Ow Siew Ngim, Director of Streetscape, NParks, Singapore

By Ming En Liew

Women in GovTech Special Report 2021.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

The National Parks Board (NParks) is the lead agency for greenery and conservation, and has provided pervasive greenery along our roads as a signature of our tropical city over the years. We currently manage over 2 million urban trees and many green spaces, including nature reserves, gardens, streetscapes and park connectors.

NParks has leveraged science and technology for many years. In January 2020, we put together a Science & Technology Masterplan that consolidates efforts in research and adoption of technology for various workstreams. This was done in tandem with a Digitalisation Masterplan, which guides us on the use of technological tools and the digitalisation of work processes.

This enabled decision-making informed by science, improved operational efficiency, and improved readiness to harness emerging technological solutions to be future-ready. Coupled with a focus on building the capacity of NParks and the landscape industry, this forged closer collaboration between NParks, industry partners, institutes and community stakeholders.

Our efforts to ensure that science and technology underpin NParks’ work is fundamental in allowing us to adapt to emerging challenges in today’s climate. It is also key to realising Singapore’s City in Nature vision – to further integrate nature into our city and strengthen our distinctiveness as a highly liveable city, while mitigating the impacts of urbanisation and climate change.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

NParks has leveraged technology for the last 20 years for our tree inventory, inspection and maintenance. Recently, we have been harnessing smart digital technologies and embedding them into our urban infrastructure to solve tangible problems and improve people’s quality of life.

This year, we are piloting some of these technologies in our parks, gardens and streetscapes, as a new model of park and greenery management. For example, we digitalised our tree management programme, which complements physical tree inspection and maintenance. This includes remotely monitoring tree tilt and identifying tree management needs for timely interventions.

We are also implementing an integrated management system to automate monitoring and control of multiple systems. Some of these systems include sensors that determine if a wastebin needs to be emptied or if a toilet needs to be cleaned. This digitalisation enhances park maintenance, field operations, improves the effectiveness of tree risk management, and streamlines work processes. It also allows us to sustain the management of an increasing tree population as well as mitigate the risks of tree incidents, especially in view of more adverse weather conditions due to climate change.

What is one unexpected learning from 2021?

NParks’ work covers a wide range of areas including parks and trees management, biodiversity management, and the Animal & Veterinary Service. As such, I work closely with colleagues who are handling very diverse matters in their fields. I am blown away by the work that everyone is doing, especially in the field of biodiversity management.

For example, their work in conserving rare or threatened native species in Singapore through various species recovery programmes or habitat enhancement efforts. This is a story about how passionate people can come together to achieve our goal of conserving Singapore’s natural heritage for future generations using a science-based approach.

What’s your favourite memory from the past year?

One of my favourite memories from the past year was when we launched the digitalisation plans for the landscape sector earlier this year. This includes the pilot of various digital technologies to manage greenery and parks in the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio area. It involves stepping out of our comfort zone to work with professionals in other disciplines, such as technology and research. The obstacles we overcame together during the journey helped build up strong camaraderie among team members, which gave me a strong sense of belonging and fulfilment.

What’s a tool or technique you’re excited to explore in 2022?

We are currently working on a remote sensing tool to analyse tree health using satellite imagery. This will enable us to quickly detect unhealthy trees for timely intervention. It is exciting because working on this is like a jigsaw puzzle challenge, where all the pieces are just waiting to be put together to complete the picture.

What are your priorities for 2022?

Work-life balance and having a healthy lifestyle. With the demand of heavy work commitments, I find it difficult to set aside time to exercise, but I have recently set aside some time to start an exercise regime of doing short cardio workouts. I also try to do longer workout sessions during NParks’ “active hour”, where staff are encouraged to take some time off their work to exercise every Friday.

Who or what inspires you?

A person who inspires me is Dr Leong Chee Chiew, Commissioner of Parks & Recreation at NParks. He showed me that by believing in something, we can make it happen. He also taught me that having a personal conviction makes a difference.

When it comes to digitalisation and technology, there may be some people who need some time to adapt to new ways of working. Some may even doubt whether a new system or tool will work. Most times, I visualise how new technological tools will work from the very start of a project, and even when it is being developed or after it is developed. I am committed to help others adapt to these new technologies. It is a very challenging journey, but also a very exciting future to work towards.