Thinking of building a “Smart City”? Here are five tips (avoid the hype!)

I was in DC for a day on 5 March to run a workshop for the World Bank on how to develop “smart cities”.

“Smart cities” is honestly a buzzword and when I get invited to speak, most people expect me to start with cool tech like AR, VR, AI, modeling and simulation, blockchain and the like.

The fact is that cities are complex ecosystems with very established ways of operating. If we want to disrupt them with technology in a way that benefits the masses (i.e. not just the upper middle class), we need dedicated work from the ground-up, coupled with political commitment. The aim is really to create a movement with many champions, not just a few bright sparks which fizzle out shortly.

If anyone is thinking of starting your smart city efforts, here are five tips I have, borne through many conversations and projects with smart city leaders worldwide.

worldbank pic.JPG

  1. Carve out space for ground-up innovation

When I first joined the public service, tech was really a downstream IT function, the proprietary territory of geeks. The realm of digital possibilities was beyond my imagination: I’d go about making policies, never thinking twice about the inefficiency of the data request and management process. It was just the ways things were done.

In 2014, a small group sprung up which touted new techniques for managing and analyzing data. They were eager to show us new things we could do with our data that we never imagined – natural language processing, k-means clustering, fancy visualizations. We didn’t have to wait 3 months and pay money to get data-sets; these should be available in real-time so we can make decisions on the go.

They made data science accessible. They were happy to experiment with small and large datasets, amorphous and specific problems. The more we worked together, the more I wanted to learn about these new techniques.

Technology, in the form of data science, became a way for me to solve the problems I cared about, such as the allocation of preschool places. It inspired me to take courses in R and Tableau (visualization) and apply these in my day-to-day work.

On reflection, it was so important that the small group of data scientists, user experience designers and machine learning scientists did not just stay in their box. They saw their role as tech evangelists, spreading enthusiasm and skills to the rest of us. They started a ground-up movement to make data science part of our work, and succeeded.

  1. Build your core of “tech commandos”*

    *term first used by my colleagues Daniel and Chi Ling here.  

This is why, when people ask me what should be the first step in building a smart city, I never fail to raise the issue of building internal capabilities in the Government. In Singapore, we did not start with a large group of data scientists and software programmers. It was a small group of “tech commandos” who went about demonstrating value to the rest of the organization, before scaling up.

fengyuan and mark
Feng Yuan and Mark, founding Directors at the Hive, who I’ve deeply enjoyed working with  <image credit: https://www.challenge.gov.sg/print/feature/this-hive’s-got-it>

 

From my observations, three traits are important in picking “tech commandos”.

  • First, credibility with the organization (an outsider trying to shake things up often results in an allergic reaction);
  • Second, a strong HR instinct and the ability to assemble cross-functional teams – this does not mean that he/she must be the best technical executer;
  • Finally, the commitment to the organization’s long-term capabilities (not just his/her own shining). This does not mean that the person has to be an internal hire. However, there must be a personality fit – we had one “tech commando” who had no public sector experience, but an infectious, humble energy that won people over.

These “tech commandos” are effectively the bridge between the bureaucracy and the budding team of experts. They must be allowed to organize their teams, build a completely different culture as they wish, and buffer their team from the bureaucracy. To deliver early value, they must have high-level backers who are intent on opening up use cases and data for them to demonstrate their skills.

Nurturing a small core of “tech commandos” is always one of the first steps a city needs to take when it aims for digital transformation. Implementing projects is one benefit. Beyond this, their technical expertise is critical in assessing procurement decisions, such as the trade-offs between “building or buying” products and solutions. Great talent delivering social impact also attracts more talent, and so the cycle begins.

  1. Integrate across agency boundaries so that you truly transform the citizen experience

If cities want to radically transform the living experience of their citizens using technology, integration across digital services is often necessary. This necessitates some form of central planning – you cannot have different agencies building their own systems and creating multiple, disconnected touchpoints with citizens.

A great example of a developing country that managed to achieve this is India, with its “JAM Trinity”.

  • “J” for Jan Dhan, a free bank account for every citizen;
  • “A” for Aadhar, a biometrically verified Digital Identity for every citizen;
  • “M” for mobile, a mobile phone for every citizen.
  • For every individual, these three are linked. Hence, on your mobile phone, you can verify your identity and make a bank transfer.

