Yinchuan shows how to become a smart city
To be a truly smart nation, Singapore needs to integrate standards, sectors and views
The city of Yinchuan, on the edge of the Gobi Desert in north-western China, is a place few people may have heard of.
Yet, Yinchuan offers us a glimpse of the future - this is where some of the most advanced smart city technology is being implemented.
In Yinchuan, everything from buses to dustbins, schools to streetlights, is integrated into a unified and incredibly powerful system, with immediate benefits for the city and its residents.
The municipal government leverages this unprecedented inter-connectivity across the city's technological infrastructure to drive major improvements in the efficiency of city administration.
For example, entrepreneurs in Yinchuan can register a new business in as little as 24 hours, because the approval process is streamlined into a regulatory and licensing one-stop shop set up in city hall.
Relevant information from regulators, banks and other relevant parties is instantly aggregated, saving applicants' time and hassle.
In the past, this whole process would have taken weeks or even months.
Singapore is quite rightly viewed as a global leader in the development of the smart city concept, but as it continues to develop its ambitious Smart Nation roadmap, there is much to learn from the experience of global test-beds like Yinchuan.
Yinchuan's experience shows us that the smart cities of the future must be built on three core pillars of integration.
First is the integration of standards.
Granted, for the average man on the street, infocomms technology (ICT) standards are a deeply esoteric and unengaging concept, often ignored in favour of buzzword-friendly concepts like Internet of Things or Machine-to-Machine.
But the reality is that these standards are a critical element of the infrastructure underpinning 21st-century economies.
Imagine a scenario where iPhones cannot receive calls or messages from Android phones.
It would be chaos. Yet, this is the challenge that builders, buyers and users of smart city technology face every day.
In Yinchuan, the city authorities had to ensure the technological solutions were interconnected, interoperable and efficient.
From sensors and software, to data sets and network systems, everything needed to work together seamlessly.
This may sound like an obvious point, but achieving it is far from easy.
Just as you can't tell everyone in your office tomorrow to switch from Android phones to iPhones, so we cannot implement a top-down diktat on the systems and technologies that corporations and public sector entities use.
Instead, the most successful smart city systems are built on a set of clear but open standards that unleash the tremendous potential of new technology by tying together the highly fragmented, sometimes conflicting, sets of industry standards of the rapidly evolving ICT landscape.
Second is the integration of strategies, both public and private. The only way that an effective smart city strategy can be implemented is through PPP (public-private partnership) integration.
You wouldn't expect your local MP to draft your business strategy for next year.
Yet, many companies sit on the sidelines while government agencies draft and develop smart city development plans that will directly impact their businesses.
This simply doesn't make sense. While Singapore is to be commended for involving industry players as partners in the development of national standards, these do not amount to much if they are not being implemented by enterprises, and if customers do not know what to expect from merchants.
More effort should be made by government and industry to educate consumers and businesses about their importance.
Greater public awareness will empower customers to be informed buyers and users of smart technologies, and make businesses more globally competitive.
Third, is the integration of views and opinions of the city's own residents.
If we have learnt one thing from recent surprises on the global stage, from Brexit to Mr Donald Trump's surge to victory, it is that macro-level strategy is increasingly being driven by what is happening on a micro-level.
It has never been more important to engage with the man or woman on the street - their buy-in determines success.
Smart technologies can help make this input process even more efficient and easily actionable.
In Yinchuan's smart communities, residents can feedback directly to the town council through terminals, which in turn collect medical and education data.
Government officials then augment relevant infrastructure such as security cameras, water filters and heating systems based on this data to improve quality of life in their communities.
So we should ask ourselves, are we holding the Smart Nation vision to a high standard?
Singapore is already recognised as an urban policy thought leader and a smart city benchmark for other countries to emulate, as evidenced by initiatives such as the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City in China, and Amaravati in India.
We must continue to play a key role in how the smart city concept develops.
Singapore's relatively small market and its reliance on trade and innovation-driven industries means that it is well-positioned to serve as a global knowledge and production hub of smart technologies.
This outward-facing economic policy means that Singapore's inventors, whether they are in a start-up, a large factory or a laboratory, will need to comply with global standards in order to export their ideas, products and services to the world.
We are still laying the groundwork for our smart city - it is essential that this foundation will support the homes and businesses we will build together in the future.
In these early days, the world is watching closely how Singapore will fulfil its Smart Nation vision.
It is imperative that we set the tone for the rest of the world in employing a forward-thinking, inclusive approach to standardisation that can serve as the model and high watermark for cities the world over.
This article appears in The Straits Times today. The writer is executive vice-president & head of the Government and Enterprise Business Group of ZTE Corporation, an infocomms technology solutions provider.