The Smart Nation movement needs smart people
- Smart Nation is a movement in which everyone—not just the government or the private sector alone—has a part to play
- People are key to a Smart Nation, and technology must be used meaningfully to transform and improve the lives of all citizens
- Technology alone is not enough to achieve digital transformation; governments and companies also need to stay innovative, humble and open to change
As Singapore leverages technology to transform, inevitably, there will be segments of society who are intimidated by the digital, and feel that they cannot keep up.
An important question, therefore, is the issue of human capital. “In addition to technologies, a Smart Nation needs smart people too. It has to encompass every Singaporean,” said Mr Jeffrey Goh, CEO of NETS Singapore.
Mr Goh was speaking on 30 November 2017 at a panel discussion organised by the National Youth Council, titled ‘Smart Nation: Are we in sync?’. The panel, which was moderated by Mr Ashley Tan, Associate Director at Deloitte and a member of NYC’s INSPIRIT community of youth leaders, focused on gaps and opportunities associated with the Smart Nation vision, as well on how individuals, businesses and government agencies can work together towards achieving this vision.
In addition to Mr Goh, the panellists included Mr Tan Kiat How, CEO of Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA); Mr Tan Kok Yam, Deputy Secretary, Smart Nation and Digital Government Office; Mr Teo Ser Luck, Entrepreneur, Member of Parliament for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC and Former Minister of State; and Mr Jason Thompson, Managing Director of GrabPay.
A Smart Nation is about people
“To me, Smart Nation is a movement,” said IMDA’s Mr Tan Kiat How. “It is not solely led by the government or the private sector—rather, everyone has a role to play in being an agent of change.”
He raised the example of the Digital Clinics held at Heartbeat@Bedok, organised by the Southeast CDC and IMDA, where corporate volunteers teach senior citizens to use their smartphones and apps such as WhatsApp and MyTransport.SG. “These might not be very difficult technologies,” Mr Tan Kiat How added. “But this is what Smart Nation is about—using technology meaningfully to transform and change someone’s life, and make it better.”
Meanwhile, Mr Tan Kok Yam highlighted the ‘3Ls’ of the Smart Nation movement, which also centre around people. To fulfil the first ‘L’—liveability—the Smart Nation project has to, in practical and concrete ways, make Singapore a place where people want to live, he said.
With the digital revolution happening on a global scale, Singapore needs to carve out a space for itself in a highly competitive market to ensure the second ‘L’, livelihood. This could be done by creating products that are relevant not just to Singapore, but also to the world, as well as remaining an attractive place for investors.
From an entrepreneur’s point of view, Mr Teo Ser Luck shared that while Singapore has the capacity to conduct research and produce tech-related innovations, human capital remains a critical constraint and should not be neglected in the larger scheme of development. He suggests that venture capitalists and entrepreneurs also put resources in people and productivity enablers to maximise the impact and value of the Singaporean workforce. By channelling funds towards upgrading the skills of workers and implementing software that makes processes more efficient, Singapore can continue to be an attractive location for investment.
The final ‘L’, living together, is the most intangible yet most important of the three, said Mr Tan Kok Yam, adding that the Smart Nation’s digital platforms must be used to bring people together, so that those with the knowledge and energy to contribute to society are able to do so.
What makes us tick?
While there has been an aggressive push towards e-payments in Singapore, cashless payments have yet to take off in a big way. But when it comes to adopting digital technology, every country’s situation is different, said NETS’ Mr Goh.
In China, counterfeit notes are common, and ATMs are not as conveniently located as in Singapore. Smartphone-enabled payment services have thus become immensely popular in a country where convenience is highly valued, he said.
“But that is not to say that people in China don’t value safety or security. It’s just that they value convenience more. On the other hand, the situation in Singapore is the reverse,” said Mr Goh, adding that kiasu Singaporeans would first and foremost be concerned about the security of payment methods.
“Every country is unique, and you have to understand what makes citizens tick,” explained Mr Goh.
Mr Teo concurred, saying, “It shouldn’t be about implementing certain technologies just because other smart cities—such as Barcelona and Estonia—have them. The point is that we have be selective, because the demographics as well as lifestyles of Singaporeans are very different.”
“Smart Nation technologies do not have to be deep tech. At the end of the day, they just have to be simple enough to make sure that everyday lives are made better,” emphasised Mr Teo.
It’s all in the mindset
The panel also agreed that the Smart Nation movement is more than the technologies themselves. “Digital transformation was never about the digital—it’s about business transformation, which at the end of the day, is about mindset changes,” stressed Mr Tan Kiat How.
In this respect, GrabPay’s Mr Thompson said that the private sector can play an important part in the ecosystem by helping to streamline everyday processes. “I think the challenge with Smart Nation is that it looks complicated,” he said. “In Grab, we saw a lack of safe, convenient and affordable of transport options and we moved in to solve those problems one small step at a time. We’ve now brought that same approach to the challenge of cash in Singapore. By simplifying the whole equation, we can end up playing a rich role in the Smart Nation journey.”
Having the right mindset also applies to the government, said Mr Tan Kiat How. “It’s not just about the technical skillsets, but also the mentality. We need to have the humility and open-mindedness to learn from mistakes, and from the other players in the ecosystem,” he added.
“The most innovative companies that can think out of the box are startups, and the government has a lot to learn from them—they are where the future might be,” he concluded.