How technology can help in a Singapore with 6.9 million people

February 2nd, 2013 | by Alfred Siew

(source: Diary of A Singaporean Mind)

After enduring packed trains and sky-high prices for housing in the past few years, many Singaporeans just cannot imagine what life will be like when the government brings another 1.6 million people to the Tiny Red Dot by 2030.

What will be the place be like when 6.9 million people throng this place, up from the current 5.3 million? No matter how many roads or new MRT lines are built, there will still be a limit to the number of people who can be packed into a busy place like the central business district.

Perhaps it is time for companies and employees to seriously consider working from home, or just about anywhere, rather than having everyone squeeze like sardines into an MRT train to go to work at peak hour each day.

After all, Singapore is one of the most well-connected cities in the world. It’s time for de-centralising business with the help of technology.

Working from home
If you go to work every day at about 8.30am and head home around 6pm, you’ll know how bad the congestion is on the roads and in the trains. Yet, not everyone really “starts work” right on the dot; some end up snacking at breakfast or simply clearing e-mail – stuff they can do at home.

Sadly, despite Singapore’s advanced connectivity, human resource policies haven’t really changed all that much from the past few decades. Employers, by and large, still expect workers to turn up on time at their desks and clock in the hours. Oh, do keep your phone on after you leave too.

Why not let workers work more flexibly, at home or on the go, instead of forcing them to rush in at peak hour and leave during the evening crunch time?

Some technology firms already do that. At Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific offices, there are no permanent desks for anyone and staff can clock in and out of the office any time, as long as they get their work done.

True, flexi-hours are not for every company or industry. But the key here, when Singapore gets really crowded, is to alleviate the problem where possible. That means staff who can get work done at home should spend some of that time away from office, and perhaps get in only when necessary, say, for meetings.

Intense competition in consumer broadband services here means that homes are sometimes connected to the Net faster than in the office. Compared to the past, fibre broadband services also give home users a big boost in terms of how fast they can upload stuff – a gigabyte of files will take minutes, not hours.

The speedy links open up to new business tools too. If companies already video-conference through Skype to cut down air travel, why not use it in Singapore to cut down the jam in the city?

Powerful devices in my bag
One other big trend is this idea of BYOD or bring your own device. Today, your laptop, iPad or smartphone is probably way more advanced than what the IT department will pass you after a months-long procurement process.

This “consumerisation” of technology means that many employees already have their own devices. Instead of wasting time and cost providing hardware for staff, IT departments should make sure services run smoothly, reliably and securely on these third-party devices.

IT departments are naturally wary of losing control, but consider the productivity gains. An employee remotely connected to applications on his office network is a lot more useful than one who can only answer his e-mail and calls on his smartphone.

Good news is, new devices these days are also very portable. Tablets and laptops often weigh less than 2kg now and they don’t cost S$3,000 like a few years ago.

More of these device getting into the hands of employees means a more mobile workforce – one that does not have to travel to the same congested CBD at the same peak hour every day.

And even if you are stuck in a train with armpits thrust in your face, the consolation is that the laptop in your bag is at least not weighing your shoulder down as much as before. Thankful for small mercies, they say.

Mobile banking
While e-banking has meant that funds can be easily transferred online and you only go to the bank for things like changing a damaged ATM card or opening a new account, more can be done using mobile banking.

Right now, many banks still ask users to carry a token to log in to such services, besides keying in their passwords on the website. But who carries a token with them all day? Can such two-factor authentication (2FA) be made simpler?

One way is to provide this second password, usually flashed on the token’s screen, on a credit card. Yes, a credit card with a screen. That’s what Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore unveiled in November last year, when it came up with a Mastercard that doubled up as a token for online transactions.

This doesn’t have to stop with banking. Imagine if you can log in to government services this way too. Singapore already has a government-run National Authentication Framework (NAF), which lets users log in to a host of services using the same token, instead of carrying one from each bank or government department.

Companies that provide online services should consider this, as they move to provide mobile transactions. With it, users can get things done on their phones without having to go back to the office to settle a simple online transaction.

Smart sensors
This may sound a little Big Brother but in a small city like Singapore, thousands of sensors can be fitted islandwide to feed users practical information and better plan a day to minimise unnecessary travel.

Today, commuters already get train updates on their smartphones either through Twitter or other mobile applications. What if the smartphone is able to take all the information – appointments, e-mail, location, even health statistics – and combine it with public service information like train updates or road toll timings to advise a user what he should do next?

Say, the phone can remind a user that he has an appointment two train stops away in two hours’ time, and advise him that it may be better to hang around a cafe to finish his report to his boss for now since there are lots of people taking trains at the time. This means he doesn’t add to the already packed trains.

What about indoor sensors that use Wi-Fi signals to help locate you in a building and guide you to the restaurant you are looking for? Already, companies are testing this today. If this works out well in future, hey, at least you won’t have to get sweaty and frustrated thronging through a mall full of other people thronging through a mall.

Today, our phones already remind us of a friend’s birthday. It’s a matter of time before your personal gadget takes all the data and offers useful advice for getting things done without adding to the city’s congestion.

Looking forward
All these suggestions, of course, only alleviate the pain. They do not solve the root of the problem, which is Singapore’s small size and the never-ending immigration drive in the name of economic growth.

New obstacles will emerge as well. Even today, mobile networks are jammed up because of the sheer amount of traffic they have to handle. How will they handle traffic from the “Internet of things”, or an entire army of smart sensors feeding information to users wirelessly?

On home offices, size comes to mind again. With ever shrinking apartments, where do people find a good place to work in? Fortunately, at least there’s an answer here in smaller, sleeker laptops and all-in-one machines like the Apple iMac, which save space.

It’s useful to take lessons from overseas, like Japan, where folks have found innovative ways to get around the really tight spaces afforded to each person. Long before smartphones were smart, the keitai or portable phone was already a window to the world for many Japanese, who find personal space a rare commodity in cities like Tokyo or Osaka.

Like it or not, Singapore seems to be heading that way. If the next population top-up is already a foregone conclusion, then hopefully technology can make a difference.

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