A Down-to-Earth Approach to Digital Government and Smart Cities

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Digitizing and developing smart cities: Shooting ourselves in the foot

Sometimes, we shoot ourselves in the foot when we discuss digital governments and smart cities. We paint ideals that are so perfect they intimidate rather than motivate. Let me give you an example.

 

Intimidating ideal scenarios

We ask public service leaders to imagine the first responders of the digital future. Where they arrive at any emergency site always prepared – armed with the most up-to-date information and equipment to help them do their job. Wearing augmented reality glasses, the first responders overlay blueprints of the infrastructure onto their fields of vision to negotiate risks and locate access points.

Through smart devices integrated with their equipment, each of them gets access to real-time insights – not just from government agencies, but also public channels, social sites and sensors across the city. Insights which advanced analytics and machine learning have already applied iterations of possible outcomes to – so that the first responders can make swift, optimal decisions to counter the situation.

As the incident unfolds, both central command HQ and each individual responder get real-time updates. If a citizen spots a suspicious individual and posts it on social media, or a city camera detects a likely threat based on facial recognition algorithms, the nearest and best equipped responder can take care of that.  Wearing smart wearables that monitor health vitals, any personnel who is unwell is immediately pulled out. The next most suitable candidates based on location, training and experience are recommended.

 

Extensive time, budget and resources required

Now, don’t get me wrong. The above scenario is great. It is indeed a likely picture of a digitized government. But there are extensive technologies involved. And new processes that come along with it, such as new doctrines and training methodologies. All of which require considerable time, budget and resources.

Governments are at different stages of digital transformation. Only a small percentage is in the maturing stage. Most are still in the early or developing phases. For them, when we present such concepts as visions of the future, the journey looks daunting. And quite simply, unattainable.

 

Not a lofty vision

But digital governments cannot merely remain lofty visions. Not with so many benefits it is offering countries, and so much good it is delivering to citizens and businesses. So, it is our job as technology evangelists to do better at helping governments transform. To show public sector leaders where to take the first steps. To help strategize for the long-term. But gain quick wins in execution.

And there’s no better way to do that than taking a down-to-earth approach.

The first step in that approach is: Find and adapt from role models. The fact is, many countries, states and cities have achieved digital successes. Their citizens, businesses and economies are already reaping the rewards of the initial digitization efforts. To make digital transformation practical, it makes absolute sense to draw lessons from these success stories – to quickly kickstart or bolster digitization plans.

 

Success stories to learn from: My top picks

For nations and cities in Southeast Asia, here’s my top three picks of successful and nearby countries that deserve a callout to learn from.

  • Australia – Exemplary Digital Service Delivery. Ranked second after Denmark by the United Nations’ E-Government Development Index, Australia is exemplary in its citizen engagement efforts and joined-up, online service delivery. An illustration: It created joined-up service delivery in social security and health. Child benefits are made conditional on a child health outcome of being fully immunized. This conditionality ties up social protection (aimed at reducing child poverty) with public health – generating greater positive societal outcomes. More recently, it folded the Department of Human Services into a single outfit – Services Australia – which intends to make better use of technology to better integrate service delivery across different portfolios such as social security, child support, aged care and health.
  • Singapore – Excellent Systematic and Actionable Digitization. Singapore, also ranked within top 10 in the United Nation’s E-Government Development Index, is second in IDC’s digital competitiveness ranking. The only Asian country to crack the top 10 spots, Singapore leads in the nation’s ability to formulate sound policies, design actionable strategies, and execute pragmatically.

A Civil Service Computerization Program started in the 1980s. And the country’s first e-Government Action Plan launched in 2000. This was followed by its Smart Nation program in 2014. Its latest – Infocomm Media 2025 – is a robust plan with clear strategic thrusts to harness big data and digital technologies, foster risk-taking, and connect people. Like its other masterplans, each strategic thrust comes with actionable initiatives to systematically drive digitization.

When I visited Yinchuan in 2017, I saw for myself how this vibrant city uses technology outstandingly. What left an impression is the city’s one-stop citizen smart service center. With a single hotline to deal with everyday administrative and city service matters, this platform consolidates what was previously 55 hotlines concerning matters such as utilities and urban management. It now allows 58 departments to share data. Key contingency plans – from both the public and private sector – are also kept on the platform to enhance Yinchuan’s emergency response capability.

But why select countries within the region, some ask? Quite simply, because of the potential similarities. Owing to proximity, societies tend to embody more similar traits such as core values and culture. Thus, the success factors tend to be more alike as well. Of course, the right adaption is important for every city, state or country as no two places are alike. This is where a partner’s experience would be invaluable.

 

The next step

The most sophisticated digital governments today started somewhere. And they began as newbies, with little material then to learn from.

Today, we are in a much better place. We have success stories as case studies. We have the experience of experts who walked the journeys with some of these successes. That means governments commencing or developing digital efforts can move – guided and with less risk.

Which brings us to the burning questions: When will you start? What the three key areas you want to work on? And who are you partnering with?

Once you start walking with your partner to shape your transformation, you may be surprised. By how uncomplicated it all is. By how quickly success follows. And the ideal scenario I described in the beginning may not be so far off after all.

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