Opening Speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-In-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative at the FutureEverything Signals of Tomorrow Conference

17 October 2015 - Opening Speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-In-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative at the FutureEverything Signals of Tomorrow Conference at the Artscience Museum, 17 October 2015, 10:25am.

Opening Speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-In-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative at the FutureEverything Signals of Tomorrow Conference at The ArtScience Museum, 17 October, 10:25am.

Mr Drew Hemment, CEO of FutureEverything
Ms Honor Harger, Executive Director of ArtScience Museum
Ms Jacqueline Poh, Managing Director of IDA

Some crazy ideas for the Future of Everything in Singapore

1. I see a very eclectic mix of people including some of the usual suspects; welcome to Singapore! I heard that some of you have been trying to catch some sleep at The Chronarium while others have been talking to the Merlion. You have been doing crazy things, but I think we need some apparently crazy people for society to progress. 

2. Singapore must come across as a little crazy to have a Foreign Minister who is also involved in the Smart Nation initiative but there is actually a pattern to the madness. My favourite quote on the future is from a former oil minister of Saudi Arabia; Sheikh Zaqi Yamani. He said ‘The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.’ Hold this thought in your mind as I quickly gallop through some ongoing revolutions in energy, water, food, manufacturing, logistics, how everything is evolving towards software as a service and finally, what a Smart Nation - or indeed a Smart world - is all about.

3. I believe we are on the cusp of an energy revolution and there are a couple of reasons for this. We have heard about climate change; the level of carbon dioxide in our air is at four hundred parts per million, a level that the world has not experienced since about 800 thousand years ago; which – as most scientists would accept - predates human beings. The world has been through far greater environmental contortions and will survive, but the real question is whether human beings and our quality of life will survive. 

4. The other thing driving the energy revolution is something which unfortunately, we have all seen in the air over Singapore; haze and pollution. In fact, it is pollution rather than carbon dioxide levels which is going to drive most Governments to improve and push for the energy revolution. While carbon dioxide levels are global problems, elections remain local and what would push politicians to this change would be the pressure from the people in their own voting districts for clean air. 

5. The next reason why there would be an energy revolution is because actually, most of the technologies are already available such as renewables, photo-voltaic cells, harvesting geothermal energy, hydroelectricity and - though controversial - even nuclear energy. The holy grail for nuclear energy is actually fusion and although this has yet to be achieved, there are ongoing projects to attempt to solve this. But can you imagine a world where almost limitless, renewable, clean and commercially viable energy becomes available? Many things will change once that happens. In fact - if you think about renewable energy even today here in Singapore - with the current prices in photo-voltaic cells, it is near grid parity. This means that the ‘per kilowatt/hour’ (kW/h) price of electricity from a plug in the wall or a renewable source is competitive. 

6. But the other missing link in the energy revolution is really about energy storage and the significance of what Elon Musk and Tesla is doing is not so much about the car but really about energy storage because if that can be solved, you could reduce the price of energy even further from where it is today. At that point, it becomes perfectly logical to have clean, secure and stable source of energy which can be used ‘on-tap’. It will transform global politics. When that happens, everything changes.

7. One of the first things that will change in the post-energy revolution will be water. Obviously, I have got a vested interest in this as I used to be the Minister responsible for Singapore’s water resources. The next available drop of water would not just come from the sky. We have had to desalinate or recycle the water and it takes 3.5 kw/h of energy to produce one cubic metre of drinkable water in Singapore today. That is one thousand litres of water, or 3,000 cans of Coke. Even using today’s technology; the full, long run marginal cost of producing water, pumping it to the taps in our homes and then treating and recycling used water over the long-run is at slightly over 2 dollars. This is how much it would cost to produce the equivalent of 3,000 cans worth of drinkable water here in Singapore. If you were to stop and think about it; this is actually an affordable rate and we have not had to raise the price of water since 1999.

8. Though I am not a position to say that prices will not change, the key point here is that these costs have remained constant because of advances in technology. As energy becomes more cost-effective and available – along with improvements in membrane technology and material science - that cost is going to fall further. This would mean that the challenges of sustainable water solutions for cities would be substantially solved on a global scale. The part that is yet to be solved is producing water for agriculture or irrigation which would likely require a price reduction at a factor of at least one to two orders of magnitude, producing water at ten to a hundred times cheaper than where we are currently at. But bearing in mind the fact that irrigation does not require potable water, it can be done and in fact there are countries that are already addressing this issue.

