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The innovation ecosystem in Singapore - An urban logistics case study

The 4th Annual EmTech Asia opened in Singapore today with a presentation on Smart Nation: Innovations and Collaborations by Mr. Khoong Hock Yun (above), Assistant Chief Executive (Development), Infocomm Development Media Authority (IMDA). EmTech Asia is an annual global emerging technologies conference hosted by MIT Technology Review. IMDA is a hosting partner.

“Everybody participates in co-creating what they want”

Mr. Khoong started his presentation saying that many of the initiatives being undertaken in Singapore under the Smart Nation Programme are related to global challenges, not unique to Singapore. For instance, the problem of ageing population. Or limited resources. Limitations of land, people, energy, water are issues faced by many cities around the world. But they are possibly faced by Singapore in a more acute fashion.

Despite being resource-poor, Singapore has prospered over the past 50 years. The question then is how does Singapore continue to grow as a nation in economic and social terms, while not consuming the same amount of resources as in the past. How can technology be used as a force multiplier to solve problems and achieve continued growth?

Mr. Khoong used the example of a project in the area of urban logistics launched last year to demonstrate the way in which technology is being used in Singapore. Urban logistics aims to apply best practices from international logistics in an urban setting. For example, the equivalent of port facilities in shipping would be loading-unloading bays for trucks in an urban setting. A time study revealed that the average turnaround time for trucks entering the shopping malls, unloading their goods, completing documentation and leaving was 65 minutes. And the goods delivery happens during a 6 hour window between 10 am and 4 pm, as the shopping crowds would surge post 4 pm. This inefficiency results in more trucks being needed, resulting in traffic congestion and pollution. It also increases the number of drivers required.

If the planned steps are implemented, it would lead to 25% increase in truck utilisation, 14.2 metric ton reduction in yearly carbon dioxide emission by trucks and $65 million annual manpower savings.

The idea is to bring about a structural change in the process by placing a dedicated in-mall operator. This operator would handle the unloading of the trucks and related documentation and deliver the goods to the individual retail shops. Delivery truck vehicle parking times went down from 24 minutes to 7.

But now what if things get lost? Going back and checking the entire chain would eliminate all the gains made. This is where technology comes in.  The goods to be delivered to a specific shop in the mall would be containerised and a smart lock would be put in place. The container and lock can be tracked from the warehouse to the mall. If the lock loses its signal at any point, it would deem itself compromised. If the lock maintains its integrity and stays green, the truck delivers the goods, scanning is completed, and the goods delivered to the retail shop. If there is any discrepancy, then it is an issue between the shop and the warehouse.  

Other parts of the process are also being reconfigured. For instance, the possibility of an off-site consolidation is being explored. All the items to be delivered to one mall can be consolidated into fewer trucks, reducing the number of trucks and trips. For this, the container would need to have the destination stored in the smart lock, so that the goods can be automatically directed to the right truck delivering to the right shop.

Another idea deals with the process at the consumer end. What if customers go the shop, make their purchases and then items could be delivered to the customer’s house from the shop or even directly from the offsite consolidation centre. would be to deliver the purchases. The delivery could be to a federated locker, common lockers at convenient locations island-wide. This would also solve the problem of customers not being home. Productivity of logistics service providers, the reach of retailers and customers’ convenience would all improve.

The next step could be the use of autonomous, driverless trucks, further reducing manpower requirement.  

Mr. Khoong said that the whole point of narrating this story is to show how innovation benefits us when it solves real-world problems. The government can play the role of better articulating what some of those problems are.

The Singapore is creating test-beds to look at new ways of doing things and changes in systems, processes, methodologies and people. As an example, Mr. Khoong talked about the collaboration between IMDA and Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) to provide an Integrated Guest Experience. Under the project, companies have successfully developed prototypes for facial recognition, pocket tour trails, wearables, cashless payment, analytics and digital virtual assistant.

Mr. Khoong underlined the importance of cybersecurity in this new world, ensuring that the innovative services are delivered securely. He concluded his presentation talking about the ‘Ecosystem’, made up of government, corporates, startups, risk capital and universities and the citizens at the centre of it all. The government alone cannot plan and implement the Smart Nation strategy. All members of this ecosystem have to participate in co-creating what they want and solve the problems they face.

"Do we have the courage to take risks?"

Later in the day, the theme of innovation in Singapore and the ecosystem at its core was taken forward by Mr. Steve Leonard (above), CEO of SGInnovate, in a talk titled ‘#DOInnovate'.

Mr. Leonard asked if enough is being done with the resources and capabilities that Singapore has. He considered if there are shortcomings in different aspects which could impede innovation. Is it funding? Singapore has billions in innovation funding from government, venture capitalists and private equity players. Is it something to do with corporates? There are over 7000 corporations which consider Singapore their base. Is it something to do with universities, with science education? Education is not a concern with two of local universities ranked among the top 15 in the world. Is it research & development? In 2016, $19 billion was allocated for R&D over 5 years, till 2020. Singapore’s government has demonstrated a sustained, predictable, long-term commitment to R&D. Is it government support? The government realises the importance of science and technology and is highly supportive.

The answer Mr. Leonard proposed was ‘courage’, the collective courage to take risks. He asked, “Do we have the ability to embark on something that we don’t know the answer to, that almost certainly won’t work in the way that we hoped.”

That was the reason for the establishment of SGInnovate. Its efforts are directed at connecting the men and women in Singapore, who have the capability and the ambition.

With the presence of local sovereign investment funds and industry leaders on its board, SGInnovate can help obtain validation for someone developing a new idea. It is not about building the latest taxi-sharing or messaging app, though those might present valid economic models. SGInnovate puts money into advanced technologies which could make a real difference in areas such an ageing population, health, housing and transport.

These two talks showed a glimpse of how the Singapore government is working to promote innovation to solve problems in the city-state and achieve the Smart Nation vision through contributions from all stakeholders.

In the coming days, OpenGov will publish reports on the technologies of the future presented during the 2-day conference and the individuals behind them.

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