The integration across identity-bank account-mobile is what explains widespread adoption of these technologies in India. “Aadhar” the digital identity, was first launched in 2009. However, take-up rate only spiked in 2014, when the Government linked digital identities to bank accounts, and used that to directly transfer subsidies and provide free insurance to people.

Simply put, people start adopting a new way of living life when they see the value and benefit of doing so. In the digital world, integration is necessary.

JAM-Trinity-pic1.jpg
Image credit: http://blog.microsave.net/jam-using-jan-dhan-bank-accounts-aadhaar-and-mobiles-to-create-new-products-and-services-and-new-ways-of-doing-things/

In my presentation at the World Bank, I laid out five elements of a nationwide technology project, gleaned from lessons across developing and developed countries.* <this section is partially attributable to my colleague Kevin Goh and Tan Chee Hau, who visited India to study the Digital ID system closely>

  1. First, an ambitious, compelling goal. Modi himself championed the JAM trinity as the solution to financial, and hence social and economic exclusion if the poor. With a bank account, ID and mobile, everyone could connect to the formal economy and receive subsidies directly from Government. Almost S$20B of savings was to be yielded by solving tax evasion and the leaky pipe of subsidies due to inefficiency and corruption.
  2. Second, a clear operational strategy. Ask any Indian official and citizen, and they simply understand that “JAM” represents digital transformation. The Government went for end-to-end integration of these components. The huge amount of savings generated from “JAM” justified distributing free services and a massive communications campaign.
  3. Third, a clear governance structure. India designated agencies to set architectural standards for each of their digital identity and payments platforms. Setting standards ensures integration between components of a big system. In Singapore, we enforce standards not just by rules, but also by baking them into our platforms. For example, if developers use our NECTAR platform, they automatically comply with Government standards for development on the cloud, and other engineering best practices.
  4. Fourth, an open ecosystem. One of the most amazing things India did was to create an open, interoperable India Stack to support “JAM”, The India stack consists of API-based platforms which the private sector can build applications upon. For example, if you are a start-up wanting to build a microfinance solution, you can build on their existing architecture for digital identity and mobile payments. You do not need to start from scratch.
  5. Fifth, a massive focus on inclusiveness. When India went about getting every citizen to have JAM, they tried all means of reaching the unbanked: branch banking, mobile banking, online banking – you name it, they had it. They went on a massive campaign to reach the very last mile.

These are the five elements of any successful nation-wide technology project, which truly transforms the lives of citizens.

  1. Setting the stage for public and private collaborations

When we talk about nationwide technology projects, does it mean that the Government has to execute on everything? By no means: some of the most cutting-edge innovation will always come from industry.

However, in developing smart cities, a new paradigm for the Government-private sector relationship is needed. Where in the past a Government simply procures digital infrastructure, products and service from the private sector (an out-sourcing model), what is needed now is more co-creation of possibilities and pilots between the public and private sectors, before deciding what to scale. The rapidly changing nature of technology means we are not quite certain which solution will work at the outset.

In working with private companies, Governments also need to lay out their expectations of an open ecosystem which enables maximal industry participation. This means that centralized platforms must have an open architecture and clear standards for interoperability, enabling other players can build applications upon it. Such a requirement runs against a traditional instinct for large companies to provide “closed ecosystems” which exclude all but those who use their proprietary operating systems.

Governments, start-ups and large corporates looking to build smart cities need to envision a new type of relationship, and build more platforms where trust and co-creation can be established. Some good examples include the Start-up in Residence Program, successfully run by the city of SF, and the Accreditation  and Innoleap Programs run by the Singapore Government.

  1. The advantages of developing countries in digital transformation

Friends from developing countries often tell me that “what Singapore does we’ll never be able to do”. They are surprised when I tell them that Singapore actually studies the smart city efforts of “developing” countries extremely closely.

Why has India raced ahead with their JAM trinity? Why does China light the path in e-payment adoption, while the U.S. and Singapore lag behind? Why was Estonia the first to develop a cutting-edge digital identity solution in the 1990s?

Users from developing countries can often more clearly see the value proposition of adopting the new digital solution. In contrast, people living in developed countries are typically wedded to the way things have always been done, such as using proprietary data centers instead of the cloud, paying with credit cards instead of e-payments, and using wired telephones instead of mobile. China is rapidly becoming the next innovation powerhouse because their people are cloud and mobile natives.

