Cas­sidy

Steve drinks in the sights of wannabe smart city Sin­ga­pore – and goes for a ride in a driver­less golf buggy

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Steve drinks in the sights of wannabe smart city Sin­ga­pore – and goes for a ride in a driver­less golf buggy ....................

eing in Sin­ga­pore on Star Wars day has more im­pact than it might in other places. This has both a sim­ple and a com­plex cause and, as I’m sure you can guess, I do like my com­plex causes. The sim­ple bit is that Lu­cas­film has a Sin­ga­pore oce (in the “Sand­crawler build­ing”, in­evitably) and there­fore a few props from the movies are easy to grab for an im­promptu street ex­hi­bi­tion.

The more com­pli­cated cause is that the Sin­ga­pore­ans have a huge in­ter­est and in­vest­ment in “the fu­ture”, which means they’re al­most in­evitably go­ing to be sci-fi geeks. Much to the amaze­ment of our vis­it­ing press pack, this en­thu­si­asm went far enough for the Su­pertree sculp­tures in the Gar­dens by the Bay to be tem­po­rar­ily con­verted into the largest “light sabres” in the world, with a col­lec­tion of stalls, ex­pe­ri­ences and photo-ops adorn­ing their bases. If you were com­pletely taken up in the event then you too could queue for 20 min­utes in 30-de­gree heat and 90% hu­mid­ity, to be pic­tured hug­ging a very tall man who’d spent many hours stand­ing there in a full-body Chew­bacca suit.

Now, I like the odd space opera, of course, but the party I was in wasn’t just there for the shindigs. We were sup­posed to be see­ing what the Sin­ga­pore gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to smart cities looks like, and in do­ing so pass on to any po­ten­tial busi­ness part­ners just how this makes ev­ery­thing Sin­ga­porean ideal for busi­ness and a bench­mark for civic pride, so­cial ser­vice and aca­demic ad­vance­ment. I should say up­front that their tar­get was cer­tainly at­tained – if any­thing, over-at­tained – while at the same time rais­ing is­sues about how tech­nol­ogy is taken up by gov­ern­ments and how dicult things get if you’re an early adopter. Take a look at my pic­ture below. Note the Star Wars robot thing (it’s an AT-ST, Steve... Ed.) and then let your eye roam over the Ma­rina Bay Sands ho­tel, which is the three tow­ers in the back­ground. De­spite the fact that Star Wars de­picts a cul­ture with a higher level of tech­nol­ogy than ours, it’s now get­ting on for four decades old as a work of imag­i­na­tion, and the robot ma­chine rather pales into ob­scu­rity be­side the as­ton­ish­ing size, de­sign, achieve­ment and style of Ma­rina Bay Sands. You can see all the facts and fig­ures at tinyurl.com/ y7x64qjy, but here’s a taster: 2,561 rooms, 1,300,000sq ft ex­hi­bi­tion cen­tre, and the world’s largest atrium casino.

There’s a grubby com­mer­cial over­tone to a ho­tel/casino run by a Las Ve­gas con­sor­tium busi­ness, but the same de­sire to make money un­der­lies the Star Wars fran­chise – whereas the out­look of the Sin­ga­pore gov­ern­ment, as ex­pressed in its pitches, couldn’t be more civic. From sev­eral days of con­ver­sa­tions and pre­sen­ta­tions, it’s clear that you can’t run a com­pletely con­verged on­line town un­less you can be rea­son­ably sure that ev­ery­one has ac­cess. You can’t do that with­out far­sighted ad­min­is­tra­tors and a pretty good war chest of cash, be­cause there’s just no es­cape from some­one hav­ing to pull many kilo­me­tres of fi­bre per build­ing, shift many tonnes of fur­ni­ture, and screw many wallplates into the con­crete.

From the de­scrip­tion by one chap, now men­tor­ing uni­ver­sity star­tups but pre­vi­ously an ad­min­is­tra­tor of the fi­bre roll­out, it’s im­por­tant to al­low for Sin­ga­pore­ans be­ing a grumpy, de­mand­ing and awk­ward lot. Which may go some way to ex­plain why the dark fi­bre in each apart­ment block (there are thou­sands, mostly tend­ing to­wards the enor­mous end of the scale) may well be owned by the gov­ern­ment, but Sin­ga­pore has 31 di¡er­ent ISPs.

This brings me to the punch line. It’s all the same fi­bre and it doesn’t go very far be­fore it dives in­side the na­tional in­fra­struc­ture through the same ac­cess point, ir­re­spec­tive of which ISP you choose, so how can those 31 com­pa­nies pos­si­bly di¡er­en­ti­ate, com­pete or even get peo­ple to make a de­ci­sion at all?

