Innovation

Asia’s testbed for smart cities

02 Aug 2017

Multinational firms are collaborating with Singapore’s government to transform the country into a Smart City. Their efforts could help them tap into an Asian market worth billions of dollars.

By 2020, people who need a car in Singapore will be able to use any one of 1,000 electric vehicles parked across the country for public use.

Starting in the second half of 2017, the French multinational transport firm Bollore Group will progressively roll out the vehicles as part of a national, 10-year electric car-sharing program initiated by the city-state’s Economic Development Board (EDB) and Land Transport Authority (LTA).

The program, which aims to curb car ownership in the country and provide easy access to environmentally-friendly vehicles, is just one instance of the Singapore government’s ongoing, comprehensive plan to introduce technologies and systems to improve people’s lives.

Dubbed the Smart Nation initiative, the plan will focus on using digital technology to improve transport, business productivity, healthcare, public sector services, homes and the environment for a start, with the goal of strengthening communities and creating opportunities for citizens.

For companies such as the Bollore Group – which is already the world’s largest car-sharing operator – the initiative represents not only a wealth of business opportunities but also a great opportunity to test solutions before exporting them to the rest of Asia.

The potential rewards are enormous. Market research firms have estimated that investments in various smart city technologies will exceed more than a hundred billion dollars in Asia in the next decade. In 2016, the Singapore government alone said that it would call for a record $2.82 billion worth of technology tenders in that year as part of its Smart Nation plans.

From healthcare to transport and consumer electronics, multinational firms are participating in Singapore’s smart city transformation with an eye to the opportunities in Asia. These are just some of them.

The future of healthcare

Philips Healthcare’s pilot tele-health program provides heart patients with a blood pressure monitor, weighing machine and tablet so that healthcare professionals can monitor their health remotely. Picture credit: Philips

One of healthcare’s fastest growing sectors is tele-health, which is the use of telecommunications technology to improve healthcare. For example, doctors could use mobile devices to monitor patients’ health remotely. Investments in the sector are expected to increase by 75 percent in the Asia Pacific from US$1.02 billion in 2015 to US$1.79 billion in 2020, according to market research firm Frost and Sullivan.

For healthcare firms, developing tele-health programs in Singapore means ready access to the country's strong ecosystem of partners, which include hospitals, research institues, multinational firms and start-ups.

Philips Healthcare, a subsidiary of Dutch multinational technology firm Philips, is working with Singapore’s Changi General Hospital and the Eastern Health Alliance - a group that includes hospitals and clinics in Singapore's eastern part - on a pilot tele-health program to track heart patients’ health after they return home, to reduce their risk of readmission to hospital. It is also partnering the country’s insurance group NTUC Income on a separate tele-health trial for heart patients with the same goal.

Philips ASEAN Pacific spokesman Edmond Yan explained how the region’s growing and ageing population, rise in chronic and lifestyle-related diseases and increasing healthcare costs have led the company to pursue new solutions. “We see great opportunities in Asia… Tele-health and other technologies can enable people to take better care of their health and lower the strain on healthcare resources,” he said.

When Philips Healthcare chose Singapore for the headquarters of its new Hospital to Home, Asia Pacific division, which focuses on healthcare innovations such tele-health, Philips’ chief executive officer Frans van Houten said in a press statement: “In the Asia Pacific region, Singapore is seen as a reference site for its healthcare system. Together with local stakeholders, we will develop patient care models for the region.”

Accelerating smart transport

In 2016, Singapore became the first country to introduce on-demand driverless taxis, as part of an ongoing trial conducted by the country’s Land Transport Authority and United States-based transport firm nuTonomy. Picture credit: Nutomony

In 2016, Singapore became the first country to introduce on-demand driverless taxis, as part of an ongoing trial conducted by the LTA and United States-based transport firm nuTonomy.

The company’s chief executive officer Doug Parker told news website Public Radio International before the launch of the groundbreaking project: “Singapore is an economic powerhouse but it’s also a smaller nation so it can move quickly. We’ve got strong political support… and I’m convinced that Singapore will be the first country to adopt autonomous vehicles at scale.”

