Any ecosystem requires a delicate balance to flourish and grow, with flora and fauna co-existing in harmony. But it just takes one species to go extinct, and the balance is disrupted forever.

Similarly, governments need to consider how various decisions and policies can have that ripple effect on communities, infrastructure and environments. Here, geospatial technology can provide a bird’s-eye view of entire cities, allowing agencies to “simulate how growth in the city would impact surroundings”, says Thomas Pramotedham, CEO of Esri Singapore.

As Singapore forges ahead with its Smart Nation vision, it is crucial to design digital services and policies “based on where things are and how they relate to each other”, Pramotedham says. “It starts with geospatial being a foundational platform where IoT and sensors and big data analysis happen.”

Planning for 2050

Broadly, there are four ways that geospatial technology is an essential tool for smart city development. First, it enables policy development and long-term planning, as it is allowing Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to think decades ahead and develop integrated plans for land use policies.

“You model a world, you look at it, you are able to bring in the other elements that operate in this world that we live in,” he explains. URA’s planners harness geospatial technology to analyse the interdependent relationships between residents, jobs, and transport on particular plots of land.

This way, they will be able to have a deeper understanding of the impact of population growth, for example, Pramotedham says. “The conversation of ‘where’ is a key component in answering some of these questions.”

Understanding future needs

Second, geospatial insights are key to addressing citizens’ needs. A dense country such as Singapore needs public transport systems to be as efficient as possible; the Land Transport Authority (LTA) is using spatial analytics to manage commuter load.

The agency uses a platform called PLANET to map and analyse hotspots of passenger crowding on public buses during peak hours; study commuter travel patterns; and delve into public transport accessibility and capacity planning, Pramotedham says. By understanding the geographical aspects of commuter trends and patterns, LTA can develop effective policies to improve transport programmes.

Next, a Smart Nation must also look to build communities that are inclusive. For example, Singapore is planning how housing estates of the future can cater for both young families and a rapidly growing elderly population. The Housing Development Board can “determine if you should have more child care centres within the public system, or should you have secondary care centres in order to support the ageing population”, Pramotedham explains.

Skills for a Smart Nation

Finally, developing talent and skills are crucial for a smart community. Geography can help people understand and solve the “worst problems” they face, he says. “Spatial thinking” is a critical skill, he adds, because it can “change the way we look at a problem”.

Esri is working with the Ministry of Education to introduce spatial thinking in secondary school curriculums. “When we start teaching spatial problem-solving early to the younger generation, they grow up knowing that spatial thinking can be a way to solve their problems,” he says.

Students will have access to a “much lighter version” of Esri’s geospatial tool, which is more accessible and easily understood, to help them understand concepts and how it can be used for problem-solving, Pramotedham says.

Singapore has ‘big picture’ ambitions to achieve its Smart Nation vision. But it takes a keen eye to zoom in closer and examine the subtle ways that any one decision can influence whole communities, systems and environments. A key takeaway for governments is this: the ‘where’ can answer the ‘why’ or ‘how’.

Image by Bernard SpraggCC0 1.0