SINGAPORE - What makes a smart nation smart?
This might seem like a stupid question, but it's worth asking, now that a brand-new agency has been set up to make Singapore one.
That's the recently announced Smart Nation Programme Office headed by Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.
So what's a smart city?
According to one definition, it's one that uses digital technologies to enhance performance and wellbeing, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, you're probably thinking you heard it before, when it was known as the intelligent, and then, the connected city.
It's now morphed into "smart city", because advances in digital and telecommunication technologies have brought the idea closer to reality.
In areas such as transport, energy, education, health care and waste management, the ability to connect people and machines and figure out, using powerful computers, the most efficient way of doing the work is now possible.
Imagine knowing exactly where every bus or taxi is on the roads and matching them to commuters, or monitoring the health of elderly people at home.
But just as having a smartphone doesn't make you a smart person, a digitally smart city isn't necessarily one that's doing all the right things by its citizens and making their lives more pleasant.
In fact, a smart city with all the computers at its disposal can be doing many dumb things, and doing them even more quickly.
A really smart city (as opposed to being just digitally smart), on the other hand, knows what the right things to do are, with or without technology.
So what's a really smart city?
I don't have a definition - it's one of those things where you know it when you see it.
Fortunately, there are many such places in the world, and what they do is worth emulating. Here are my three favourite examples.
Singing garbage trucks
Before Mr Ma Ying-jeou became mayor of Taipei in 1998, garbage collection in the city was like in many other places, including Singapore. People would leave their trash in bins outside their homes and the garbage truck would come every day to collect it.
The problems this created are also familiar - the amount of rubbish kept growing every year, sometimes spilling into the roads from bags left overnight and scavenged by stray cats and rodents.
Mr Ma proposed a radical solution.
Henceforth, all rubbish had to be placed only in bags sold by the authorities, with garbage fees worked into the cost of each bag. That means the more you dispose of, the more you pay.
Even more unprecedented - the bags had to be brought down only when the trucks arrived in the evening and thrown into the vehicles by residents themselves.
Almost everyone was up in arms at his proposal; critics said it would not work and that rubbish would pile up in the city.
In fact, it worked like a charm. The amount of waste collected fell considerably over the years and the arrival of the garbage trucks, to the accompaniment of music, is a nightly ritual now a part of Taipei life.
Contrast this with Singapore, which has made it so convenient for people to simply toss rubbish down Housing Board chutes, often without even bagging it.
It tends to encourage lazy and wasteful behaviour, resulting in ever increasing amounts of household trash that require more land and incinerator plants.
The colour of rubbish
In Germany, most homes come with four bins, all differently coloured according to what they are meant to collect.
Blue is for paper and cardboard, yellow for packaging materials like plastic, cellophane or metal, brown for food waste and black for assorted rubbish that doesn't fit in any of the others. Bottles have to be disposed of in bottle banks, garden waste in specially set-up compost bins.
These and other measures have made Germany the leading European country for recycling household waste.
That's smart, because it leads to more efficient disposal of rubbish, saving valuable land and energy.
In Singapore, there isn't much recycling of household waste, and even food waste isn't separated from other trash. This raises the cost of waste disposal, as food contains moisture which needs more energy to incinerate.
If you've ever visited the Tuas incineration plant and smelled the stench from decaying food mixed with other trash, you'll know what I mean.
Two wheels good, four wheels bad
Almost everyone cycles in the Netherlands, Denmark and many other European countries, not for recreation but to commute to work.
Cities are planned around this; there are special bicycle lanes, and cyclists have right of way over other vehicles.
On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I found that I was the only (not so smart) pedestrian on some roads. Everyone else was on a bike.
But it's too hot to cycle in Singapore?
Where I live, in Serangoon Gardens, there is a French school nearby.
Every morning, scores of its students cycle past my house, often with parents riding behind the younger ones.
You never see this with Singaporean parents or students.
Yet, if you think about it, it's such a smart way to travel - cheaper than driving a car, you get a lot more exercise, and it's so much kinder to the environment.
Who's the smarter one - the Dutch cyclist or the Singaporean with his $100,000 car bought with a five-year loan?
I could give many more examples from other cities, but they all have one thing in common. Really smart solutions involve people doing things that collectively make their city a better place.
It's never the technology, but almost always people's actions and motivations that matter more.
Leadership is important, too, because citizens seldom act spontaneously.
Laws need to be passed to get people to take their garbage down, to keep four coloured bins in their homes and to provide for bicycle lanes in the city.
The important point is that a city needs to be really smart first before it becomes digitally smart.
Otherwise, you end up making it even easier for people to do the dumb things they already do, by providing them the technology to do so.
Singapore is smart in many ways - in how it provides housing for most people, in greening large parts of the city, in capitalising on its location to link up with the rest of the world.
But there are many other areas it can be a lot smarter in.
Most have nothing to do with technology.
This article was first published on December 21, 2014.
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