The lack of digital baggage is also a huge advantage. Estonia was able to leapfrog to the world’s most cutting-edge digital identity system because when they left Russia in the 1990s, they had zero legacy infrastructure to deal with. Just ask Taavi Kotkar, the ex CIO of Estonia, who told me a few years ago that he had to teach his kids what a “queue” was when he first took them on holiday outside Estonia.

estonia
Estonian Digital Identity card (source: https://www.engadget.com/2014/06/29/estonia-digital-id-for-non-residents/)

Closing thoughts

“What in the world is a smart nation?” ask many of my (non-technical) friends when I first joined this team in the Government. Ultimately, people need to see, touch and feel how technology transforms their life in order to understand why it truly matters. If not, it remains in the realm of “esoteric”.

Building a smart city is ultimately about creating momentum throughout society to deploy tech for public good, not announcing a few superstar projects that fizzle out without momentum. I hope these five tips helped you think about what you need to do to build your own smart city which benefits the most people possible.

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Autonomous Vehicles and the Impact on Cities (Singularity University Global Summit)

Here’s a 20-minute talk I did at the Singularity University Global Summit last month. It’s a crash-course (no pun intended) on the different types of autonomous vehicles and use cases, the challenges that stand in the way of city-scale deployments, and ideas for how autonomous vehicles will transform cities, not just transportation systems.

Builds on ideas from these articles:

Smart Cities Connect 2017 – Interview and Takeaways

I was in Austin, Texas, in June to represent Singapore at Smart Cities Connect 2017. I  participated in a panel on Data and Networks with the CIO/Chief Data Architects of San Jose, Orlando and Austin; served as a reviewer for eight Urban Mobility Start-up pitches, and had incredible side-meetings with CTO/CIOs across America. In an interview with Chelsea Collier, Smart City Connect’s Editor-at-Large, I shared some takeaways:

An Interview with Karen Tay, Smart Nation Director, Singapore

By: Chelsea Collier, Smart Cities Connect 

Chelsea Collier [CC]: I’m so happy to have you here at Smart Cities Connect.

Karen Tay [KT]: Thank you, I’m glad to be in your city after you visited Singapore a few months ago.

CC: I was so blown away not only by what you all are doing, but how you’re doing it, and how intentional and collaborative everyone in the government proper is. I was very very inspired by what I saw there.

KT: Thank you, yes it’s not without challenges. I think one of my takeaways from this conference is that we all face the same challenges, and part of it is organizational: how we are set up in a way that gets all the different domains to collaborate on Smart City Projects. That is not something that comes naturally because we are so used to working in silos. By setting up a smart city team (typically within the CIO or CTO’s office), actually many cities in the U.S. are doing similar things to Singapore. 

CC: Good, and I’m so excited that there’s so much progress being made just in the past year. This is the second time we’ve done this conference, the first time was in June here in Austin in 2016, and just in that span of one year I’ve seen so many cities go from intention, and more of an ethereal concept to really launching into strategic conversations and into pilots, and talking about scaling. So I’m impressed by how quickly it’s moving. It might not feel that way on the city side because you’re there day in and day out but from the outside world it’s really exciting.

KT: Definitely and I think it’s also driven by compelling use cases. One of the great people I met at this conference was Rosa Akhtarkhavari, the Orlando CIO. She talked about how the Orlando shootings really brought to the fore some of the technology needs that needed to be met and how they’re now going to build video analytics capabilities. I think it’s always driven by the use case. You cannot build too far ahead without the use case in mind. And I think that’s what driving the speed of progress.

[NB: during the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, Rosa’s ideal scenario was if she could pump the secondary shooter’s picture into the system, and analytics at the edge could flag out which locations the secondary shooter was seen. (Rather than to bring all the video feeds in and analyze in the cloud/data center, which would slow things down). However, she found that current capabilities did not allow for that.]

CC: Perfect. So any big lessons learned these past couple of days, or what you’ve learned that can benefit you back at work?

KT: I think one of the dominant themes of a smart city conference in the U.S. is how are you going to pay for this digital infrastructure.

In Singapore we are prudent with how we spend but I think we are fortunate that we have the resources to build some of these things. But what I really took away is that even if you have the resources, you have to have discipline of thinking about the economics of it.

I really appreciated the discussions like Chicago collaborating with the university, or San Jose working with a company that’s willing to sponsor a lot of these sensor deployments, or even companies like Civic Connect, which are saying “well, our funders are okay for us to pay for this free of charge to the city as long as we have a business model which will reap the benefits”. I think in Singapore we will benefit a lot from thinking about this economic discipline, just as the U.S. is forced to do. I think that was one of my main takeaways.

