Using a smart phone in Singapore offers a glimpse of the future. The nation’s near obsession with the Internet—it’s home to the world’s highest mobile penetration rate, of about 150%, as well as the world’s fastest peak Internet speeds for mobile broadband, according to Akamai Technologies—belies what its government is looking to achieve. Ubiquitous connectivity, or what the nation calls its “Everyone connected to Everything, Everywhere, All the time” (E3A) atmosphere, is fundamental to Singapore’s Smart Nation drive, which was first unveiled by its Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in November 2014. This initiative aims to make Singapore a 21st-century nation of smart technology and innovation.

Rather than build such connectivity for consumers of social content—from Instagram and Facebook to messaging apps—Singapore seeks innovations that can flow from unfettered and ubiquitous digital access, such as advanced in-home healthcare. Imagine stroke patients recovering in the comfort of their homes, where “Internet of Things”–based sensors track their vital signs and alert caregivers if something is detected.

The possibilities mount as Singapore sets out to become a Smart Nation, a realistic goal according to its leaders. “We think we have a good chance to succeed,” says Tan Kok Yam, head of Singapore’s Smart Nation Programme Office. “As we continue to seek growth and raise living quality amid a constrained land mass and a limited and ageing population, it is vital that we continue to be able to innovate as a city and a nation. Singapore sees the global digital revolution as a tremendous opportunity for us to do so… to use technology to improve lives, create economic opportunity, and build societal connectedness on top of digital connectivity.” He adds, “We have already made significant investments in the digital infrastructure, by laying fiber broadband connections in every home and business, providing Singaporeans access to the fastest wired and mobile connectivity in the world.”

But moving forward entails careful planning. “Smart Nation is about innovation and creating something different,” says Steve Leonard, the executive deputy chairman of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), the country’s technology promoting agency. “We have challenges to overcome such as ubiquitous connectivity or helping ageing populations.” He adds, “But these are also global challenges, and if we can pull the ecosystem together—institutes of higher learning, startups, investors and more—we believe we can help tackle these challenges and make important contributions to the world. We are doing this to galvanize the nation and ensure we have that infrastructure built, today.”

Without a doubt, Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative is off to a great start. “We have a population that is relatively well-versed in computational skills, due to an education system that provides rigorous training at all levels in math, science and engineering,” says Tan. “We have an ethos in our society to solve problems logically and practically at the systems level.” He adds, “As a single layer of government, we are able to be decisive in making long-term investments in technology. If solutions work in Singapore, our hope is that they can be adapted to solve similar urban challenges in other cities and countries.”

In short, Singapore today is a “living lab.” Set in an ecosystem that facilitates innovation, including good public policy and responsive governance, Singapore is the world’s laboratory for ongoing innovation—in everything from housing and transportation to medicine, science and technology.


Singapore’s national-level coordinating agency, the Smart Nation Programme Office, is working with many government agencies, including IDA, to harness information and communications technology, networks and data to the fullest potential and put in place the infrastructure, policies, ecosystem and capabilities to enable a smart future.

Innovators around the world are praising these efforts. “Singapore’s government really amplifies its impact on innovation beyond its geographical footprint,” says Anita Goel, chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The country is a magnet that attracts a cluster of innovators, and it’s creating a global hub of innovation.” She also points out that Singapore excels in certain stages of commercial development. “When you are going from a prototype to a manufacturing scale,” she says, “Singapore is a very nice gateway into Asia.” In fact, she’s considered launching her company’s Gene-RADAR—which could replace centralized lab infrastructure with a mobile nanotechnology platform that rapidly and accurately detects genetic fingerprints of any disease, empowering people worldwide with real-time, affordable diagnostic information in a mobile device—in Singapore.

Other technologies also get tested in this country. “Singapore is a prime example of the challenges faced by megacities—rapid pace of urbanization, aging population, lack of natural resources and great demographic diversity,” says Lee Fook Sun, deputy CEO and president, defense business of ST Engineering, and president of ST Electronics. “These make us a model test bed. But more importantly, our government is very willing to leverage this natural test bed to create opportunities, try out new technology and facilitate experimentation.”

