Urgent tech interventions, the Smart Nation Initiative and the commercialisation of technology

Professor Gerhard Schmitt
Professor Gerhard Schmitt Professor Gerhard Schmitt speaking at the KOHLER Design Forum, Singapore

In recent years, technology advancements have sped up exponentially due to the increasing availability of resources, knowledge and talents. With the integration of machine learning, we are also beginning to see technologies that we deemed impossible in the past becoming a reality today.

Although there are many new techs emerging every few months, there is still a lot to be done especially in solving humanity’s big challenges like environment, energy and food.

This week, we speak with Dr Gerhard Schmitt, who is the Director of the Singapore-ETH Centre and Professor of Information Architecture at ETH Zurich to understand the challenges that require urgent tech interventions, about Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative and the commercialisation of technology.

There are numerous IoT solutions introduced in recent years, globally. In your opinion, what are the three most urgent solutions that have not yet been developed, but should be addressed as soon as possible? Why?

As we are moving towards an Internet environment shared between people and things, more transparency and accountability is needed regarding the embedded IoT decisions, processes and actions. Second, small safety and security inspection robots that could help to avoid catastrophes such as the bridge in Genoa that recently collapsed. Third, smart and affordable IoT devices that actively improve the environment and store clean and renewable energy, such as hydrogen-generating devices attached to neighbourhood photovoltaic systems to run fuel cell engines.

What are some of the projects that you and your team have developed and implemented?

Among the many needs of rapidly urbanising regions are energy and infrastructure. The City Energy Analyst (CEA) software was developed in ETH Zurich for energy modelling and analysis. Our team at the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) is using it in Singapore to uncover critical interdependencies, synergies and thresholds to improve how dense Asian cities are designed and how energy infrastructures are planned.

In collaboration with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), our team at FCL is addressing the huge demand for infrastructure by developing more accurate models to determine the performance of structures such as bridges. Using sensor measurement data combined with site-inspection results and engineering knowledge, the more accurate prediction would help to avoid infrastructure catastrophes, but also avoid unnecessary demolition and rebuilding when ageing structures have spare capacity left and can be extended or repaired.

On more people-centric applications, we are applying online design tools such as the Quick Urban Analysis Kit (qua-kit) to allow citizens to participate in the design of the environment they live in. With such a user-friendly online tool, residents who are not trained in urban design can contribute to placemaking and provide important insights to planners from the ground. We have run a series of these citizen design activities in Singapore in collaboration with Participate in Design to collect residents’ views of what they hope to see in the development of the Greater Southern Waterfront in Singapore when the port relocates in the coming years.

How far are we from having an AI of All Things?

We see a huge advancement in AI technology, and an increasing range of applications, so it is very promising on the technological front. From the user and policymaker’s perspectives, we need to ensure that AI technologies are widely accepted by users and that policymakers have a good understanding of the technology and the implications of the technology to set standards and policies for the AI of All Things.

In the case of autonomous vehicles (AVs), users of AVs need to be trained as “drivers”, and pedestrians need to be educated about how AVs would react when in the paths of pedestrians. Policymakers would need to review traffic rules and culpability in traffic incidences involving AVs.

In the introduction of new technologies, it is usually the interaction of science, policy and people that is the trickiest. To expose graduate students to these exact issues, the Singapore-ETH Centre has been organising the Science, Technology and Policy workshop in the past three years. The theme this year was on the future of work, focused on technologies such as AI, and how it has implications for policymaking, education and skills training.

As Singapore is gradually moving towards becoming a Smart Nation, some Singaporeans are still sceptical about the idea. What are your thoughts on this, and why? 

Singapore becoming a Smart Nation means that most services should become increasingly integrated and efficient. This could translate to fewer agencies to visit, fewer forms to fill, and reduced processing time.

I think people may not be so sceptical about the idea of becoming a Smart Nation, but rather, fear that a segment of society could be left behind as the country becomes more connected and more driven by technology. They also intuitively feel that governance in a smart nation would be hybrid and therefore different from today, unpredictable and unknown.

However, all over the world, not just in Singapore, people are feeling unsettled about making vast amounts of personal data available and are increasingly concerned about privacy issues. Cybersecurity is what most service providers and administrators, including governments, have to grapple with in embracing smart technologies. One aspect is to ensure that its systems are secure, and another aspect is to communicate the robustness of its systems to the users.

We often see videos of incredible technology like robots that jump and move swiftly, but many a time, we don’t see them appearing anywhere in the market. Why is the commercialisation of technology, which has already been built, taking forever to never appear in the market?

The commercialisation of technology requires risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit, as well as the funding to take the new technology to market. The market must, of course, see the need for such technology for it to be successful. This is the demand and supply side of things. Also, there is a straightforward reason: devices could work for exactly the purpose shown in the video, but not reliably in other situations. Therefore, it is better that they do not enter the market prematurely.

Sometimes, technologies do not make it to the market because of funding considerations such as the lack of venture capital and angel investors. Fortunately, platforms like Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing platforms make it possible for tech start-ups to “feel” the market before plunging into it. Other times, regulatory conditions may pose challenges to start-ups due to the regulations they have to abide by in the various markets that they operate in, as we observe in the cases of Airbnb and Uber.

As such, in our course of work at the Singapore-ETH Centre, as we develop solutions for the future city, it is vital that we have open dialogues with the relevant government agencies, industry, as well as with the community. Such engagements ensure that these solutions will be accepted by the government agencies who will implement or the companies that will provide them, as well as the residents who will use them.


About Professor Gerhard Schmitt

Gerhard Schmitt is a professor of information architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, founding director of the Singapore -ETH Centre in Singapore and ETH Zurich senior vice-president for ETH Global. His work focuses on information architecture as the next level of computer-aided architecture design. Creating a simulation, visualisation and interaction platform for the Future Cities Laboratory is at the centre of his research.

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