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Why Singapore Is Consistently Regarded as Asia’s Smartest City

by internationalbanker

By Alexander Jones, International Banker


Every year, the Swiss business school International Institute for Management Development (IMD) publishes its “Smart City Index”, a comprehensive assessment of smart cities that has become perhaps the world’s most highly regarded. According to its 2024 annual ranking of the world’s 142 smartest cities, Singapore is the smartest city in Asia and the fifth smartest in the world. And given the significant efforts that the Southeast Asian city-state has made over the last 10 years to continue innovating and evolving, its lofty ranking seems entirely justified.

In many ways, the advancement of smart cities represents the next stage of the evolution of urban areas, with the “Smart City Index” grading and ranking that evolution by, firstly, the economic and technological aspects of the cities and, secondly, their “humane dimensions”, including quality of life, environmental progress and inclusiveness. Although Singapore’s latest world ranking represents a slight decline from the top spot it commanded from 2019 to 2021, it is also an improvement from the seventh position, to which it slipped last year.

Asia’s smartest city has much to boast about in terms of urban innovation, especially since the 2014 commencement of Smart Nation, a government initiative that has transformed the city-state into a tech-driven sustainability powerhouse. Smart Nation has been pivotal in launching a number of strategic projects that leverage the latest technologies to improve the lives of—and interactions between—Singaporeans, businesses and the government. It was founded on three key pillars:

  1. A digital society whereby interconnectedness is a founding principle to improve and empower all Singapore citizens to succeed, irrespective of their differences and circumstances. The government is facilitating this inclusiveness by:
  • making technology more accessible to every Singaporean,
  • improving Singaporeans’ digital literacy,
  • helping local communities and businesses drive the widespread adoption of technology,
  • designing inclusive digital services.
  1. A digital economy that takes advantage of the latest technologies to digitalise processes and drive business growth. In turn, this is doing much to attract foreign investment and create new jobs and opportunities for those in Singapore.

“Singapore’s pro-business environment, excellent tech infrastructure, close connectivity to major Asian economies, as well as the availability of investment puts us in a good position to develop a strong Digital Economy,” the Smart Nation website explains, highlighting three key strategies being pursued under its Digital Economy Framework:

  • Digitalise every industry and every business to raise productivity and efficiencies and thus ultimately accelerate Singapore’s economic growth.
  • Sharpen Singapore’s competitive edge by developing an ecosystem that supports companies in leveraging digital technology.
  • Transform Singapore’s information and communications technology (ICT) media industry into a key growth driver for Singapore’s digital economy.
  1. A digital government that is “digital to the core and serves with heart”. Digitalisation is regarded as a highly effective means for the government to serve its citizens in a more inclusive, seamless and personal manner and deliver more empathic services for all. “As we embark on this new phase of Digital Government, the Government will continue its efforts to drive the digital transformation of our economy, as well as to help Singaporeans achieve digital access, literacy, and participation, so that we can seize new opportunities in an increasingly digital world as a Smart Nation,” according to the government’s Digital Blueprint.

The Blueprint also issued 15 key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the government’s progress in digitalisation, including:

  • stakeholder satisfaction KPIs for citizens and businesses with digital services,
  • end-to-end digital options such as e-payment services that are pre-filled with government-verified data and digital wet-ink signatures,
  • end-to-end digital transactions and payments,
  • digital capabilities of public officers trained in data analytics, data science and basic digital literacy,
  • transformative digital projects,
  • the issuance and usage of AI (artificial intelligence), data and data analytics projects by Ministry families,
  • the promotion of commercial cloud migration for eligible government systems.

More recently, the Blueprint intensified its digitalisation drive to create policies that are more personalised and responsive to user behaviours and more focused on users’ needs while making deeper changes in organisational policy, structure and culture in light of the COVID pandemic.

To achieve this myriad of smart-city objectives and advance Singapore’s smart-city credentials, a raft of projects and smart technologies involving both the government and the private sector have been introduced over the last 10 years.

The Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP), for instance, is an integrated nationwide platform that uses sensors to collect essential data that can then be analysed to create suitable smart solutions. One application being piloted under this initiative is the use of wireless sensors to collect water data transmitted from smart meters in residents’ homes, with the testing results showing that smart meters can help homeowners save water by providing near real-time water-usage data and detecting water leaks through a mobile app. Another involves sensors and infrared cameras installed in swimming pools across Singapore to detect possible drowning incidents and alert lifeguards so they can react faster to swimmers in distress.

Launching this year, moreover, is the Punggol Digital District (PDD), a “smart district” that brings together industry and academia as part of a new, vibrant digital community. “PDD is designed with an integrated master plan to encourage innovative interaction that can lead to creative ideas and solutions for the community and industry,” according to Smart Nation, which notes that the district will house key growth sectors and businesses driving the digital economy, such as cybersecurity and the Internet of Things (IoT). It has been estimated that the PDD will bring around 28,000 jobs to Punggol and Singapore’s northeast region. “At the heart of this plan is the intention to bring academia, industry and community together to create a ‘smart’ space to live, work and play.”

The introduction of several electronic-payment (e-payment) systems, meanwhile, is helping to make financial transactions more seamless and efficient for all of Singapore’s 5.6 million citizens, as well as international visitors.

  • FAST (Fast and Secure Transfers), launched in 2014, facilitates direct, real-time transfers between consumers and businesses across different banks.
  • PayNow, implemented in 2017, enables real-time, peer-to-peer transfers between customers of participating banks by entering mobile or personal identification numbers. And PayNow Corporate, launched one year later, allows businesses and government agencies to pay and receive funds instantly using Unique Entity Numbers (UENs).
  • The NETS (Network for Electronic Transfers) e-payment solution covers 200 coffee shops, 25 hawker centres and 20 industrial canteens. The Singapore Quick Response Code (SGQR) enables merchants to accept QR (quick-response) codes to complete mobile payments from different service providers.

These facilities are making transactions more convenient and effortless right across the city-state.

Health is also a major consideration for Singapore, especially given that the number of elderly citizens has been projected to reach 900,000 by 2030 (from an estimated 718,000 in 2023). Combined with Singapore’s consistently low birth rates, this equates to a progressively increasing burden of care for seniors. As such, smart technologies are being increasingly regarded as crucial healthcare solutions to cope with this burden over the coming years.

  • Assistive technology and robotic healthcare solutions help seniors and those with disabilities become more mobile.
  • HealthHub, a one-stop health portal, lets Singaporeans conveniently access their medical records and browse useful health tips, articles and news.
  • The Healthy 365 mobile app enables the integration of wearable step-tracker technology. Combined with Smart Nation’s National Steps Challenge, this is helping to encourage Singaporeans to lead healthier, more active lifestyles.
  • Project Pensieve, an exciting new pilot screening tool, can detect early signs of dementia by analysing a user’s drawings.
  • Singapore Eye Lesion Analyser (SELENA+), a deep-learning AI software system, can accurately and efficiently detect potentially threatening eye conditions.

The development of smart cities is also informed by the intense degree of urbanisation that is expected over the coming decades, in part due to the rapid economic development that will see certain parts of the world, particularly developing Asia, move from rural areas to cities to seek higher-income opportunities. Climate change will play a major role in expediting these trends, with a World Bank report published in September 2021 forecasting that more than 200 million people—or around one in every 45 people in the world—will migrate over the next 30 years due to extreme weather events and/or the climate-induced depletion of their local environments. Poor and marginalised groups will be disproportionately impacted by climate change, moreover.

The world’s smartest cities over the coming years will undoubtedly be the ones that can anticipate such trends and successfully champion green urban development for long-term habitation. As a densely populated jurisdiction itself, Singapore knows this only too well. In 2021, it announced the development of a smart eco-city, Tengah, in the west of the state, which is set to be entirely vehicle-free. Dubbed “Forest Town”, Tengah will include a long forest corridor 100 metres wide and 5 kilometres long. It will house 5 districts of 42,000 homes, as well as establish safe zones for both pedestrians and cyclists, including many walking and cycling paths.


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