The Singapore government, for example, has established the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative to help firms in the sector to research, develop and test-bed their technologies, applications and solutions. It has also provided an entire town section for trials in a live environment. The site includes 12km of test routes, as well as specially installed closed circuit television cameras to study the vehicles’ behavior and beacons that broadcast traffic information to them.

Other transport firms have also bet on Singapore to be a key player in the global smart transportation industry, which international consultancy MarketsandMarkets has predicted will be worth US$138.8 billion by 2020, up from US$46.7 billion in 2015, with the Asia Pacific market experiencing the fastest growth.

NXP Semiconductors, a Netherlands-headquartered global semiconductor manufacturer, is working with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University on vehicle-to-everything technologies that will allow vehicles to “talk” to one another and enabled infrastructure. Picture credit: NCP Semiconductors

NXP Semiconductors (NXP), a Netherlands-headquartered global semiconductor manufacturer, is working with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to create wireless vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technologies that will enable vehicles to “talk” to one another and smart infrastructure, such as advanced traffic lights, to avoid collisions and congestion.

The $22 million NTU-NXP Smart Mobility Test Bed, which was launched in 2015 and will last four years at NTU’s campus, will also develop other cutting-edge products, such as a smart traffic camera system that can automatically detect vehicles and their speeds, identify those that flout traffic laws and warn nearby smart vehicles to be cautious.

"Singapore has a rich talent pool that can sustain its smart city eco-system and meet industry demands. NTU, for example, is world-renowned in technology with experts in various domains. Singapore also provides ample opportunities and resources for multinational firms and local start-ups to share knowledge and collaborate," said NXP spokesman Daphne Leong. 

Transforming homes and offices

Smart homes and offices make up one of the largest business opportunities in the smart city sector. Global management consultancy A.T. Kearney has projected that Asia’s burgeoning smart home market will surge from US$15 billion in 2017 to US$115 billion by 2030, accounting for 30 percent of the worldwide value.

In Singapore, the South Korean electronics conglomerate Samsung Group has worked with the government to develop and test its products. It partnered the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to trial a sensor to be placed under mattresses to detect people’s heart rate, respiratory rate and movement, for example to monitor elderly people’s health.

With other government agencies, it developed a mirror that can be overlaid with digital information, including weather forecasts, bus arrival timings and air quality readings, to help people plan their day. Businesses such as hair salons or hotels could use the mirror to project information customized to each customer’s needs.

The company also sees an opportunity in the growing demand for smart city planning. In 2016, its subsidiary Samsung SDS Asia Pacific, which provides consulting and technical services, was part of a consortium that inked a contract with HDB to develop a master-plan for the deployment of smart technologies in Singapore’s towns.

3M Singapore, a subsidiary of the American technology conglomerate, has partnered Singapore’s Housing and Development Board to trial its advanced channel lighting systems in housing block corridors. Picture credit: 3M Singapore

3M Singapore, a subsidiary of the American technology conglomerate, has also joined the HDB in various projects in Singapore, including trials of its channel lighting systems in housing block corridors. In fact, the systems were developed in its Smart Urban Solutions Lab in the country, which was set up with EDB's support. 

Christopher Olson, 3M’s vice-president of research and development for international operations, told The Business Times newspaper in 2016: “Singapore is very progressive, and a benefit of working in the country is its living laboratory concept.”

Singapore as a springboard to Asia and beyond 

The ambition of many of these firms however, lies beyond just the transformation of Singapore’s city-state. In fact, many of the firms are leveraging Singapore as their springboard to the rest of Asia and beyond, by exporting the products and services they develop and fine-tune in the city-state.

Using Singapore as a model and test-bed, business leaders are ready to tap on the golden opportunity represented by nascent smart cities in the region. NXP's spokesperson Leong summarized: "We believe there is a lot of potential in smart cities across Asia." Leong added that Singapore is ideal as a base for firms reaching out to Asia: “Singapore has a reliable government, supportive agencies and well-developed infrastructure. The EDB, for example, has supported our test-bed which helps to attract more partners as firms can enjoy the benefits of cost-sharing on the test-bed while testing their smart solutions.”