How can Singapore be the enabler of smart cities?

By Hong Eng Koh

The country could be a hub for intelligent platforms that connect entities across entire industries, writes Hong Eng Koh, Huawei’s Global Chief Public Safety Scientist.

Image: Pixabay - CC BY 2.0

The Ubers, Airbnbs, Facebooks, and Amazons of the world have come to typify disruption. What they all have in common is that they function as platforms - providing the backbone that allows users to easily transact, trade, and communicate with each other.

Can this concept be applied to smart cities? Could Singapore be the ‘platform of platforms’, allowing different industries and ecosystems to connect, inter-operate, and collaborate?

A data-sharing economy for industries

If we go back in time and examine Singapore’s roots, the country was built around its bustling shipping port, thanks to its strategic location. All ships, plying trading routes through Southeast Asia, had to go through Singapore.

Today, with digital transformation overtaking every single industry, Singapore has the opportunity to maintain its status as a preferred hub for business - this time, in the virtual world. Across industries - from healthcare to trade; finance to education - one centralised platform that connects different platforms together, allowing numerous entities to transact, interact, and share data.

How will a ‘platform of platforms’ look in practice? Companies and government bodies can pool their information to create a scalable sharing ecosystem of information within and across industries. The sharing ecosystem can expand across industries and countries onto a regional and international level.

Finding new leads and angles

Crucially, a ‘platform of platforms’ should go beyond mere information-sharing and add value with an extra layer of intelligence. When you buy books on Amazon, a basic algorithm analyses your choice and suggests other titles you may enjoy. Artificial intelligence today is so advanced that it is indeed possible for algorithms to not only return search results, but also suggest other angles and information that may not yet have occurred to the user.

Essentially, the algorithm could tell you things that you do not know, but may be interested in. Just like those handy notifications on your smartphone, these insights could be surfaced by the intelligent platform, and pushed to you.

One example is from the public safety perspective. When I was Head of Computer Systems in the Singapore Police Force in 1995, my team managed a project to create a simple criminal and crime database for ASEAN’s regional police network called ASEANAPOL. The database collated information on criminal movement and the flow of stolen goods across national boundaries, and officers would then manually look through all these information for clues.

In today’s context, it would be possible to have an intelligent system – equipped with AI and data analytics – that can make suggestions to officers based on their search patterns, and to reveal important leads on criminal patterns that they may have missed. For instance, the platform can predict that a sudden surge in the smuggling of one drug may be caused by successful police crackdowns on another similar drug, leaving smugglers scrambling to find an alternative product.

Building trust

Furthermore, a ‘platform of platforms’ will be inherently secure, built on the blockchain to ensure that users really are who they say they are. With the recent Singapore healthcare records hack still fresh on everyone’s minds, trust in this platform will be of utmost importance.

This was a point clearly made by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative, at the recent Alibaba Cloud Summit. He shared how an oil embargo in 1973 had affected supplies across the world, and then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had promised not to touch any of the oil supply kept in the offshore tanks and refineries surrounding Singapore. This mid-crisis assurance to international oil CEOs bolstered deep confidence, which lasts to this day: “This was why, over the years, the oil majors have continued to invest big sums of money into Singapore.”

Fast-forward to today, where all the Internet majors - Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook - have data centres in Singapore, he continued. “That ability to be an honest, reliable, neutral, and safe pair of hands is just as important 50 years ago for oil, as it is now for the next 50 - the next century - for data,” Dr Balakrishnan mused.

It is not enough for Singapore to be a Smart Nation. There are many constraints that this country faces: a lack of natural resources and an ageing population are just two of them. To keep forging ahead, the country must go beyond a Smart Nation to become an enabler, and cement its position as a key global player.

Hong Eng Koh is the Global Chief Public Safety Scientist at Huawei Technologies. He works with ministers, police commissioners and public safety leaders around the world, helping them use cutting-edge technologies.

Koh started his career at the Singapore Police Force, rising up the ranks to serve as the Head of Computer Systems for eight years. During this time, he implemented pioneering platforms for criminal investigations, casualty management, investigations and vehicle screening. After the police force, he spent a total of 15 years as Global Lead for Justice and Public Safety at Oracle and Sun Microsystems.