Governments training a sharp lens on the future are harnessing the power and potential of digital infrastructure to create 'smart' urban centers that promise unprecedented connectivity between people and the physical worlds of business and government services. 

The future-oriented Sidewalk Toronto plan in Canada’s largest city, and Singapore’s Digital Economy framework for action, are two current examples of how governments today, in partnership with private enterprise, are taking a new approach to developing digital infrastructure capabilities that will redefine how we access and use services in every sector. 

Toronto’s forward-looking transformation plan aims to combine modern urban design with the latest in digital technology and infrastructure, creating what Toronto calls “people-centered neighborhoods” that are designed to provide unprecedented levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility and economic opportunity1.

Sidewalk Toronto will feature the creation of a futuristic downtown lakefront neighborhood called Quayside, future home to an estimated 5,000 people and an array of businesses. 

Singapore, meanwhile, has launched its own digital makeover and that journey begins with plans to bring the historic Kampong Glam shopping district into the 21st century. The government is collaborating with an array of businesses and organizations to transform Kampong Glam into the first retail neighborhood in Singapore that’s digitally enabled. Hundreds of merchants are adopting digital solutions to collectively transform their businesses and customer experiences via capabilities that include cashless and contactless payment systems for everything from products to parking fees and bus tickets; real-time inventory tracking; product-delivery management; and automated invoicing and financial accounting. 

Taxi-bots, intelligent traffic signals, automated energy management

Toronto’s initiative features an innovative collaboration between various government agencies and Alphabet Inc.-owned Sidewalk Labs, which will invest US$50-million in the planning process for Quayside, its first such urban project. Sidewalk Toronto’s vision includes:

  • Streets served by autonomous vehicles, including “taxi-bots” controlled by app-based services such as Lyft, plus self-driving buses;
  • Freight-moving robots and trash-collecting robots that traverse a network of underground tunnels;
  • Areas featuring narrow streets designed on a “human scale” and catering to pedestrians over vehicles;
  • Intelligent signals to manage traffic plus digital tools to track, analyze and optimize the movement of people, vehicles and goods;
  • What Sidewalk Labs calls a “radical” mix of office, retail, residential and startup spaces, featuring modular office, retail and residential buildings that are manufactured locally and designed for quick assembly;
  • An centralized energy system designed to monitor and sustain the efficient transfer and use of energy by homes and businesses.

Toronto’s plan ultimately envisions the city becoming the global hub for a new “urban innovation” industry that’s focused on improving the quality, efficiency and affordability of city life. Sidewalk Toronto hopes to ultimately serve as a model for other neighborhoods in the city and indeed for other cities around the world.


Robotics in healthcare, a cashless society, smart homes and vehicles

Like Toronto’s long-term vision to keep its bold smart-city journey expanding beyond the initial Quayside neighborhood, Singapore’s Kampong Glam retail-area project is part of the much larger digital economy plan – a vision to create a competitive, interconnected global region whose businesses, workforce and citizens are ready for the digital age. 

To ensure the public’s readiness for self-driving vehicles, robotics in healthcare, telehealth for the elderly, a cashless society, transportation-on-demand, smart homes, government e-services, artificial intelligence and more, the plan includes a “digital readiness blueprint.” It’s designed to empower the public by promoting: digital access and the means to transact digitally; digital literacy and skills; digital participation; and the ability to make use of technology to improve daily life.

Singapore's move into a digital economy highlights four key “frontier technology” areas targeted for investment and rapid development: Data analytics and artificial intelligence; the Internet of Things (IoT); Cybersecurity; and Immersive media.

A new International Data Corporation study commissioned by Microsoft notes that 98 percent of organizations in Singapore are already in the midst of digital transformation. The study estimates that the digital economy – including mobile and cloud technology, the Internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence – could contribute US$10 billion to Singapore’s GDP by 20212 and account for about 60 percent of GDP by then – compared with 10 percent in 2017. Survey respondents said they expect 93 percent of Singapore’s jobs to be transformed in the next three years alone by digital innovation.

Government partnerships with private enterprise play a key role

Like Toronto, private-enterprise collaboration aimed at bringing futuristic visions to life are playing a key role in Singapore as well. While Toronto has partnered with Alphabet Inc.-owned Sidewalk Labs, the IMDA has joined forces with many industry partners such as Microsoft on several fronts to support its journey toward a digital economy. That includes close collaboration on a program to help local tech companies scale up and build new digital capabilities and applications. Singapore’s government is also bringing together start-up accelerators, venture capitalists, industry mentors, SMEs and ‘technopreneurs’ across the entire range of industries to create new bridges between innovation, enterprise, government and the public.

“Digital infrastructure is blurring traditional boundaries and borders that have long divided or ‘siloed’ physical businesses, sectors and the marketplaces they serve,” says Philip Heah, Senior Director, Technology & Infrastructure, for Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), which is driving Singapore’s leap toward a digital economy. “We see a growing trend with companies in one industry – whether transportation, communications, healthcare, you name it – now calling themselves digital enterprises as they transform and reinvent themselves through digital infrastructure.” 

Singapore-based Grab – Southeast Asia's popular ride-sharing firm – is one example of how a company delivering transportation and logistics services can more accurately be considered a digital company that’s toppling traditional sector and infrastructure boundaries using the power of digital infrastructure. Grab recently announced a joint venture with Japan's Credit Saison to form Grab Financial Services, as well as a new partnership with insurance giant Chubb for app-based insurance solutions3.  

Meanwhile, on-demand services platform Go-Jek recently announced a US$500-million plan to introduce to Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries its super-app offering a remarkable array of services – everything from rides and meal delivery to massage and home-cleaning services4

The ongoing emergence of smart cities will continue to unleash exciting new opportunities for the public, their urban lifestyles and the businesses that serve them; it’s up to governments, to continue to look across a bigger canvas — such as wider economic benefits, better resilience and positive social and environmental impact to ensure a better future for everyone. 

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