The future commute: How wearables, data analytics and assistive technology are transforming Singapore's public transportation

By Ming En Liew

Jeffrey Sim, Group Chief Executive Officer of SBS Transit, on how the Singapore-based public transport company is partnering with technology providers like Huawei to develop a more efficient and inclusive public transportation.

Jeffrey Sim, Group Chief Executive Officer of SBS Transit, speaking at Huawei's Tech4City dialogue on technology's role in building efficient, inclusive and sustainable public transportation. Image: Huawei

What would public transportation look like in an ideal city? Imagine trains and buses that arrive where and when they are needed, without fail and without human intervention. Such transportation would also be designed such that all segments of a city’s population can easily travel on it, including vulnerable groups like the elderly and those with disabilities.

It is this vision that Singapore-based public transport provider SBS Transit hopes to achieve. “We want to be more than just a very safe and reliable operator,” says Jeffrey Sim, Group Chief Executive Officer of SBS Transit. “We are also focussed on improving the customer experience to delight our commuters and in so doing, promote the use of public transport as an inclusive and sustainable public transport operator,” he explains.

And one way it hopes to do so is through the integration of tech to achieve their mission of operational excellence and inclusivity. On the side of Huawei’s Tech4City second dialogue session, GovInsider sat down with Sim to hear about the different ways tech is being used to improve public transport efficiency and inclusivity on Singapore’s public transport network.

Driving efficiency with wearable tech

SBS Transit is trialling the use of wearable technology to improve not only employee efficiency but also the quality of maintenance carried out on its fleet of vehicles, Sim shares. This includes smart goggles and watches, developed in partnership with telecommunications giant Huawei.

Today, SBS Transit sends maintenance teams out in pairs to ensure the safety of its staff. “But imagine if you had a watch that’s able to let the Operations Control Centre know exactly where you are and that you are also working well on your own. This means you don’t really need to have two people working on a task together which translates to efficiency,” he explains.

Besides watches, SBS Transit is also exploring the use of smart goggles for its frontline customer service officers. At the moment, they are equipped with basic troubleshooting and maintenance knowledge to handle faults to minimise train delays. But with the complexity of these systems, they may encounter scenarios which they are not familiar with.

With smart goggles, the frontline workers can have the full weight of the Operations Control Centre assisting them, Sim says. The backend staff or system specialist will be able to view the equipment and consoles right where they are without making the physical trip down to the site of the fault, and be able to guide the frontline staff accordingly; enabling quicker repairs and minimising inconvenience for passengers.

“Our partnership with Huawei brings together domain expertise with technology expertise to create solutions that benefit not only us but other operators and even the industry as well,” added Sim.

Data analytics for cost efficiency

As a public transportation service provider, SBS Transit is consciously aware of keeping transport affordable for the commuting public. “We are very mindful about keeping our costs down which is the impetus to constantly explore technologies to boost efficiency and be effective in our business,” he explains.

For this reason, SBS Transit works with numerous technology partners to implement solutions that can improve its cost efficiency.

For one, it is exploring the use of a data analytics model which uses information on crowd level at stations to determine the frequency of trains. Adjusting the train frequencies based on projected passenger demand reduces wastage of resources like energy and manpower.

SBS Transit is also working with Singapore start-up VIZZIO to develop virtual patrolling capabilities. Currently, station staff physically patrol the premises at different times of the day. But with the integration of IoT sensors and 360-degree live cameras, staff will be able to conduct 3D virtual patrols at all times.

Anomalies such as unattended baggage or unlocked doors or even situations of commuters requiring assistance can then be easily picked up, Sim explains.

Assistive tech for inclusivity

With millions taking public transport daily in Singapore, SBS Transit needs to ensure that their services cater to various commuter segments which include the elderly and those with disabilities. To do so, the team is constantly on a lookout for assistive technology, Sim says.

For instance, SBS Transit is also working with Waymap, a UK start-up company to co-develop an innovative application called Waymap-SG, which will be able to assist the visually impaired navigate train stations, bus interchanges and surrounding areas through audio commands. It does this without the need for external beacons and network infrastructure which are required in solutions currently available in the market today and can often be costly. This means a more cost-effective solution as SBS Transit broadens its efforts as an inclusive public transport operator.  

The public transport provider also works closely with social service agencies to make public transport more accessible and inclusive. One such partnership is with SG Enable, Singapore’s focal agency for people with disabilities.

Through SG Enable’s IdeAble platform, SBS Transit is actively involved in facilitating the ideation and co-creation of impactful solutions enabled by assistive technologies to promote inclusive travels on our public transportation network, Sim shares.

These partnerships and inclusive efforts extend beyond just the use of tech. For example, SBS Transit is collaborating with Dementia Singapore to implement wayfinding tools across select train stations and bus interchanges to support those living with dementia.

Under the “Find Your Way initiative, locations frequented by elderly passengers have been segmented into distinct zones with each represented by a different coloured nostalgic item. These zones are complemented with colour-coded directional floor stickers with corresponding images that point the way to the boarding berths or exits.

An image of a wooden water bucket marks one of the exits at Kovan MRT station, located in Northeastern Singapore. This wooden water bucket harks back to the area's famous water well where the nation's pioneers used to draw water from. Image: SBS Transit

“The decision to use nostalgic items come from studies which find that nostalgia can help trigger the memory of individuals living with dementia. Significantly, with a growing ageing population, “Find Your Way” promotes independence for them too”, Sim explains.

Fuelling the future of mobility in Singapore

As part of this year’s Huawei Tech4City Competition, participants have the option of developing tech solutions for the mobility sector. They could possibly explore using technology to create a more sustainable transportation network, or to improve the workplace for public transport workers.

To fuel innovation in this space, SBS Transit is sponsoring an additional cash prize of S$3,000 for the best innovation in mobility entry. This is on top of the top three spots and commendation prizes that Huawei is already presenting to the winners.

Huawei Tech4City competition seeks passionate youth with a desire to build an inclusive and sustainable Singapore with their tech innovations that could help improve productivity and sustainability in the areas of well-being, learning, mobility, finance, and energy, in line with initiatives such as the Digital for Life movement and SG Green Plan 2030.

Youth aged 18 to 35 who are interested, can form teams of between two and four members and sign up for the competition which closes on 23 July 2023. Each team must submit an original proposal to solve a social problem based on one of the competition’s five themes. 16 shortlisted teams will proceed to the semi-finals, where they will be assigned a mentor in preparation for a video submission on 20 August. After which, the top 8 finalists will be announced. 

The finals will be held in Singapore in September 2023, with each finalist presenting their solutions to the competition’s advisory council. The winning teams will be awarded cash prizes of S$15,000 (grand prize), S$8,000 (second prize), and S$5,000 (third prize). Teams that are placed in the fourth to eighth positions will also receive S$1,000 each in cash.

Find out more about the competition here.

This article is produced in partnership with Huawei.