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Technology alone cannot improve quality of life

8th October 2021

When the concept of a smart city was first envisioned a decade or more ago, few of those behind it would have expected a crisis like the pandemic that changed the world in 2020. Yet, so many of the technologies that were built to improve the safety and quality of life of citizens have been pressed into action in the past 15 to 18 months.

In Singapore, robots fitted with sensors and algorithms have enabled them to traverse unfamiliar terrain and look out for large crowds in public parks who may contravene safe distancing rules.

Separately, affordable off-the-shelf cameras are linked with thermal sensors and turned into temperature sensors that let mall owners scan for visitors with high temperatures.

These were not done overnight. Instead, the algorithms were part of a government technology stack developed by GovTech for rolling out e-government services. Made for agile deployment, they were quickly used during the crisis.

These examples are a reminder that smart cities must not just be technologically advanced but also human-centric in their design. The impact they create has to be positive and create positive social value.<

Creating social value

How does technology help efforts in sustainability at a time of climate change? How can it help promote fairness and equity in the long term? The answers are not straightforward.

In recent years, city planners around the world have approached the deployment of smart city technologies with a lot more nuance than before. Instead of only setting up new technologies as proofs of concept, some are also looking to measure the societal impact that they create. Singapore and Japan provide two good examples.

In Japan, a concept of Society 5.0 or a “super-smart society” was first shared in 2017 by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It emphasises a people-centric approach and relies on a number of technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), AI and Big Data.

Indeed, these are also technologies that Singapore has identified as key to the progress of its Smart Nation ambitions. To begin with, both countries have world-class digital infrastructure, from fibre broadband to 5G, that form the foundation of any smart city or nation.

Most importantly, the efforts in both countries seek to put people at the centre of all innovation. More than ever, smart city or nation efforts are as much about the city and nation as the “smarts”.

A human-centric approach

As an infocomm technology partner to both Japan and Singapore, NEC has been working on realising a society where people live truly fulfilling lives by making use of digital innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data.

“This Society 5.0 vision will be crucial in enabling people to fulfil their highest potential and enjoy higher quality of life,” says Danny Tan, Head of Strategy at NEC Asia Pacific.

At NEC, many of these technologies are already in place today to make a difference.

  • Biometrics - Faces could be the identifier used to approve the payment for a subway ride or a meal at a restaurant in the future, doing away with paying with cash or credit card for a contactless transaction. In Japan, NEC is already bringing these innovations to visitor-friendly locations to enable a seamless experience.
  • Fintech - There will be many ways to pay for transactions carried out digitally, as they will be preferred over face-to-face interactions in crowded places. How can one prevent fraud and improve settlement in real time, for example?
  • Cybersecurity - From understanding basic hygiene factors such as not reusing passwords to gaining advanced knowledge in spotting a potential attack, NEC is helping organisations in Asia Pacific to strengthen their cybersecurity posture through training

In these initiatives, NEC emphasises the importance of a human-centred approach and trust. As technology evolves, new citizen services such as public safety, finance, healthcare, and transportation will continue to emerge.

But not everyone will want to use biometrics or AI, for example. "Meeting the need for human interaction is also an important factor in realising a comfortable society," says Danny.

“NEC aims to bring true value to people, such as a safe and secure society, fair and comfortable living, and a sustainable environment, by supporting a variety of customers including government, healthcare, finance and other enterprise sectors through technologies, rather than a one-way technology-driven approach,” he explains.

Building trust

Just as important to the realisation of Society 5.0, is the data involved. There needs to be a mechanism to handle data ethically and safely. NEC has established a policy on AI and human rights and is working toward it.

“As technology changes our lives dramatically in the years ahead, we need to set in place common principles and guidance for us to navigate the issues that will emerge,” says Danny.

Ultimately, a human-centred approach is critical to build trust and make a real difference in solving social problems. What digital technologies will offer are the building blocks for the next generation of urban development.

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