However I also think that the government cannot run away from paying for some of these services. It cannot completely be left to the private sector because of this idea of digital inclusion. Fundamentally, the government needs to be able to ensure that use cases which will not yield economic returns will still be accounted for. Who else could do that in society? 

[Another key takeaway that I did not mention in the interview concerned privacy in smart cities. All cities – especially American – want to change the narrative that lumps “surveillance” with “data collection”. CIOs recognize that if there is the capacity to identify people for serious crimes such as terrorism, there is the capacity to identify anyone else. Hence the issue is not about limiting our capacity to do identify people through video footage, but ensuring predictability, accountability and transparency in how the data is used.

Cities need to give citizens utmost assurance in this regard. I believe Seattle has a good model to learn from: Seattle put in place a privacy “self review” process, where every department seeking to launch a technology solution has to undergo a “self review” according to the 6 privacy principles (which were established a few years ago). Any technology project that collects data also has to pass through the City Council’s approval. “At-risk” cases are flagged up by the city’s Chief Privacy Officer in the CTO’s office. She advises on precautions and typically pushes them to conduct a public consultation.]

CC: I think as the public sector and the private sector get more comfortable working together they can have strategic and very honest conversations about that and everybody can own their piece of it. And there’s just no time to waste, the problems aren’t getting smaller. They’re only escalating and technology has the potential to really help make some headway there.

KT: I think so. I think there are problems like homelessness, inequality, access to healthcare – all these are big problems waiting to be solved and technology can. It’s a matter of having those conversations.

CC: Perfect. So glad you’re here. Thanks for joining us.

KT: Thank you.

====

 

 

scc2017

An Autonomous Vehicle Strategy for Smart Cities

I live in the Valley now, and it’s impossible to go a day without someone mentioning Autonomous Vehicles. It is an incredibly rich discussion space. Some of the topics of debate include:

  • When will it be technically possible for cars to be fully autonomous, not requiring a human driver to fulfill safety-critical functions? (This is typically referred to as “Level 4” or “Level 5” autonomy).[1] Most auto-OEMs are aiming for 2020-2022, Tesla’s most recent assessment seems to be 2018.
  • What is the best business model to introduce autonomous vehicles? We have Tesla, which sells autonomous cars to individuals. We have the OEMs and tech companies (Uber, Ford, GM-Lyft partnership), which plan to, or have already, introduced autonomous vehicles as fleets for ride-sharing. I recently spoke to Rahul Sonnad from Tesloop, whose autonomous vehicles will only provide long-haul car journeys that compete with short-haul flights (think the LA to Las Vegas journey).[2]
  • When the market settles, will we see vehicles owned and operated by a few large coalitions of companies (each having the holy trinity of fleet management – manufacturing – design and software), or will it continue to be as diverse as it is today? I have met autonomous vehicle start-ups that plan to manufacture their own autonomous vehicles and disrupt major OEMs. On the other hand, even the richest companies (like Waymo, previous under GoogleX) have announced that they won’t get into the business of manufacturing cars. It’s just too costly to set it all up, and is best left in the hands of the OEMs.

 

Comparatively, I don’t hear as much debate about how cities should think about their autonomous vehicle strategy. I think this is incredibly important. Cities need to plan ahead to make the technology work for their people, instead of reacting to technology and business models as they arise.

I discussed this topic at the Worlds Fair Nano with my good friend Elliot Katz (who is the co-chair of DLA Piper’s Connected and Self Driving Car Practice). 

worldsfair

Summarizing four points here

1. Introducing autonomous vehicles shouldn’t be an end in itself. Smart Cities should aim for shared mobility and deploy autonomous vehicles towards this goal.

Shared mobility is essential for cities that struggle with land constraints and intensifying populations. To solve the problem of congested roads and unhappy commuters, we need less vehicles on the road. This requires a strong push towards shared mobility (and away from vehicle ownership). I write more about it here.

Fully autonomous vehicles will contribute significantly to the objective of shared mobility especially if they are deployed in fleets (think Uber, but with autonomous vehicles instead of drivers). When autonomous vehicles are deployed in fleets, operators can dynamically size the fleet – injecting new cars when demand surges, and deploying them to less-crowded outskirts when demand falls. Theoretically, you would get rides faster and more reliability, while cutting down on “surge pricing”. These cars will be constantly on the move, never taking up precious real estate by parking for lunch or waiting at the curbside for a next job. This will free up land for other purposes, especially in the crowded downtown areas.

