In a bid to fulfill its ambitious Smart Nation 2025 strategy, the Singapore government has undertaken a major realignment of its innovation agencies.
The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) recently launched in a merger of two government agencies covering IT and digital media. The IMDA is involved in a broad array of initiatives that include Internet of Things, drones, virtual reality and smart city technology.
The launch of the IMDA and its sister GovTech agency is a move by the government to transform the country into a Smart Nation by 2025, which is essentially a smart city strategy on steroids.
Gabriel Lim, the newly installed CEO of IMDA, says the government pivot towards the connected economy is the latest example of Singapore adapting its economy to global trends.
Singapore: climbing the industrial value chain?
Since its modern beginnings in 1965, he says Singapore has focused single-mindedly on climbing the industrial value chain. This has seen its economic focus evolve from manufacturing TVs and light bulbs, through circuits and control panels, to today’s position as a global leader in financial services, biomedical research and now the digital connected economy.
“That is the burden of small states like Singapore, because history hasn’t been kind to small states,” said Lim. “If you don’t move and are not nimble and flexible, you become irrelevant and the world passes you by.”
Singapore’s population of only 5.5 million has obvious disadvantages of scale compared to more populous neighbours like Malaysia, Indonesia and of course China.
However, Singapore is consistently ranked among the top places in the world for ease of doing business, largely due to its city-state structure with essentially one level of government. Lim says this enables a direct through-line from top levels of government and industry to the ground-level delivery of regulations and investment.
Conversely, larger countries often suffer disconnects between the various levels of government, resulting in conflicts and inefficiencies between federal, regional and municipal governments.
Regulations can be tweaked quickly now
Indeed Singapore has been able to deftly enact regulations enabling the development of new connected technology like autonomous vehicles.
Singapore’s favorable testing environment resulted in the recent launch of the world’s first public, self-driving taxi pilot program by nuTonomy. As well, the National University of Singapore has enjoyed an environment conducive to advancing its autonomous vehicle research, bolstered by the support of IMDA.
Lim also credits the compact and efficient nature of Singapore’s government for the interdepartmental coordination that has fast-tracked drone-friendly regulations.
Though the Ministry of Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority regulate drone activity in the country, the IMDA also sits on the committee developing rules for unmanned aerial vehicles. This allows IMDA to directly represent industry interests in policy-making sessions, which helps improve the business environment for developing the new technology.
“When that opportunity presents itself we will go and help the companies to present a case to create safe zones to deploy drones more effectively,” says Lim.
He says this close working relationship between government and industry helped foster the development of drones by local startup AeroLion in partnership with the Singapore Land Authority.
Initially AeroLion worked with the IDA (IMDA’s precursor agency), to identify an opportunity to develop drones that use sensors and 3D imaging on buildings. Eventually AeroLion developed drones capable of performing structural building inspections to identify cracks and environmental issues in areas that would be hard to reach for human inspectors.
Trials of the AeroLion drone have proven out cost benefits through the reduced need for labor intensive inspection and through automation via its auto-detection capabilities.
The IDA was also instrumental in developing the world’s first mail delivery drone, creating a real-world smart city application for burgeoning unmanned aerial vehicle technology.
In a partnership with Singapore Post, the IDA helped develop a drone that would deliver mail to the small island of Pulau Ubin. The project was sparked by the imminent retirement of the island’s longtime postman which would have created a vacancy difficult for SingPost to fill.
With successful trials completing in 2015, a program of drone-based mail delivery to the island is in the process of being permanently established. The project marked the world’s first point-to-point recipient authenticated mail delivery by drone.
And when it comes to the potential rewards for Singapore’s forward-thinking shift towards connected technology, the check is definitely in the mail. Or in the drone.