Singapore’s brilliantly bold skyscraper landscape represents a grand stage where the star performers are the mechanical and electrical sensors, instruments, and controls that turn this island city-state into one of the smartest places on earth.

Under an ambitious Smart Nation program that began several years ago, Singapore has become a test bed for the application of Big Data and Internet of Things innovations and an incubator for technologies that are transforming the way our cities will work in the future.

The backbone of Singapore’s increasingly smart infrastructure is a fiber network spanning the 276-square-mile island, bringing high-speed Internet to every home and office. It’s no surprise that today Singaporeans average three mobile devices per person. But that is just the start.

The goal of the Smart Nation program is to turn Singapore into a living laboratory, a place to test smart solutions in crowded urban settings. In one Singapore neighborhood, for example, thousands of sensors were installed on individual apartments to measure energy draw, waste production, and water usage in real time. The neighborhood also has gone green with a vacuum waste-management system, solar panels, and a water-reclamation project.

In transportation, Singapore has been at the forefront of autonomous-vehicle testing. Its streets are open to self-driving cars and buses. Small-scale trials of shuttles began at Nanyang Technological University, and MIT spin-off nuTonomy began testing autonomous taxis on city streets.

Even as testing of self-driving vehicles continues, the family of sensors at the heart of Smart Nation is being used to track Singapore’s bus fleet. The captured data enable the government to identify problems early on and find solutions.

The idea behind the Smart Nation is to meld technology incubated in the private sector with government efforts to ensure resilience amid turmoil linked to rapid urbanization, climate change, public health threats, unaffordability, and other challenges to national harmony.

Why has Singapore become a Smart City model? Singapore lacks the multilevel bureaucracies that stifle other major cities, engineers here told me during a recent visit. There’s also a willingness to spend on infrastructure such as universal high-speed Internet with little or no opposition.

In the context of the IoT, constant connectivity, and complementary infrastructure it all makes sense. But because of Singapore’s reputation as a chewing gum-averse, surveillance-happy state, factors surrounding smart city technology start to take on new gravity. With the prospect of sensors connecting homes, cars, infrastructure, and who knows what else in the name of efficiency and ease of use, cybersecurity and data privacy may be hard to preserve.

The glitter that shines off the majestic skyscrapers here hides the strong-arm of government. But as a social and technology experiment, Singapore is hard to beat. This month’s cover story, “Building a Smart City” beginning on page 32, tells what one U.S. city—San Diego—is doing to get “smarter.”

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

August 2017

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