Steve drinks in the sights of wannabe smart city Singapore – and goes for a ride in a driverless golf buggy
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 oce (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 dicult 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 trac.
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 eects are all around you. It’s very dicult 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 dicult. 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 dierent, 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 is a consultant who specialises in networks, cloud, HR and upsetting the corporate apple cart @stardotpro