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Singapore Strives to Become 'The Smartest City'

Singapore is using data to redefine what it means to be a 21st-century metropolis.

AP/Wong Maye-E

Singapore is strangled with vegetation. Walking around the Asian city-state, the greenery is so abundant that it’s easy to forget you’re in a densely populated metropolis of 5.3 million people in an area smaller than Charlotte, N.C. Tall trees form canopies along roadways and their branches thread through narrow gaps between highway ramps and overpasses. Palm trees cluster everywhere, and exotic ferns and flowering plants adorn the exteriors of office complexes, government ministries and the ubiquitous public housing high-rises that are home to 80 percent of the citizenry. Median strips brim with lush green hues of carefully maintained flora.

Rising above the downtown jungle are still more trees, these of an otherworldly height. They’re 18 man-made “supertrees,” some 50 meters tall, erected by the city last year as part of a new downtown development. The metal-frame sculptures are hung with vertical gardens, mimicking the fronds and blooms below. They’re futuristic and bold: a perfect encapsulation of the Singapore of the moment.


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Singapore teems with greenery, but it also pulsates with information -- streams of data run through almost every part of the city’s physical geography. The supertrees aren’t merely aesthetic. They operate as temperature moderators, absorbing and dispersing heat. They collect rainwater and act as ventilation ducts for conservatories nearby. Several are outfitted with photovoltaic cells to generate solar power. A Biodiversity Index, launched in 2008, mines data on 23 indicators -- such as the proportion of natural versus developed areas and the amount of carbon dioxide that trees convert to oxygen -- to help balance development with green space.

 On the city’s streets, a network of sensors, cameras and GPS devices embedded in taxi cabs tracks traffic, predicting future congestion and alerting all downtown drivers to alternate routes. Singapore was the first place in the world to implement congestion pricing. Today, its advanced system utilizes traffic data to adjust prices in real time; drivers’ accounts are automatically deducted as they glide beneath electronic gantries. At intersections, elderly and disabled residents use special RFID cards that extend crossing times when tapped against traffic light poles. Subway commuters rarely wait more than a few minutes for a train. The city’s water management system is among the world’s most advanced, and the government is testing a new desalination technology for seawater that would be 50 percent more energy efficient than any current method. A super-fast, next-generation broadband network already reaches 95 percent of homes and businesses in Singapore.

“Singapore’s success story is one that was driven by very strategic government investment” and a willingness to embrace emerging technologies, says Margaret O’Mara, associate professor of history at the University of Washington, who traveled to the city-state in December to research an upcoming book on the global chase to create the next Silicon Valley. The city-state has a desire, she says, “to be number one in everything.”

In many respects, Singapore really shouldn’t exist at all. The small island nation sits just one degree north of the equator. It’s a tropical rainforest, consistently hot and humid year round. Singapore’s annual rainfall is about 50 percent higher than the Seattle area’s. The island lacks basic resources: It has no energy deposits, no forests, no farms. For years, the country has had to import drinking water from neighboring Malaysia. “Singapore is not a natural country,” says Chan Heng Chee, the city-state’s ambassador to the United States from 1996 to 2012 and now chair of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, part of the newly established Singapore University of Technology and Design. “For Singapore to survive, we have to be extraordinary,” she says, paraphrasing the center’s namesake, an urban visionary who served as Singapore’s first prime minister from 1959 to 1990. “If we were ordinary, we would just disappear.”

To keep from disappearing, Singapore long ago established its ambition to become the smartest city in the world. The government has engaged in a meticulous effort over the past half-century to transform the former British colony into one of the most innovative, sustainable and tech-savvy cities on the planet. The smart metropolis that exists today was the vision of Lee Kuan Yew, who decades ago spoke of his dream to create “a city in a garden.” Lee recognized early on the importance of English language education to fuel economic growth and to engage in the global conversation on science and technology -- and to help unite a population drawn from Chinese, Malay and Indian heritages. He welcomed multinational companies in the 1960s, when many countries were leery of foreign investment. While his original goals were to strengthen the economy and beautify the city, over time he broadened his scope, working to foster a livable, healthy environment for Singapore residents.

Long-term planning and strategic partnerships with leading universities and corporations, and substantial government investments -- in both money and manpower -- have enabled Singapore to realize Lee’s vision. Every 10 years since 1971, Singapore has issued a concept plan with a 40- to 50-year time frame. Every five years, most recently in 2008, it issues more detailed plans on smart growth. Lots of cities today engage in such master planning exercises. Unlike many of them, Singapore fully commits to transforming its plans into policy.

