Transforming lives and businesses in exciting ways was the key theme of the inaugural Smart Nation Innovations Week Opening Symposium.
By Francis Kan
At the first ever symposium to open this year’s Smart Nation Innovations Week (SNI), the challenge of using technology to transform societies and economies was put in the spotlight by government officials and business leaders.
New insights on the impact of technology emerged from the session, with one speaker memorably calling data “the new air”.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean kicked off proceedings with an opening address that touched on the Singapore government’s efforts to better serve its citizens using digital solutions.
“Our government services are also going through a major transformation to put our citizens at the centre. The objective is to make services intuitive and easy for all to use – in several languages, and even if we are less familiar with technology,” he said.
As part of this effort, DPM Teo launched a blueprint for Digital Government at the symposium, which outlines how the government will re-organise itself to deliver public services better through the use of technology.
Think big, start small, act fast
At a panel session on “Transforming Nations and Cities”, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, Dr Janil Puthucheary, offered more details on Singapore’s Smart Nation push.
Noting that several key measures have been put in place over the past few years to lay the foundation for a smart nation – from the data security act to the formation of the IMDA – he said that Singapore is now moving to put up frameworks for how a digital economy and digital government would work.
“What ties everything together is our scale of ambition to transform. We have to think really big, but start small and act fast,” he said.
He believed that the key challenges to Singapore’s digital ambitions would be social acceptance and getting the regulatory structure right. “Absent of prior experience, we are at the frontier of what may or may not be correct,” he added.
One way that the government is dealing with the issue of regulation is through “regulatory sandboxes”. These are defined confines where regulations are loosened, allowing companies in particular domains to experiment with innovations. The experience within these sandboxes would then inform government policy, explained Dr Puthucheary.
The next billion Internet users
In his keynote address at the SNI Opening Symposium, Mr Caesar Sengupta, vice president of Google’s Next Billion Users division, offered insights into how the next generation of internet users would re-shape the digital landscape.
He noted that the number of connected devices has grown from 360 million in 2000 to 3.6 billion last year.
By 2021, this number is expected to grow to 5 billion devices.
“The massive rise in innovation will come from the next billion users. They are transforming the Internet and (it) will look more like the next billion users than the first billion,” said Mr Sengupta.
These new users are mainly mobile-first, and their smartphones have also become their wallets and televisions. They will also use voice applications more frequently. “The behaviour of the next billion users will drive transformation.”
Data is the new air
At another panel session titled “Economic Transformation”, speakers discussed the impact of technology on economies.
Mr Shailendra Singh, vice president at venture capitalists Sequoia SEA & India, said that a new generation of “full-stack” tech start-ups was launching a full-frontal assault on incumbents in traditional industries.
“Technology has become so mainstream and the amount of capital available has led to the emergence of full stack businesses that combine traditional and tech businesses. Netflix is a creator of content, while Amazon owns Whole Foods,” he said.
However, such transformation is less apparent in the financial services sector, which is heavily regulated, said Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Bank. He added that much-hyped cryptocurrencies will also not replace traditional currencies anytime soon.
“Monetary policy is still run through the banking system, so it is not easy for sovereign governments to give them up. It will take time,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Gupta called data “the new air” that governments would need to regulate effectively as it grows exponentially in volume. He added that there could also be some unintended consequences to the proliferation of data in business and society.
“If an insurance company knows who will and won’t get cancer, it won’t insure some people,” he added.
The wide range of insights that emerged gave much food for thought to the audience who attended the Opening Symposium, which is organised by the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Other key events at SNI Week included innovfest unbound, which is organised by NUS Enterprise and unbound, in partnership with IMDA. innovfest unbound is the anchor event of the Digital Economy track of SNI Week, a week-long series of events that showcase the latest digital developments and transformation in the global innovation ecosystem.