We were sup­posed to be hear­ing about startup in­cu­ba­tion, but the guy in charge of that de­part­ment of the uni­ver­sity had been in charge of the fi­bre roll­out, so as soon as it was my turn with the ques­tions, I went boots-in. It turned out this was his favourite sub­ject too: he con­fessed that no­body had re­ally pre­dicted the huge spread of firms that arose once Sin­ga­pore

was fully fi­bred. Some em­pha­sise low la­tency and easy com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween groups, to give gamers what they need. Oth­ers are bi­ased to­wards low-cost and min­i­mal ser­vices, to suit the older con­sumer. Some are very busi­ness ori­en­tated: how­ever you could change the list of ser­vices pro­vided by an ISP, they tried it, all in a tiny city-state with the pop­u­la­tion of Switzer­land.

This was meant to be a smart cities tour, but there was leak­age. Star Wars got its look in (my sym­pa­thy goes out to the guy in the Wookie cos­tume). We had demon­stra­tions at gov­ern­mentspon­sored busi­ness in­cu­ba­tors, meet­ings about how Sin­ga­pore’s own gov­ern­ment web­sites en­gage with lo­cal devel­op­ers (di­rect hir­ing, if you’re in­ter­ested), trips to schools and uni­ver­si­ties… I don’t think I’ve spent so long with­out touch­ing an ac­tual com­puter in my en­tire work­ing life.

Com­ing back from Sin­ga­pore in the com­fort of an Air­bus A380’s lower deck, I was pon­der­ing how to sum up the visit. There are some signs of early-adopter syn­drome – the gi­ant steel gantries that im­ple­ment vari­able road pric­ing by dis­play­ing costs on dotty old screens, hang­ing above the traŠc.

Lots of things seem easy for tech types in Sin­ga­pore, but you have to re­mem­ber this is a city-state drown­ing in cash, run by an ex-coder. It’s al­most as if you’re in Bill Gates’ Airbnb an­nexe – you can’t see the money di­rectly, but its e’ects are all around you. It’s very diŠcult to come to a con­clu­sion about the rel­e­vance of the pro­grammes when the pop­u­la­tion is al­ready used to gov­ern­ment by edict rather than plebiscite.

What I needed was a com­par­i­son – and when it comes to com­par­isons, smart cities are diŠcult. Barcelona springs to mind – sim­i­lar to Sin­ga­pore in scale, fund­ing, in­tel­lec­tual in­vest­ment and readi­ness to get things done. But my next smart cities con­tact wasn’t Barcelona; it was Ki­gali.

Feel free to look that up. If im­ple­ment­ing per­va­sive Wi-Fi or con­nected cars ap­pears chal­leng­ing in­Sin­ga­pore, imag­ine what those chal­lenges look like in Ki­gali.

In­marsat – the global mar­itime com­mu­ni­ca­tion spe­cial­ists – had done a lot of work in help­ing to put various smart city-re­lated in­fra­struc­ture into one of the world’s poor­est and most land­locked cap­i­tal cities. I don’t have the real num­bers in front of me, but I sus­pect that Ki­gali’s smart city bud­get is about the same as Sin­ga­pore’s mo­tor­way cen­tral-reser­va­tion land­scap­ing bud­get. The pri­or­i­ties ofthe two cities couldn’t be more di’er­ent, and it be­comes fairly clear when you look at the level of in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment in Ki­gali – in­ci­den­tals such as the like­li­hood of vol­canic erup­tions, la­hars (boil­ing mud flows) and so on – that, ac­tu­ally, it makes per­fect sense for a satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions busi­ness to get in­volved.

Ki­gali’s uses for smart city stan­dards and im­ple­men­ta­tions aren’t on the same top­ics as Sin­ga­pore’s, but they’re try­ing to make use of the same stan­dards. A CCTV cam­era on a chaotic and vi­tal in­ter­change in Ki­gali has the same im­age for­mats, IP ad­dress­ing con­text and data trans­mis­sion char­ac­ter­is­tics as one mounted on a road­pric­ing gantry or sky­scraper in down­town Sin­ga­pore. In­deed, this is meant to bethe ad­van­tage of let­ting our cities get smart, by be­ing ex­posed to the con­sumer grade stan­dards that have put cheap tech­nol­ogy into the hands of mil­lions.

There’s a vast, over­whelm­ing “how­ever” in the works here. One of the demos around smart trans­port in Sin­ga­pore was of rel­a­tively stan­dard cars and vans,

“Things seem easy for tech types here, but you have to re­mem­ber thi­sis a city drown­ing in cash, run by an ex-coder”

The Ma­rina Bay Sands ho­tel is more hi-tech than the Star Wars robots

STEVE CAS­SIDY

Steve is a con­sul­tant who spe­cialises in net­works, cloud, HR and up­set­ting the cor­po­rate ap­ple cart @star­dot­pro

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