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City View

Singapore aims to become the world's first smart city-state

Already one of the world's wealthiest countries, the Southeast Asian tech hub is aiming to become a testbed for self-driving cars, Internet of Things tech and more.

From the glass-walled conference room overlooking a minimalist two-story office just across the street from Facebook-owned virtual reality company Oculus Rift, the space would fit any number of well-heeled startups in San Francisco.

The difference with this industrial-style loft in the trendy SoMa district is that the money that helped pay for the work space (obligatory neon accents and all) didn't come from a nearby venture capital firm. It came from the government of the world's third-richest country.

"To make the brand more relevant, we had to move to the city," said Victor Tan, who runs Block 71, the Bay Area outpost for the investment arm of Singapore's national technology agency. "That's why we pay the ridiculous rents."

Tan helmed a startup in China before working for the government of the Southeast Asian city-state home to 5.5 million people. He has been Singapore's man on the ground for three years now, moving his operation up to San Francisco from nearby Silicon Valley last year.

His current task: Land Singapore on the map for global tech talent as officials back home ramp up a lofty, tech-centric development plan called "Smart Nation."

If the gambit works, the 277-square-mile metropolis could become a hotbed for much-hyped (but mostly-unproven) technologies that stand to overhaul how large cities operate. Think self-driving cars, Internet of Things sensors and civic data analytics.

"We want companies to think of us as a test bed," said Steve Leonard, executive deputy chairman of the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore. "That's different than being a guinea pig."

In keeping with global cities like Los Angeles and London, the idea behind the Smart Nation effort is to meld technology incubated in the private sector with government efforts to ensure resilience amid turmoil linked to rapid urbanization, climate change, public health, unaffordability or any number of other risks.

"Our vision is for Singapore to be a Smart Nation — a nation where people live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all," Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a 2014 address introducing the concept. "We should see it in our daily living where networks of sensors and smart devices enable us to live sustainably and comfortably."

Two variables separate Singapore from the pack when it comes to translating this rhetoric to reality. The first is scale, since Singapore lacks the overlapping state, local and federal bureaucracies of other major cities.

"We can pretty easily speak to the minister for energy or health," Leonard said. "We don't have some thick three-ring binder plan."

The other distinguishing feature is cash flow, and more specifically, the willingness to spend on infrastructure like universal high-speed Internet. The country is currently in the process of hashing out its $73 billion 2016 budget (PDF), including $15 billion earmarked for economic development and $590 million specifically for "info-communications and media."

The Smart Nation push also comes as some tech evangelists and investors seek to apply models for business innovation to nascent markets for more impactful technologies in fields like renewable energy, water, food, transportation, supply chains and social organizing.

"It's the grown up stuff," Tan says. "It's not just about getting a 100-X return on our pool of money. We've got big problems to solve."

Sensor society

Singapore's version of the future of technology is straightforward: "Everyone, everything, everywhere. All the Time," Leonard recounts of his agency's "E3A" approach.

In the context of the Internet of Things, constant connectivity enabled by 1 Gigabit Internet fiber and other complementary infrastructure makes sense. But in the context of Singapore's reputation as a notoriously chewing gum-averse, surveillance-happy state, which once prompted Foreign Policy to label the country a "social laboratory," the complicating factors surrounding smart city technology start to take on new gravity.

With the prospect of sensors connecting homes, cars, infrastructure and who knows what else in the name of efficiency and ease of use, pitfalls like cybersecurity and data privacy loom particularly large.

Still, the boom in information communication technology (ICT) is poised to advance long-held sustainability goals with big potential to cut carbon emissions and improve upon current business models. Smart energy grids, connected cars and remote health care are just a few examples of fields that could be transformed.

As both an island and a megacity that has added some 2 million residents since 1990, Singapore stands to be hugely impacted by both urbanization and climate change. From attempting to achieve food security with limited open land to geographic vulnerability to sea-level rise, the motivating factors for a different approach are plenty without even factoring in possible business upsides.

We want companies to think of us as a testbed. That's different than being a guinea pig.

But where budget-constrained American cities worry about the return on taxpayer investments, Leonard said the government of Singapore is most focused on filling gaps to facilitate business ventures that could help the country achieve its Smart Nation goals.

"It doesn't really matter whether there's a revenue model or not," he said, noting that most Singaporeans already live in public housing and that the country has an existing universal health care system.

Another element of Singapore's unique context is that Internet technology companies like Facebook and Google have already set up shop in the country, thanks in part to favorable corporate tax policies and an educated workforce.

Though both Leonard and Tan said it will take time for specific Smart Nation programs to take shape, Tan said that building out specific verticals is a logical approach.

As a potential blueprint for dealing with disruptive technology, the country's banks and government finance agency have already invested $200 million in a London-based finance tech accelerator. Tan said a nascent power and logistics innovation cluster is also now attracting interest from utilities, property owners, energy companies and others interested in growing the market for renewable power and green building.

"It's really, really new," he said. "In Southeast Asia, what you do has a huge potential to scale exponentially."

All hands on deck

As the business development lead for Singapore-based visual search and image recognition startup ViSenze, Raj Sawhney is currently focused on staffing up in preparation for a U.S. expansion.

The company has so far targeted retail companies interested in the marketing potential of the technology, but a more explicit connection to the Smart Nation goal becomes clear when Sawhney notes that government officials could also likely put the software to use. He floats the idea of a citizen taking a picture of a pothole, then the software taking over to ensure that the image reaches the right agency.

Internet technology companies like Facebook and Google have already set up shop in the country, thanks in part to favorable corporate tax policies and an educated workforce.

ViSenze was born at the National University of Singapore, and Sawhney said that the plan is to keep the company's base of operations in the country. But Block 71 also operates in the reverse direction, helping companies founded in the U.S. or elsewhere break into the Asian market by using Singapore as a gateway.

"We've seen a massive number of companies coming out of the woodwork," Tan said of Singapore's own startup scene. "It's because the infrastructure has come up."

For those accepted to work through the outpost in San Francisco, the free work space, grant money or equity-free investments are usually a good deal, Tan said.

"It's pretty much free money," he said.

In addition to scouting potential investments, a large part of Tan's job is fostering a community among Singaporean ex-pats working in and around Silicon Valley. In part to bolster the country's pipeline of tech talent, a fellowship program that includes at least a three month stint working on the ground in Singapore has also been launched.

Open data, crowdsourced transportation and digital platforms to aid in the delivery of public services are among the priorities identified in the fellowship's online description, which pitches an opportunity "to collaborate with the Singapore government on delivering projects for the public good."

How the public-private innovation push plays out long term remains to be seen, especially in the context of hulking challenges like energy or climate resilience. In the meantime, bigger questions about Singapore's role in the global hunt for technologists equipped to tackle such challenges also hang in the balance.

"It's not about bringing (entrepreneurs) back to Singapore and all that government propaganda stuff," Tan said. "We want to be known in this international network of hubs for innovation."

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