Countries around the world are embarking on digital transformation to boost economies and revive public services. While some countries continue to languish in the analog process and struggle to enter this digital age, others are setting new standards and accelerating the pace of innovation.
From preserving the greenery of the city-state to eliminating manual processes in agriculture, Singapore is one such country that has actively infused technology into the fabric of society. However, questions arise about the desirability of digitizing as much as possible and what the best model for digital transformation might be. IT Professionals Visited several projects in the island nation over the course of a week to see how Singapore is leading the world in digitalisation.
Using Technology to Protect Green Plants
Due to its location on the equator, Singapore enjoys a summer-like climate all year round and is dominated by tropical rainforests and mangroves. It is officially claimed to be one of the greenest cities in the world. Travelers arriving at the airport are immediately struck by the greenery of Singapore, with trees lining every road and plants crawling in designated spaces on either side of buildings. Over the years, Singapore has transformed its ethos from a “garden city” to a “city in a garden”, bathed in tropical vegetation – underscored by 7 million trees, 2 million of which are planted in the urban area.
In fact, the work of the National Parks Board (NParks) has already been done to tend to 3,347 hectares of nature reserves, as well as 400 parks and gardens. To help, said Tan Chong Lee, assistant chief executive officer of NParks, it aims to create a technology ecosystem by digitizing a range of processes.
An NParks employee taps a tree with a metal hammer to determine its health
The group created digital twins of urban trees by combining light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology with machine learning. This allows NParks to inspect its trees remotely and manage them better as it simulates growth or monitors carbon sequestration. Employees can regularly inspect their trees through the office’s remote access software, Lee said. Additionally, wireless tree tilt sensors attached to some trees will alert NParks if there is any sudden tree movement if the tree has been uprooted.
If any trees require physical access, NParks deploys its contractor fleet management system, which monitors the contractor’s vehicle location and work progress via video. The nearest contractor can be alerted to a tree and fix any problems. From there, they were able to monitor the tree’s health using a drone or tree drill connected to a tablet. TreesG software also allows the public to plant, plan and search trees through its website. The public can even leave a “Treemail” to post photos and comments.
Mowing the lawn has also gone digital. NParks has grass height sensors installed on its employees or vehicles and paired with autonomous lawn mowers. Once the grass has grown to a certain height, the mower is ready to go. It claims this saves 70% manpower over manual mowing. It also uses radio frequency identification (RFID) to verify its factory inventory.
NParks robot helps tourists and lets them know when it’s time to go home
Chong Lee revealed that these various forms of technology were developed in-house before being shared with NParks partners. He suggested the systems were also shared with other countries, but declined to name them.
Smart cities start with smart neighborhoods
Singapore is also developing its first smart district in order to decentralize major business districts caused by traffic congestion, explained James Tan. Tan is director of the sensors and IoT team at digital transformation agency GovTech and JTC, the agency responsible for industrial advancement in Singapore.
Tan said the Punggol Digital District (PDD) in northeast Singapore covers about 50 hectares, which is “not very big”. The region’s goal is for high-tech companies to move in and start new businesses, with the goal of creating 28,000 new jobs.
The drive goes hand-in-hand with the Open Digital Platform (ODP), an intelligent district operating system, which agencies aim to deploy by January 2025. This is essentially a platform that connects sensors and IoT devices across an area, allowing them to be controlled from a single user interface (UI). The agencies aim to introduce artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to transform ODPs into digital twins to help make better decisions.
It will be the first time a district will be equipped with software to power it and manage how smart systems work together. The ODP aims to unify a range of separate functions, including smart parking systems, cleaning robots, smart grids, and more. It is already operating at two of JTC’s properties, including a building in the West Jurong area. In a demonstration, the platform was able to control door locks, delivery robots and cool the temperature in a room.
