Exploring the path to inclusive and sustainable societies: Insights from Estonia, Japan and Singapore

By Ming En Liew

Society 5.0, first conceptualised in Japan, envisions a human-centred digital society. Panellists from Singapore, Japan and Estonia shed light on how they are pursuing this ideal in their own ways at GovInsider’s recent regional flagship conference, GovInsider Live - ASEAN.

At the recent GovInsider Live ASEAN, Carmen Raal, Dr Yuko Harayama, and Chen Guanyou, delved into the ways their respective countries of Estonia, Japan and Singapore are exemplifying a inclusive and sustainable digital society. Image: GovInsider

What do drones and wearable tech have in common? They both saw revolutionary progress in 2015 which paved the way for widespread adoption of these technologies in the years to come. 


In the same year amidst this rapid technological progress, Japan came up with their ambitious Society 5.0 vision. Proposed as part of the nation’s 5th Science and Technology Basic Plan, Society 5.0 imagines “a human-centred society that balances economic advancement with the resolution of social problems by a system that highly integrates cyberspace and physical space."


But the Society 5.0 vision is not just about promoting science, technology and innovation, said Dr Yuko Harayama, Professor Emeritus at Tohoku University in Japan, and one of the pioneers of the Society 5.0 vision. Rather, it aims to do so in a way that is in touch with the social and natural environment.


In the years since the vision was announced, how are countries realising this ideal of a human-centred digital society in their own ways? At GovInsider’s recent flagship event GovInsider Live - ASEAN, Dr Harayama joined panellists from Singapore and Estonia, for a deep dive into the concept in the panel titled Society 5.0: Digital, inclusive, sustainable. 


People at the centre


Society has progressed a long way since 2015, with emerging tech like generative AI dominating conversations today. But digitalisation and automation does not mean losing the human touch, said Carmen Raal, Digital Transformation Adviser from Estonia’s digital government unit, e-Estonia. “On the contrary, the reason why we're having digitalised services…is to have more time for this human touch, especially where it matters.”


One way Estonia does this is through artificial intelligence, such as by integrating chatbots on different government portals, Raal said. With chatbots, citizens need not wait until working hours to get the help they need. 


The nation is also looking to use speech technology to improve accessibility to such government services. Estonia is currently collecting speech donations to train these chatbots to respond through voice activation in the Estonian language, giving people more options on how they want to communicate with the state, she explained. 


“Being able to use your language to access different services means that public sector services are becoming more accessible for people with different disabilities,” she added. 


“For Singapore, technology and user-centricity goes hand-in-hand,” Chen Guanyou, Deputy Director, Strategy, Governance & International Relations, at the DesignSingapore Council said. One such example is that of SingPass, Singapore’s National Digital Identity platform, which Chen terms the “MacGyver of the Singapore Government”. 


“The design brief for SingPass started with the simple ask: to create a one-stop shop for services like tax filing and passport renewals,” Chen explained. “The aim was to make it as painless as possible.” 


“The human-centred digital society is about just that - using tech to solve problems and make life better,” he said.


An inclusive digital world

Society 5.0 advocates for the government to take inclusive actions and to actively listen to people’s voices, said Dr Harayama.

Singapore exemplifies this through its Digital for Life movement, jointly organised by the Infocomm Media Development Authority, Government Technology Agency of Singapore and Smart Nation and Digital Government Office. This movement encourages all Singaporeans to embrace digital technologies as a lifelong pursuit to enrich their lives, Chen explained. 

Its funding comes from a dollar-to-dollar matching scheme, where the Singapore government matches donations made by private companies dollar-for-dollar. In 2022 alone, about S$15 million was raised through these donations, Chen shared. 

“It’s accessible for everyone to tap on the funds, to encourage different members of the community to play a part,” he explained. 

The programme saw community members stepping up to provide digital literacy training for seniors to help them use basic tech functionalities like making video calls. Companies also volunteered to refurbish old laptops for families in need.

Similarly, Estonia makes a concerted effort to invest in ICT literacy programmes to ensure vulnerable groups like the elderly are not left behind. 

One way they are doing so is by ensuring universal access to computers through libraries that are located across the country, even in the smallest cities, Raal shared. The libraries in these facilities then double up as “digital superheroes”, according to Raal, providing support for those who may not be familiar with online services. 

“This approach has been especially popular among elderly who know that they can turn to libraries for kind-hearted assistance,” she said. 

Another example of how Singapore has exemplified a human-centred digital transformation is through its integration of tech in wellness and care. Chen highlighted the example of the Enabling Village, a community and space dedicated to serving people with diverse abilities. 


“One of the most impressive features of the Enabling Village is TechAble, an integrated assistive technology space that aims to increase the awareness, promotion and adoption of these technologies,” Chen shared. Within this space, experts provide consultations for the use of assistive tech. 


There are also experiential rooms within the space that are designed to allow employers to test new assistive technologies for differently-abled employees, such as light proof and soundproof rooms to mimic the conditions of the visually and hearing-impaired.


Digitalisation with sustainability in mind


Computers and digital services all leave a mark on society, Raal said. While digitalising, Estonia is focused on ensuring this transformation is sustainable. Just last year, the Estonian government had embarked on an assessment of the government’s footprint. 


“This is the first initial key step towards creating an action plan and having very specific steps towards how we're going to reduce that footprint and become more sustainable,” Raal said.


For instance, they determined that it would be more sustainable to rent computers for employees as opposed to purchasing them. This is because the computers can be passed over to individuals who only need it for light use after the initial years. 


“These are the simple things that we all can start out with, but then go down to more complex issues, like making sure that we're using sustainable energy and also making sure that there aren't any legacy problems in the future,” she said. 


“Sustainability is not just about reducing emissions. It's also about working better with nature,” Chen added, highlighting an example of how the country’s National Park Board (NParks) combined tech and nature to improve greenery management. 


NParks has developed a remote tree management system that allows them to remotely inspect and monitor the condition of trees for more efficient greenery management, he shared. For instance, the system is able to remotely identify tree tilt and allows for more timely intervention if the condition of these trees deteriorate, explained Ow Siew Ngim, Director of Streetscape, NParks, to GovInsider previously.

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