Will technology steer us to a better future?

At the recent Technology + Sustainability: The Road to Smart Cities event, Singapore’s public and private sector leaders gathered for a crystal-ball gazing session to answer one key question: Will technology deliver a better future for Singapore, and the world? And if so, how do we get there?

Highlights from the inaugural Technology + Sustainability: The Road to Smart Cities forum, organised by Eco-Business and BMW. Video: Eco-Business

For many people, the rise of technologies such as the Internet of Things, big data, and artificial intelligence heralds the end of some of the biggest problems society faces today: climate change, inequality, and ever-increasing population pressure, especially in cities. 

Thanks to emerging solutions such as smart, clean energy services, the sharing economy, and electric, self-driving vehicles, observers envision that technology will deliver a future that is safe, sustainable, and convenient for everyone. 

But while technology’s capacity to solve the major challenges that countries and cities across the world face is undisputed, it will take the right governance models, partnerships between various segments of society and a commitment to improving the lives of people to turn this potential into reality, said experts at the inaugural “Technology + Sustainability: The Road to Smart Cities” forum in Singapore recently. 

Co-organised by Eco-Business and German automotive giant BMW, and held on September 29, panellists from the public and private sector identified renewable energy, electric vehicles, and sharing economy solutions such as ride-hailing app Uber and bicycle rental firms Mobike and Ofo as just a few of the solutions that are set to transform life in cities. 

Subodh Mhaisalkar, panellist and executive director of the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University (ERI@N), said that electric vehicles are an especially promising solution. 

“Over the next decade, electric vehicles will become as cheap as internal combustion engine vehicles,” said Mhaisalkar. “That means lower operation costs.”

“It will be exciting for cities because we reduce tailpipe emissions, noise, and heat,” added Mhaisalkar. 

Paul de Courtois, managing director, BMW Asia, noted that BMW has launched nine EVs to date, and will offer 25 electrified models by 2025.

Developing the most effective and efficient technologies to solve society’s challenges is one part of the equation to build better cities; the other half is the planning and policy support needed to foster a smooth and equitable transition, said panellists at the event. 

For instance, Tan Szue Hann, head of sustainable urban solutions and principal architect at state development agency Surbana Jurong, explained that “technology is a strong tool we can use to determine how environments can be designed, and how people respond to them.” 

Examples of these technologies include sensors to help urban planners understand people’s movements in cities and buildings, and data from electronic fare payments to gauge demand for transport services. 

Tan added: “Once we have that data and knowledge, we can design better and more sustainable environments for people.” 

Singapore’s government, motivated by the potential of smart technology to improve people’s lives, in 2014 launched the Smart Nation initiative. The vision’s objectives include enhancing the performance of infrastructure and services such as healthcare; reduce resource consumption and costs; and help governments engage more effectively with their citizens. 

But at the same time, these efforts have raised questions about whether Singaporeans of all socio-economic backgrounds and skills levels will see their lives improved by this vision, or whether the benefits will be restricted to a technological elite. 

Vivien Chow, director of applied innovation and partnership, Government Technology Agency, said this is something policymakers in the country are mindful of. 

She noted: “While we move along with Smart Nation, we must ensure we are inclusive and that all walks of society come along as we make this digital transformation journey.”

Watch a summary of the day’s discussions and debates in this event highlights video. 

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Asia Pacific’s Hub For Collaboration On Sustainable Development
An Eco-Business initiative
The SDG Co