Cities should carefully consider the allocation of private versus shared autonomous vehicles. If the objective is shared mobility, the optimal scenario is for all autonomous vehicles to be shared: either deployed in fleets, or for privately-owned vehicles to be shared among a smaller group of family members and friends. While this does not necessitate excluding private autonomous vehicles, how cities allocate road-space to private vs shared vehicles will determine the extent to which they will achieve shared mobility.

There are many policy levers to consider: from quotas for privately-owned vehicles (which Singapore employs), to incentives for private car owners to share their vehicles in limited capacities. When cars are connected, it is easy to design these incentives based on real-time information. For example, a car owner can receive an offer to avoid a road toll if they pick-up someone else along the route.

 

2. Introduce autonomous vehicles in a way that builds broad-based public acceptance – don’t just appeal to the 20% of early adopters.

Many have pointed out that one of the biggest challenges to autonomous vehicle deployment is broad-based societal acceptance. There will be maximum efficiency and safety gains when autonomous vehicles are deployed at scale, and this can only be achieved if a large majority of city dwellers is comfortable riding autonomous vehicles.

Cities need to introduce autonomous vehicles in a way that builds broad societal acceptance.

  • Unlike the US, where autonomous vehicles are tested on public roads, Singapore has introduced them in designated trial areas. For example, autonomous taxis by Nutonomy ply 12km of public road space in the One-North neighbourhood in Singapore. Autonomous electric buses ply public roads in the Jurong district. Soon, on-demand autonomous shuttles provide rides on Sentosa, an island dedicated to tourism and recreation.
  • The Government works closely with AV companies to ensure that the testing routes provide sufficient challenge, but are not too far out of the vehicles capabilities such that it creates dangerous scenarios. We also work closely on the requirements for autonomous vehicle testing, and on after-action reviews when accidents occur.

While this seems like an arduous process for both company and Government, it is a long-term investment towards shared mobility.

  • It is better for accidents to happen within limited contexts. In this early stage of testing, accidents provide valuable lessons that will lead to improvements in the technology. In late 2016, Nutonomy had its first accident with a lorry in the One-North trial area. Fortunately – and to some extent by design – the impact was limited and no one was injured. It is incredibly important to public perception that these accidents happen in a limited context with no fatalities, unlike what happened with Tesla earlier last year.
  • The Government’s commitment to working with AV companies gives assurance that there is an added layer of accountability for the safety of these vehicles.
  • These trials have arguably piqued Singaporeans’ interest in riding autonomous vehicles. While Nutonomy limits the pool of people who can bid on their autonomous taxi service, it is still more accessible than having to purchase a private autonomous car to experience riding in one.

 

3. Work with AV companies on your regulatory approach to autonomous vehicles

One additional benefit of a city working closely with AV companies on autonomous vehicle trials is that it creates a space for a meeting of minds. Unlike many US states, Singapore has not yet introduced regulations towards autonomous vehicles. Instead, we work with companies on trials that shape our thinking on the appropriate regulatory approach. At the same time, companies have given feedback that it is useful to understand the Government’s concerns so that they can address these concerns at the design stage.

4. Finally, invest in autonomous vehicles other than cars!

While autonomous cars receive the most attention, other forms of autonomous vehicles hold incredible promise for the objective of shared mobility. For example, if a city has autonomous freight and autonomous utility vehicles, these activities can be done in the dead of the night, when commuters aren’t trying to move around. This frees up road space in the day, and makes for a better commuting experience for everyone.

Singapore is investing in both autonomous freight and autonomous utility concepts.

In conclusion, Smart Cities should never deploy technology for its own sake. They should define their objectives and target their time, money and policy interventions in a way that achieves these objectives. Transport is just one area – this applies to healthcare, education, housing, and any issue that a Smart City deals with!

[1] http://www.techrepublic.com/article/autonomous-driving-levels-0-to-5-understanding-the-differences/

[2] He believes that the market for short-haul car journeys within cities will be commoditized – people won’t care what type of autonomous vehicle they get as long as it’s cheap and fast. It will be difficult for smaller companies to compete. On the other hand, there will be room for significant differentiation in services for long-haul car journeys.