The Smart City of the Future is being built at NUS

NUS researchers are leading the way on the journey of a Smart Nation

Geographically, Singapore is a small country. But economically, it is a powerhouse — and increasingly, it’s a technological leader as well, particularly as a smart city. NUS has been a driving force behind smart city innovations, with several of the institution’s researchers leading the way on key technological advances. 

NUS’ Smart Nation initiatives are bolstering Singapore’s international standing and adding important insights to the global dialogue about smart cities, artificial intelligence (AI), and privacy. 

The Smart City Experience 

The impact of well-organised smart cities could be substantial, even paradigm-shifting. Juniper Research found that citizens could reclaim three weeks per year through smart city technologies. Preventive health apps, streamlined public services, smart parking, and improved traffic flows are just a few of the ways in which technology will free people to spend more time with their loved ones or to spend more of their days as they choose. That increased socialisation and downtime could yield lower depression rates, less chronic stress, and higher incomes. 

But that’s just a glance at the benefits. NUS Engineering Associate Professor Chew Ek Peng said smart technologies will enable the government to better serve its constituents. “The government can now actively analyse and seek out citizens in need, and push out information targeting the needs of each citizen,” Assoc Prof Chew said.  

To aid in the development of smart cities, Assoc Prof Chew and his colleague Associate Professor Lee Loo Hay led the development of an object-oriented discrete event simulation process at NUS. The digital initiative enables users to model potential future scenarios using simulated data when historical information isn’t available. This allows stakeholders to map out the best strategies for reaching a particular target, without having to resort to costly trial and error. At present, Assoc Prof Chew and his colleagues are focusing on discrete event simulation for Singapore’s maritime ecosystem and warehousing, but he said the goal is ultimately to create a “digital twin” of the city-state. 

“This digital twin will allow for the testing of new ideas in a virtual world, allowing for their evaluation without affecting the physical world, and drive further development of the smart city,” Assoc Prof Lee said. 

Hard data is highly valuable as well, of course, and NUS researchers are leveraging it in many ways. One of these is through the NUS partnership with Grab, the dominant ride-hailing service in Southeast Asia. At the Grab-NUS AI Lab, researchers are using AI algorithms to analyse Singapore’s traffic patterns and build a better customer and driver experience, among other pursuits. Beyond fine-tuning Grab’s efficiency, the partnership will focus on key smart city concerns, including livability and congestion. The two organisations aim to use real-time data capture to monitor traffic conditions, and track Grab drivers’ behaviours to enhance safety, accuracy, and efficiency overall. 

Professor Chen Tsuhan, Deputy President (Research and Technology) at NUS and Chief Scientist at AI Singapore, said the partnership illustrates the practical and philosophical challenges of smart cities. He offered the example of Grab collecting user data in order to tailor product and service offers to individual customer’s preferences. From the customer experience standpoint, this is a good thing. But customers should be able to control what types of information are recorded and used and which are kept private. 

“How do we secure all this data, furthermore, analyse all of this data for people’s usage but not go to the extent of invading people’s privacy?” Prof Chen said. 

This is a central question that researchers involved with AI, Internet of Things (IoT), and smart cities in general will need to address continuously in their work. Indeed, it is an issue that requires collaboration from all stakeholders. Whereas governments used to react to issues that arose surrounding tech companies’ activities, technology has become too integral to daily life for that approach to work any longer. Technologies such as AI are so consequential, that an ongoing, collaborative approach is needed, according to Prof Chen. 

“The researchers, the consumers of these technologies, and the government policymakers have to all work together,” Prof Chen said. “This is the reality. We cannot leave this [only] to the companies anymore.”

Gaining the Public’s Trust 

Smart cities are designed to improve quality of life, but they will fall short of that goal without public buy-in for the necessary processes and technologies. To that end, the Lloyd’s Register Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk (LRFI) at NUS tracks public opinion and uses digital information to assess collective perceptions of different events. 

LRFI’s Risk Pulse Monitor, for example, analyses news content and social media activity to determine which topics draw the most attention among online users. Based on that information, LRFI can develop interventions to bridge perceptions gaps and that address people’s core concerns in ways that will engage and educate them. An example of this was a gamified presentation designed to warn the public about hacking and educate citizens on the need to change their digital passwords. 

“While the smart nation concept relies on data-driven, data-hungry algorithms, services, and applications, the underlying data often contain sensitive personal information, so we must be very careful in ensuring that privacy is maintained at all costs,” said Professor Ho Teck Hua, who is the Senior Deputy President and Provost at NUS as well as Executive Chairman at AI Singapore.

While the smart nation concept relies on data-driven, data-hungry algorithms, services, and applications, the underlying data often contain sensitive personal information, so we must be very careful in ensuring that privacy is maintained at all costs.

He shared that NUS researchers have been working on cybersecurity projects with an eye to addressing vulnerabilities in industrial control scenarios, with an aim to drive “privacy-aware” smart city development in Singapore. Privacy is a particular priority as IoT takes on greater prevalence. Interconnected smart devices are vital to smart city development, and securing those networks is a paramount concern for data security. 

Building the Future

Developing and evolving smart cities is a multi-generational project, and NUS is equipping its students with the context needed to contribute to it. It’s also providing professors and researchers with the resources to study and develop advanced technologies. The University has created an environment in which students and experts alike can build technologies that will serve them in their careers — and serve Singapore through their future accomplishments. 

By Casey Hynes, a freelance journalist and content marketing writer with extensive experience covering tech, entrepreneurship, and human rights in Asia. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2008 and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Roll Call, South China Morning Post, Vogue India, and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications throughout Asia.