Smarter together: The France-Singapore cleantech connection

Powerhouses in urban technology, Singapore and France are building on their historical strengths to jointly develop new innovations in smart cities, energy management and mobility solutions. FRS looks at how French firms are breaking new ground in cleantech and urban solutions in Singapore.

Helix bridge, Singapore
Helix bridge in Singapore. The French connection: Many “meaningful partnerships” have developed between French business interests and Singapore over the years in the area of cleantech and urban solutions. Image: Aneeth, CC BY 2.0

Francois Hollande’s state visit to Singapore in March this year was by all measures a productive one. During his two days in the Lion City, the French President attended a state banquet held in his honour, reaffirmed ties with Singapore, inaugurated the Singapore-France Innovation Forum and declared 2018 as the France-Singapore Year of Innovation.

The two countries share more than a few things in common, said Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the launch of the Singapore-France Innovation Forum.

Both are advanced economies and have similar concerns when it comes to the economy, such as boosting innovation and productivity, and closing the widening productivity gap between the most progressive companies and the rest, he said.

The Minister said there has been a “weakening in the pace with which new ideas, new innovations are spread, from the frontier to the rest of our economies” in the developing world, and that many French companies are at the forefront of knowledge and productivity.

This is especially so in the realm of urban solutions and cleantech, for which France is considered a “global powerhouse”, said Goh Chee Kiong, executive director of cleantech and cities, infrastructure & industrial solutions, Economic Development Board (EDB).

“There are a lot of French companies that have built up strong capabilities in urban solutions in their Singapore operations over the years, and we are pleased to see many meaningful partnerships develop between French business interests and Singapore,” said Goh, who was the key speaker for a French Chamber of Commerce forum regarding smart cities held in Singapore in March.

He cited the example of Singapore’s public housing authority, the Housing and Development Board (HDB), which has developed a new modelling tool to help planners envision how to build more sustainable towns, in collaboration with French utility firm EDF and waste and water specialist Veolia.

Recently, French design software company Dassault Systemes joined hands with Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) to develop a 3D model of the entire country called Virtual Singapore. Running on real-time data, the platform can be used to develop or test urban solutions for optimising logistics, infrastructure, security and community services.

Gateway to Asia

Monsieur Hollande’s trip affirmed the strong relationship between Singapore and France, one in which innovation and smart solutions play a greater role than before. During the French President’s visit, the two nations signed a joint declaration of innovation and more than 10 new partnership agreements were secured by French companies.

The deal with France comes at a time when Singapore has renewed its ambition to become a Smart Nation in which the country aims to use technology to improve the living environment of its people. Singapore has also identified urban solutions as one of several key growth clusters in a Committee of the Future Economy report released this year.

The reasoning behind Singapore’s continued focus on urban solutions is twofold, said EDB’s Goh. Asia is at the heart of the growing trend of urbanisation—with 3.2 billion people in the region expected to be living in cities by 2050—and citizens expect higher standards of living as they migrate to urban areas. “City officials want to provide a more sustainable environment, and therefore these cities in Asia have become exciting markets for many companies that provide urban solutions,” he said.

Secondly, Goh said Singapore has long been focusing on sustainability and urban planning, as a small country with limited natural resources. As a result, Singapore has built up a wide range of homegrown companies such as Hyflux, Sembcorp, Keppel, Surbana Jurong, Singapore Technologies, and agencies with sustainability capabilities.

Today, Singapore possesses several competitive advantages, such as the system integration knowhow and talent base to develop urban solutions as a growth cluster, he concluded. Singapore has also committed close to S$1 billion in public research funding over five years to this area.

The competencies of local firms and institutions in urban solutions have not gone unnoticed by Gallic companies such as energy management and automation giant, Schneider Electric, which has maintained a strong presence in Singapore for the last 40 years.

Schneider Electric’s country president for Singapore, Damien Dhellemmes, told Future Ready Singapore that his company benefits from the city-state’s ecosystem of companies and universities that are ready to be partners in the development and testing of new urban solutions. A good example of this is the energy management solution for microgrids to be tested on offshore island Pulau Semakau as part of the Renewable Energy Integration Demonstrator Singapore (REIDS) project, said Dhellemmes.

One of 10 agreements signed during the Singapore-France Innovation Forum, the project is a collaboration between Schneider Electric, major French utility ENGIE and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. It will see a smart system trialled to manage the generation and consumption of renewable energy in places where there is poor or no access to electricity from the grid. Testing is expected to begin in the third quarter of 2017 and the aim is to eventually export the solution to Southeast Asia and beyond.

Commented Goh: “Having done well in Europe, a lot of French business interests now want to develop the growth markets in Asia and see Singapore as a convenient springboard from which they can start their business, scale and expand into the region.”

Many urban solutions-related companies have picked Singapore as a regional base and some have gone on to establish innovation centres, including ENGIE, EDF, Veolia, Suez and Schneider Electric, he noted.

Dhellemes shared that Singapore is an important market for testing and launching new products, for example an energy monitoring device for buildings called PowerTag. “Singapore serves as a perfect testbed for us to develop cutting-edge technologies that can be adapted and rolled out in metropolitan areas, and help solve the challenges that industrialisation and urbanisation bring.”

An open platform

Singapore’s transport system is set for an injection of French cleantech this year when Blue Solutions, the subsidiary of French logistics and energy storage solutions firm Bolloré Group starts rolling out its electric vehicle (EV) car-sharing programme.

Bolloré is contracted to provide 1,000 electric cars and 2,000 charging stations across Singapore in what will become the first urban mobility programme of its kind in Southeast Asia. Besides the obvious benefits such as a reduction in vehicular emissions and providing citizens with an extra transport option, the car-sharing programme is poised to accelerate the development of new urban solutions.

This is because Bolloré has committed to create an open innovation platform to share its knowhow with third-party companies, as part of the agreement with Singapore, said Franck Vitte, managing director for Asia and the Middle East, Blue Solutions, which now runs the biggest EV car-sharing programme in the world. The company will also set aside five per cent of its fleet to explore innovative mobility technologies within the car-sharing infrastructure.

“We have a lot of technology and we know there are industry players who want to use it to develop their products, whether it’s related to big data or wireless charging, and we want to give them the opportunity to test these out,” Vitte told Future Ready Singapore.

Besides the EV car-sharing programmes, Blue Solutions’ future pipeline for Singapore is packed. There are plans to develop a proof-of-concept for the Bluetram, a six-metre long electric bus with an ultra-quick charging system, and integrate EVs and charging technologies with airport operations in Singapore and potentially, the region, with fellow French firm ENGIE.

Vitte said that Singapore was the most suitable location in Asia for Bolloré to start the EV car-sharing programme because of the conditions needed for such a programme — high population density, decent infrastructure, good governance and carparks where charging stations can be installed — but also because it gives the company a foothold in the region to support its Asian business operations.

“For the car-sharing programme, we’ve had 20 to 30 Asian cities come and visit our operations in Europe to see what we were doing. To that extent, we don’t need to be in Singapore to develop regional business,” he said.

“However, with our plans for Singapore - and when you operate in Asia - we will need a regional base for training, support and technical matters, so our intention is to be based in Singapore to support our projects regionally.”

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