In addition to a highly wired and forward-looking population, Singapore is home to a thriving start-up scene, a large venture-capital pool, an entrepreneurial spirit, leading universities, billions in investments in research and development, and is the Asian hub for many multi-national corporate headquarters. Ram Sasisekharan, Alfred H. Caspary Professor of Biological Engineering and Health Sciences & Technology at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and affiliated with the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, says, “Singapore is a melting pot that provides high quality infrastructure to do science and the necessary talent to do good research, and the country is currently involved in significant translational activities.” In fact, his own Cambridge-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company, Visterra, operates an arm in Singapore. Sasisekharan also points out that top foreign universities—including Duke, MIT, Yale and others—have set up major centers in Singapore.

Government-run, open data portals are also key to building a Smart Nation. For example, the OneService app allows citizens to easily send feedback on municipal issues to relevant agencies for timely responses. Other data resources help citizens and businesses develop their own applications and create business or societal value. Moreover, increased access to data encourages citizen engagement and the contribution of innovative ideas.

International experts see the great value of keeping data open. Goel says, “We could integrate our technology with an open-data society, and that would enable us to build ecosystems to track health in real time and to track outbreaks, like influenza.”

Some of the Smart Nation–related innovations already improve healthcare. For example, the National Electronic Health Record (NEHR) is a patient data–sharing platform that enables healthcare professionals to access their patients’ healthcare history for better treatment decisions. It also enables a seamless healthcare experience for the patients as they make use of the national healthcare network.


Some of the Smart Nation–related innovations already improve healthcare. For example, the National Electronic Health Record (NEHR) is a patient data–sharing platform that enables healthcare professionals to access their patients’ healthcare history for better treatment decisions. It also enables a seamless healthcare experience for the patients as they make use of the national healthcare network.

An early example of Singapore’s commitment to bringing advanced technology to everyday life was its introduction of road pricing in 1975, with the Area Licensing Scheme (ALS). In 1998, Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) replaced the manual ALS. Such systems aimed to unclog major arteries by placing a premium on driving on the most congested city streets at peak hours. Today, a satellite-based toll collection system is being built. Although drivers might grumble about having to pay tolls, Singapore commuters have what is arguably the world’s best mass-transit system.

As Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large with the Singapore Foreign Ministry and chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, says, “Singapore is a country with many constraints—physical size, population size, workforce size—and absent natural resources.” Still, she says, “Smart technologies will help us to overcome these limitations. From a public-policy perspective, governments must deliver governance solutions that are timely, effective and minimize costs.


Looking to support the next generation of innovators, Singapore makes science a desirable and rewarding subject to entice more people into the fields that contribute to its Smart Nation efforts.

Three main scholarships from the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA)—the Infocomm Polytechnic Scholarship (iPoly), the National Infocomm Scholarship and the National Cybersecurity Postgraduate Scholarship (NCPS)—open doors for young people and professionals. The first two scholarships entice students to pursue infocomm-related courses. The NCPS—offered by the National Research Foundation, an organization under the aegis of the Prime Minister’s office—targets graduates and working professionals who want to attain further qualifications in the fast-growing cybersecurity field.

To nurture its human capital, Singapore offers comprehensive education opportunities for students of all ages. The Code@SG movement, for instance, was launched in 2014 to teach coding and computational thinking in a fun way to all primary and secondary students. The collective set of initiatives targets primary to tertiary students with relevant programs, and to date, more than 110,000 have taken part. In addition, IDA’s Playmaker curriculum for pre-school children improves problem-solving, sequencing, reasoning, numeracy and literacy skills through a suite of technology-enabled toys. The workshop was designed to help young minds develop the necessary tech-tinkering acumen and creativity to inspire their own inventiveness. Since its introduction in September 2015, 160 preschool centers and about 6,000 preschoolers have participated in the pilot program. Plus, in April 2016, Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information of Singapore, announced a S$120 million investment to support training for current and future technology professionals.

Other efforts dedicated to encouraging young talent are the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) scholarships and fellowships for aspiring scientists at top global universities. Since 2001, A*STAR has supported and nurtured more than 1,400 students at the undergraduate to post-doctoral levels, helping to attract a steady flow of capable and committed early-career talent to its public research institutes, industry and universities.

In addition, the Singapore government hopes to entice its tech-minded citizens living abroad to return home to work on Smart Nation projects. Earlier this year, IDA rolled out Singapore’s first Smart Nation Fellowship Programme, targeted primarily at Singaporeans working overseas. “Building a smart nation requires all hands on deck,” IDA managing director Jacqueline Poh said about the initiative. “There are many citizen-centric challenges that are best tackled through the use of technology and open data, but we need a core group of software engineers, designers and product developers who can deliver data-driven insights for the public good and develop tech solutions for citizens.”