9. The point I am raising here is that once you get energy and water solved, the next big challenge would be food and agriculture. If we do not make these transitions, there is likely to be a food crisis. Never before in human history have there been so many of us populating the planet and global population figures are projected  to be at about 9 billion by the middle of the century. We need a revolution in food but I am an optimist. I think the fact that energy and water can be solved foreshadows the next agricultural revolution which will not just be about growing food on land, but in hydroponics, aquaculture and harvesting proteins from the sea simply because it makes up almost three quarters of the global surface area. 

10. I am not sure how many of us here are vegetarians, but perhaps most of us consume meat and there is an inconvenient problem with meat. First, it is very inefficient because by the time the calories move up the food chain, there are a lot of losses and is not a very efficient process. Then there is also the messy process of having to slaughter the poor animal. I think that within our lifetimes, we will get to a world where we will be consuming proteins from tissue culture rather than from animal meat. The technology already exists, it will have to be further refined and our chefs would have to improve the taste; but it will happen. 

11. I think the next thing that is changing is in manufacturing and logistics chains because of the onset of 3D printing and additive manufacturing. The 3D printers we have in our homes today are just the beginning; robotics is about to undergo further transformation beyond the robotic arms you see in factories. General purpose robots will herald a revolution very similar to the general purpose personal computers (PC). When they were first invented, many questioned the need for a PC and when they became commonplace, even technologists like Bill Gates questioned the need for more than 640 kilobytes of memory, but PCs transformed everything. When I think about some of the implications of 3D printing and the robotics revolution; my own hypothesis is that it this signals the end of mass production and the beginning of the age of mass customisation.

12. For the last two and half centuries, the industrial revolution had been about making things using a cookie cutter approach. The more cookies you could make (mass production), the greater economies of scale you could achieve at a lower production cost. As long as you charged higher than your cost, you made a profit and the big capitalists made fortunes from that. But today, we can print something and customise it to fit you or your personality. Value is created from the fact that you have something unique, rather than something everybody else has. My favourite example of this is blue jeans; everyone has a pair but you will never find anyone wearing exactly the same one and the reason why distressed jeans are more expensive than immaculate, perfectly made jeans is because every piece of distressed jeans is unique. 

13. What are the commercial and logistics implications of the transition between mass production and the onset of the age of mass customisation? Not very far from where we are now, you would find one of the world’s largest container ports where you can get a good index of the world economy just by assessing the height of the containers stacked in the port of Singapore. Containers are a fairly efficient mode of freight but because they contain pre-packed manufactured goods, most containers actually just contain air; making shipments of manufactured goods inefficient. 

14. Can you imagine a future where almost everything you use or wear is printed at home? What will be in the container ships of the future? Will it be manufactured products surrounded by air to prevent goods from breaking, or will we be shipping the polymers we use in 3D printers, food ingredients - because we will be 3D printing our food - or electronics and hardware? When we look at it one resolution lower, we will be shipping the raw ingredients of 3D printing. That is not the only thing that will be shipped across the world. In fact, the next generation would say that our generation was crazy to burn oil instead of using hydrocarbons as the basis to manufacture the monomers and polymers we use for additive manufacturing. 

15. More importantly, we will be shipping blueprints and designs because you would be able to download a design, customise it and modify it suit your own needs before manufacturing and printing it at home. This also means that profits are likely to accrue more to designers rather than people involved with shipping or making standardised items; there will be an economic revolution. The point I am trying to make here is that – and this is a dangerous thing – if you are not an engineer, or a coder, or a designer or an artist, your job is at risk; it is not just politicians who are at risk. Everyone who is not able to create, design or draw in an effort to create something that resonates with people’s souls, to communicate it in an effective way, to use his hands and his mind to build something beautiful, useful and relevant – there is going to be a great disintermediation in society. Many good, middle class, white-collar jobs are going to disappear because the information revolution is not just going to transform manufacturing and logistics, but it will pave the way for everything-as-a-software-service.