Tan highlights how it could be used in the new Punggol district; it can provide data on anything from local traffic to water levels. The idea is that by combining different data streams, it can help businesses and local authorities be better prepared.For example, if there is high water in the area, the platform will combine this with the weather forecast to see if there will be flooding issues
Tan (pictured) shows how weather data and water levels can be combined in JTC’s digital twin to predict flooding
Integrating smart systems could provide the public sector with significant cost savings, he added. Fewer people are required to physically check the system, as this can be done through the platform. Companies can also connect with the system to streamline business operations. For example, last-mile delivery companies like Amazon can connect to the platform and help their robots get into buildings to complete deliveries.
However, Tan admits that cybersecurity was the team’s primary concern when creating the platform. “They’re very concerned about what happens if your command and control system gets hacked,” he said. It is part of the design principles of the platform that each siled system must continue to function if the overall system fails, Tan added.
As for whether the project wants to integrate tree data from NParks, Tan said they could bring tree information onto the platform, but only with JTC data. He questioned how useful “external data” would be, and was skeptical about blending datasets together. It was an early hint that, while institutions in Singapore are making progress, digitization within the island nation may not be as collaborative.
Feeding Fish Using Artificial Intelligence
Singapore imports 90 percent of its food and 10 percent of its production includes vegetables and fish. Because of this imbalance, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) was established in 2019 with the goal of increasing domestic production by 30% by 2030, or “30 x 30”.
To help fish farmers increase production, SFA’s Marine Aquaculture Center (MAC) has partnered with GovTech’s Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Division (DSAID) to develop a tool that counts rotifers.
Rotifers are an important part of large fish hatcheries and are the zooplankton used to feed the fish. They only live for 72 hours, and a disruption in supply can cause significant loss of any fish harvest. On St. John’s Island, DSAID and SFA are developing a mobile app that will count rotifers in images of water samples taken from fry ponds. The process would take 40 minutes if done manually, but only once using the app. The AI tool uses the open source library yolov3 to train and label images, hosted on the cloud.
By applying AI, the process of counting rotifers will be shortened from 40 minutes to 1 minute
GovTech software engineer Tan Kai Wei revealed that it took up to six months to develop the tool. He emphasized that because it’s based on open-source code, institutions don’t have to build an AI engine from scratch. All they need to do is train the model. It lacks some features, such as an authentication layer, although Tan emphasized that they could add a layer in the future if they wanted to. Deployment is planned for three to six months, and they hope farmers will be able to use the app to count rotifers based on images they capture on their smartphones.
An island that embraces technology
This digital anthology provides a glimpse into how Singapore is going through an exciting phase of digital transformation in its public sector. However, it is worth considering whether it is necessary to digitize everything – and digitize to the nth level.
For example, is there really a need for a sensor to measure the height of the grass to know when a park needs to be cut? Given Singapore’s tropical climate year-round, it may be easier and more cost-effective to set a simple schedule.
Alternatively, one might question whether many innovations will ever come, given the security and privacy concerns that must be overcome to build and launch a smart city IT infrastructure. Given the costs involved, it’s also important to consider whether a business is actually installing sensors into every corner of a building. While it may look flashy and attractive to visitors, organizations may find that there is a lack of immediate ROI.
Also tied to this abundance of technology is the fact that each government agency seems to be working on different projects in different ways—giving the impression that technological transformation is being pulled in different directions. While it is true that each agency knows best – using their own data to build systems to solve the specific problems they face – this can also lead to inefficiencies. As each agency chooses its own path, it is not clear to what extent these tools and systems will be interoperable across the public sector, or whether workloads and functions may be duplicating unnecessarily.
Opting for a federalized approach, rather than a centralized one, creates a sense that the agencies are competing with each other, thus injecting technology into nearly every process. That said, Singapore is comfortably ahead of many of its international peers and is confident in its approach. It’s impressive how agencies work with GovTech’s soft guiding arm to develop their own tools to solve everyday problems. With more encouragement from digital transformation agencies, it will be exciting to see what happens next, and whether these systems can eventually be shared across various sectors of Singapore’s public sector.
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