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Stories Asia

How to build a Smart City

In our Asia Vision Series features, we dive into key industry trends and issues with our subject matter experts and visionaries across the region. In part 2 of 3 in this interview, Koh Buck Song, author and editor of more than twenty books and former political supervisor for Singapore broadsheet The Straits Times, speaks with Stefan Sjöström, vice president of Public Sector, Microsoft Asia. Sjöström shares what drives his passion for empowering cities and people to achieve through technology.

Citizen services need to be accessible, improve the quality of life, and promote transparency. Technology plays a massive role in enabling that.

Smart cities are not always full of fancy futuristic gadgetry. More often, they are simply cities that are tackling challenges with solutions powered by technology. These solutions can be applied to various aspects of city living, including the overhaul of traditional “pen and paper” systems used for everything from applying for permits to archiving information.

Stefan Sjöström, vice president of Public Sector, Microsoft Asia, believes the question is going beyond what services governments are providing their citizens, to how they can better deliver them. “It’s not that government functions are not being done. But the question is whether they can be done faster, with better quality, and with better ways of keeping track of activities?” he ponders.

Sjöström poses such questions in his day-to-day work, where he advises governments on how they can adopt smart city technologies to improve the delivery of citizen services, and to raise productivity. He cites the collaboration between Microsoft and the Singapore government to explore the use of chatbots for selected public services as an example.

“A smart nation requires smart solutions,” says Sjöström, referencing Singapore’s vision to leverage technology to build intelligent services and systems. “Tapping the power of conversational computing to develop intelligent services that respond to citizens’ questions and help them perform tasks on government websites is one such approach.”

He raises another example of digital governance, referencing how the government of Queensland, Australia, improved its working processes by bringing Office 365 to its employees. Queensland’s smart city blueprint, “ICT Strategy 2013-2017”, aims to improve citizen service delivery through better use and analysis of government data. Office 365 features, such as cloud-based collaboration, messaging and email, along with enterprise social network Yammer, allows greater communication and efficiencies among employees.

Smart solutions, however, are not confined to developed cities. Developing cities are also coming up with exciting innovations, deploying technology to come up with unique solutions to local problems. Indeed, “Any city can be what he calls a “lighthouse city’” – a city that shines because it has harnessed technology well to solve problems and enhance the quality of life,” clarifies Sjöström. The successes of such cities are models for others to look to for inspiration and learning.

Cities have different motivations for harnessing smart city technologies, notes Sjöström, whether they are pull factors like economic development, or push factors like social issues. For the coastal city of Nha Trang, it is the former. Tourism ranks high as an economic activity in this southern Vietnamese city, next to traditional industries such as coffee-making. In fact, half of the students in a university Sjöström visited were majoring in tourism.

“What’s interesting to me is how they are bringing technology to tourism, looking at data like demographics of visitors, and then applying predictive analytics to tailor services that best fit the needs of different kinds of tourists,” shares Sjöström. “Leveraging insights from data, they can improve travel experiences across seasons. That is a great example of how technology makes things come together.”

For the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, machine learning is being used to devise new solutions for pressing social issues like reducing the rate of school dropouts. Data points from some 10,000 schools are monitored, helping to predict which students are likely to drop out about 12 months ahead of time. “Intervention is more effective and it can be possible with the analysis of rich data,” says Sjöström. “Schools now have more time to respond than in the past, where findings were only made after exam results are out, which would be too late by then.”

Smart city technologies hold great promise for cities in Asia, but through his interactions with mayors and city leaders, Sjöström finds that they all have concerns when it comes to creating the infrastructure for a digital economy.

For developed cities, one common enemy is complacency. “Some cities sit on a legacy of digital infrastructure developed over years, and have become so comfortable that they do not feel the need to change the way they do things,” he observes.

But resistance to change is dangerous, because the speed at which technology advances makes the learning curve ever steeper. “Having the right mindset is crucial to addressing tomorrow’s problems and preparing people for them,” Sjöström stresses. “If you hold on to things, you are going to be vulnerable because your system is vulnerable. The window of opportunity is moving fast and we need to learn to move along with it.”

For developing cities, the challenge lies in building government support for start-ups. “A cloud computing platform is a great enabler, but beyond the availability of technology, governments need to draw upon local talents for local solutions. It is crucial to empower local software developers, because they are the ones close enough to the problems to really drive change,” Sjöström emphasizes.

Trusting local developers to come up with local solutions is also a driver of sustainable economic growth, Sjöström points out. “It breeds a sense of entrepreneurship among the youth, when they see that their solutions have the potential to scale and have a commercial business built around it. They feel like they literally have the power to change the world.”

Yet, despite the unique challenges they face, all cities share the same concern of security. With the advent of cloud computing and the proliferation of smart devices, security is no longer just about national security, but cyber security and ensuring the privacy of citizens’ personal data.

“Governments are finding themselves increasingly responsible for building systems that safeguard the data security and privacy of citizens,” affirms Sjöström. Whether it is upgrading their operating systems or working with software companies to update laws and policies, security ranks high on the agenda of governments across Asia. “They know that it is not just the times they have to keep up with, but the prowess and sophistication of cyber criminals.”

City mayors are the key decision-makers and movers in building smart cities. How are they tapping the participatory power of citizens, especially youth, in achieving this goal? Sjöström shares his insights from working with some of the most dynamic mayors in the next instalment of this series. Read part 1 here on how he got started in his current role of promoting technology in the public sector, and part 3 here on the transformational power of thinking young.

Stefan Sjöström
Vice President, Public Sector
Microsoft Asia

Stefan Sjöström is the vice president of Public Sector, Microsoft Asia. He oversees sales and market development activities for Government, Public Safety & National Security, Healthcare and Education across the region. In his role, Sjöström seeks to enable and empower leaders across the public sector to draw value from technology to shape the future. He has also worked with numerous city mayors to jointly organize events where youth develop applications to improve the quality of life in their cities. Sjöström joined Microsoft in 2009, and is an IT veteran with over 30 years of work experience across different markets.

Koh Buck Song

Koh Buck Song is an author who has written and edited over twenty books, and a consultant in branding, communications strategy and corporate social responsibility in Singapore. He drove the positioning of Singapore as a “global entrepolis” as former Head of Marketing, Corporate Communications and Strategic Planning at the Economic Development Board from 1999 to 2005. Buck Song was also a former a political supervisor for The Straits Times. He graduated from the University of Cambridge and the University of London in the United Kingdom, and from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in the US, where he was a Mason Fellow and earned a master’s degree in public administration.