Such a singular vision has resulted in bold -- and, by American standards, draconian -- government regulations. Singapore’s government is extremely centralized and famously authoritarian. It’s hard to imagine many of its innovations being accepted in American cities. Take traffic. Lots of U.S. cities say they want to reduce downtown traffic congestion. But congestion pricing has been a nonstarter: When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg floated the idea in 2007, it was immediately shot down over cost and privacy concerns. Northern Virginia has tiptoed into congestion pricing in an effort to ease traffic for commuters into Washington, D.C.; in November, it introduced express lanes that charge higher tolls during rush hour. Singapore, in contrast, has implemented vastly more extreme measures, including strict limits on how many new vehicles can be added to roadways each year (currently at half a percent). The government requires pricey certificates for automobile ownership, which range from $77,000 to $93,000 depending on the car’s size, and which expire after 10 years.

Officials are blunt about the reasons behind such policies: They want to penalize people for driving. Whereas U.S. cities aim to increase traffic flow, Singapore actively wants to dissuade people from using cars. “We want motorists to know that there is a price to pay even before they start off their journey,” says Chin Kian Keong, group director for road operations and chief engineer for transportation with Singapore’s Land Transport Authority. “We want to move people from cars, because cars are not such an efficient use of the limited road space that we have.”

‘Singapore, I’ve always maintained, is a pacesetter,” says Chan of the Centre for Innovative Cities. “If we do a solution for Singapore and it works, others will come and see how we’ve done it.”

Chan is right. Singapore’s smart innovations have been exported around the globe. Places like London and Stockholm have copied its congestion-pricing structure. More than 50 cities have adopted its Biodiversity Index, and hundreds more collect data on some of its indicators. Singapore is collaborating with China on development of the Tianjin Eco-city, an environmentally friendly urban area under construction 93 miles from Beijing that will house 350,000 residents upon completion in 2020. (Interestingly, Singapore’s influence has not extended to some of its closest South Asian neighbors. Despite a light rail system, Kuala Lumpur in nearby Malaysia is a traffic nightmare. Phnom Penh, Cambodia, not only lacks a subway system -- not to mention traffic lights and signage -- but is among the few major metropolises without a citywide bus system. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam are so thronged by motorbikes that crossing them can be incredibly dangerous for pedestrians.)

Of course Singapore isn’t alone as a smart-city pioneer. Places like Songdo, South Korea, and Masdar in the United Arab Emirates also deploy networks of sensors to monitor the urban environment and adjust as needed. Rio de Janeiro is another standout: For the past few years, all of Rio’s utilities, traffic flow and emergency management functions have been monitored from a massive “ops center” that pulls constant data from citywide sensors and more than 450 video cameras. Rio will surely redouble those efforts before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

But Singapore remains a global leader, says Hiroaki Suzuki, lead urban specialist with the World Bank, and offers cities like the U.S. valuable lessons in areas such as high-density development, stepped up recycling and livability. “There are many, many things that cities can learn from Singapore.”

In addition to its extremely advanced data-mining, the city also has the rare combination of livability and density. Julian Goh, associate director at Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities, a government-sponsored think tank, says cities with ample open space, such as Vancouver, Melbourne and Vienna, tend to rank high for livability, while densely populated cities like Dhaka and Lagos usually rank low. Yet Singapore gets high marks for both. As more of the global population becomes urbanized over the next century, Singapore’s development scheme “is what will be needed,” says Goh. “You can’t have the model where it’s a bit more sprawling -- you have to build denser. We would say that you can achieve a good quality of life even with density.”

Emulating Singapore’s approach certainly wouldn’t be easy. In addition to the authoritarian central government (despite one-party domination, Singaporean officials characterize the city-state as a democracy and note the existence of fledgling opposition groups), the amount of infrastructure investments the country has made is staggering for such a small area. The government set aside $13 billion for research and innovation from 2011 through 2015 -- a 20 percent increase over its previous five-year commitment -- to solve “complex national challenges,” including energy resilience and environmental sustainability.

Singapore is not without its problems. Despite an unemployment rate of just 1.9 percent and one of the world’s highest per capita income rates at $56,000, income disparity is growing among the bottom 30 percent. Venture beyond the gleaming hotels and haute couture shopping arcades of downtown, and you’ll find outlying neighborhoods where the infrastructure is older and in need of repair. Sometimes, moves that are perceived as government overreach draw public criticism; the September 2011 decision to pave a highway through a historic cemetery sparked heated debates. Still, Singapore is proud of its transformation from polluted slum to gleaming metropolis in just a few generations. Local leaders eagerly show black-and-white photos of the impoverished people and filthy waterways that defined the city in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s almost hard to reconcile those images with the sparkling buildings, spotless public spaces and verdant landscape of modern Singapore.

In fact one often-voiced critique of Singapore is that it lacks an identifiable soul. It doesn’t have the sense of place of, say, New York or Paris. For a sleek urban center that essentially didn’t exist three decades ago, that’s understandable. But Singapore seems to be forging a new kind of identity, one based on data and innovation and on being infinitely well managed. “We became a global city way before it was fashionable to be a global city,” says Chan of the Centre for Innovative Cities. “We’re just trying to make this thing work.”

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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