16. Education, conferences, healthcare and transport; all these areas are overdue for a revolution in the way it is delivered, customised and how value is derived. Taking healthcare as an example; I used to be an eye surgeon and am still on leave of absence from the university - if I were to think that after I leave politics and return to practicing or teaching ophthalmology the way I used to - I think I am going to be sorely disappointed. The real impact of the digital revolution is only just beginning and is not going to just transform the hardware of it, but the ‘software’ which currently resides in our human minds.

17. I am reading a fascinating book entitled ‘Super-intelligence’ by Nick Bostrom which makes the point that we may be the last generation that improves biological human minds. Let us think about this; what if computers can do more than just win at Jeopardy, or do more than just enable massively-multiplayer online gaming or education? What if computers could make a more accurate diagnosis of your condition than I could as a doctor, or if computers could teach better? What sort of intelligence would replace human intelligence? What if we looked at robotic pets? In fact, the thing that sells the biggest on the internet; something far more basic, is sex. Can you imagine the impact of robotic, responsive, always available dolls? I know that it is the fantasy for many men but I am sure women will know what to do with that too. This is perhaps a facetious - but not completely crazy - idea that would be the real ‘killer app’ on the internet. 

18. Everything is changing and evolving towards a software service. The service industry and middle-class white collar work is already at risk. So when Singapore sets out on its journey to become a Smart Nation, we do so with an equal combination of paranoia and optimism, recognising that we are at the inflection point no less profound than when the agricultural revolution was replaced by the industrial revolution. Everything changed - from the countryside to the city, from extended families to nuclear families and from farms to factories. That revolution 250 years ago changed the world, our lives, our societies and our politics. If you agree with me that this combination of ongoing revolutions in energy, water, food, manufacturing, logistics, thinking and big data; and if you agree that we are on the verge of perhaps an even bigger revolution, then everything is going to change again. So what is Singapore’s response?

19. We position ourselves as a working model of the future – a prototype. If you have got a crazy idea, bring it here and test it. Put it into practice and see if anyone talks to your talking Merlion. Exploring new forms of sleep at the Chronarium? Let us see if anyone really falls asleep. In other words, bring an idea, make it, test it and prove it like what we did for water. We did not invent reverse osmosis but we up-scaled it to a national solution. Today we have got a couple of hundred water companies that can go all over the world with the calling card: “We are from Singapore and we solved the water challenge, perhaps I may be of some help to you.” That is the same concept here. 

20. We cannot be Silicon Valley but there are some things which we can do faster and more effectively here in Singapore. Do you need to have a fibre connection or two in your home? That is done, and Jacqueline will do it. Do you want the fastest broadband with the lowest latency in the world? Jacqueline must do that. We want every lamp post to be smart and a beacon, every traffic light to be aware. We expect the Internet-of-Things (IoT) where with 30 - 50 billion smart objects proliferating over the globe in the coming years. I have spoken to Jacqueline and have asked her to prepare for 30 million smart objects very soon in Singapore - preferably yesterday - because we want to prototype the future and the internet-of-everything in Singapore. These capabilities should be developed quickly for us to be the ideal test lab for the world. 

21. The advantage of dealing with Singapore is that we are small and compact city with a single layer of Government. Our Prime Minister can code, and I can still code enough to appreciate your source code. That is also why we are also moving to an ‘open data, open source’ society. Drew Hemment had shared with me earlier that the FutureEverything project is actually a Trojan horse. He is actually a subversive who is trying to change the world and society. What he told me - and I think it is worth repeating – was that if you live in a world in which citizens are just meant to be passive consumers, all you can do if you are not satisfied is to complain, and if you are angry enough, sometimes revolutions get started. 

22. We believe that if we can create a society of hackers, makers and creators and if there is something we are not satisfied with or a desire and ambition that is unfulfilled – do not wait. Use us as a living laboratory of the future and create a completely different form of society. Instead of fearing the future, waiting for something to happen to you, or for someone else to do something to you - be active and creative; make it, improve it and create the future. We have in our hands the tools and the opportunities to do so and I would suggest to you that Singapore is the ideal place to make the future - the future of everything.

23. Thank you all for being here.

Last updated on: 13 Mar 2023