for citizens, for how efficiently a city runs.”

Sectors: Technology
Countries: Singapore
Topics: Innovation
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