How ‘serverless’ has enabled heritage sector innovation in Singapore
By Yong Shu Chiang
As public-sector agencies strive to meet changing customer needs, the National Heritage Board has embraced a serverless strategy to shape the future of the heritage and museum sector. GovInsider hears from the Board’s Chief Information Officer, Mohamed Hardi, about its journey towards innovation and resilience.
With a lean team and budget, NHB's Chief Information Officer Mohamed Hardi has found that adopting a serverless architecture has enabled his team to deliver immersive 'phygital' heritage experiences for customers. Image: Public Sector Day Singapore
Two years ago, Mohamed Hardi assessed the business challenges his organisation faced.
At Singapore’s National Heritage Board (NHB), where Hardi is Chief Information Officer and Director of IT, there were tight timelines – projects in one year included eight special exhibitions and one new permanent exhibition – that needed to be met.
Having a lean team and budget, and tasked with driving digital adoption and customer participation, NHB took a “conscious decision” to centralise its ICT operations and go “serverless” in 2021.
Speaking at October’s Public Sector Day Singapore, hosted by GovInsider and AWS, Hardi shared that at NHB, “almost everything today is 100 per cent on cloud. But putting things on the cloud doesn’t automatically mean it is going to [solve all your business challenges].
“We’re very fortunate to have very good partners such as NCS, AWS and GovTech,” he added, having previously told GovInsider that heritage needs to “remain relevant in the digital age.”
Serverless enables service delivery without infrastructure management
“Public-sector agencies tell us that they’re always looking for ways to innovate and meet the ever-changing needs of the public,” said Indra Hartanto, a Solution Architect for Worldwide Public Sector with Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Speaking at the same session, Hartanto shared that agencies are also concerned with being secure, resilient and
compliant, and being able to respond quickly to events and insights, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.
“They need to be able to do all these and yet still have a very cost-efficient solution,” he said.
Adopting a serverless architecture is one way to build and run applications and services without having to manage infrastructure, according to AWS. While applications still run on servers, all the server management is done by the serverless architecture provider.
Cost savings associated with going serverless, such as from not having to manage infrastructure on premises or in the cloud, were a factor in NHB’s decision-making, acknowledged Hardi. “We needed to save cost, but not at the expense of people and the infrastructure," he added.
Serverless adoption is on the rise
According to Hartanto, serverless services are growing fast today, with hundreds of thousands of AWS customers executing Lambda, a compute service that lets teams run code without having to provision, scale or maintain servers, trillions of times a month.
He shared that serverless services help simplify the management and scaling of cloud applications by shifting undifferentiated operational tasks – resource-heavy tasks that don’t directly contribute to business growth and customer experience – to the cloud provider.
Developmental teams can then focus more time on writing code that can solve strategic business problems.
“You can manage less, build fast, innovate more and reduce costs with serverless,” he said.
To streamline, automate and optimise NHB’s operations, Hardi and his team have been leveraging on native AWS capabilities such as Lambda, Location Service, and Kendra Search, as well as AWS resource augmentation.
‘Phygital’ heritage experiences and exhibitions-as-a-service
NHB is now able to deliver engaging and distinctive experiences by blending both physical and digital methods, also known as “phygital” experiences. It does so by tapping on 5G connectivity, edge compute, generative artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.
This has resulted in immersive experiences that leverage augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR), as well as gamification of exhibits. Automation also eliminates the need for high manpower to deliver these experiences.
“When we now hold an exhibition, it’s an exhibition that’s ‘as-a-service',” said Hardi, highlighting the recent Singapore Night Festival, which featured a gamified web application for a night walk experience, and LKY100 Digital Trail, which used AR-based image recognition at digital touchpoints.
Hardi noted that a recent Founders’ Memorial Special Exhibition was NHB's first fully on-cloud exhibition.
“It’s our first [exhibition] where we put interactivity, RFID sensors, IoT audio-visuals, the whole thing on the Government on Commercial Cloud. If you had gone to look [into the IT operations], you would have found nothing except a Mac Mini computer and a 5G connection!”
Serverless technology also forms the backbone of NHB’s digital ticketing and bulk-booking systems, which can scale dynamically to meet high traffic when needed and do so with a high level of reliability and resilience.
Continuing to transform, continuing to share learnings
Adopting serverless has allowed NHB to bring a product “live” quickly, from concept to production. In the past, building an exhibition from the ground up took between six and nine months typically. Now, some exhibitions can be put together more efficiently tapping serverless on cloud.
Looking ahead, Hardi said that NHB is exploring the use of generative AI and edge robotics to tailor recommendations and deliver personalised interactions in a conversational manner, based on data insights.
Having pioneered its phygital approach, Hardi added that NHB was prepared to take on a leadership role in the Southeast Asia region, by continuing to push boundaries and sharing the lessons learned.
In his closing remarks at Public Sector Day Singapore, Hardi said that NHB’s serverless journey “doesn’t end here” and that “we think we can still continue to transform the heritage sector”, to create more memorable cutting-edge experiences.
Reflecting on the journey, he said, “When you start looking at [transforming] something, you need to think about what you want to do – think big. But you also need to act fast and start small. Get your users on board and get those small successes to drive the way you want to do it.”