Singapore is a small country with a giant plan. In one of the world’s most ambitious information technology experiments, the city-state is building a system that will virtualize the buildings, infrastructures, green spaces and almost every aspect of life in Singapore and then display the results as an interactive, 3D replica.
The project, called Virtual Singapore, is led by the National Research Foundation Singapore together with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), and is expected to be progressively developed, with completion in 2018. Although many cities are working to assemble and analyze their data in hopes of improving city life, Virtual Singapore is unusual because it will allow all users to visualize in 3D how the city will develop and evolve with time in response to population growth, new construction and other major events.
“We will capture the virtualized life of Singapore,” said George Loh, director of the Foundation’s Programmes Directorate, which includes responsibility for leading the Virtual Singapore project. “For example, it will include demographic data about where elderly people are living, where the businesses and shopping malls and restaurants are, and what the transport schedules are. People can have access to all of that information and make sense of it.”
Virtual Singapore will assemble and analyze data that already exists in dozens of government agencies, plus new data collected in real time from smartphones, cameras and sensors, to model and predict solutions to the emerging and complex challenges Singapore faces. Displayed in the context of a virtual 3D model of the city, Virtual Singapore will enable city planners to test various responses to everything from population growth and resource management to public events and building patterns, and implement those that create the safest, most positive experiences.
“The words they’ve been using to describe it are ‘digital twin,’” said Chris Holmes, managing director, IDC Insights Asia Pacific, who has lived in Singapore for 16 years. “They’re looking to capture all the moving parts of the city and to track what is happening in the city in real time.”
ACCESS FOR ALL
The Virtual Singapore concept combines several hot technological trends, including big data, the Internet of Things, 3D modeling and predictive analytics. The model will provide information to four basic constituencies.
“It can serve government agencies,” Loh said, “but it also can be a platform where people could have access to limited data and they could use applications that make their lives much more convenient. Businesses also can offer targeted services to their customers. And the last stakeholder group is researchers, who may have more ideas than government bureaucrats about how to create new technologies and services.”
The Virtual Singapore project will support Singapore’s vision for creating a “smart nation,” but its vision of giving access to citizens and visitors makes it fundamentally different from what other cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, are doing to make their operations “smarter.” As it prepares for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Rio has created a command-and-control center where information about electricity usage, water and waste management, traffic flow and crime can be collected in real time. But only government agencies will have access to the data.
Singapore’s project is more challenging because it envisions giving multiple constituencies access to the data each needs, with controls to ensure that confidential and sensitive data is protected – a complex security and privacy challenge. “We need to give the right data to the right people at the right level at the right time,” Loh said. The system also needs to be able to serve many different devices. For example, individuals will be able to access the system from smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktop computers.
THE POWER OF ‘WHAT IF?’
How will Virtual Singapore help the city, recognized as one of the world’s most livable, maintain that status in the face of rapid growth projections? As an example, Loh cites the planning required for Singapore to host the Formula One automobile races held there every September, when the government shuts down roads at night and the race cars speed through the city. Huge crowds come to watch the races, but city planners have to prepare for the dangers of evacuating spectators in case of a fiery crash.
Virtual Singapore will help by giving city planners the ability to overlay or “stream in” the locations of people based on signals from their smartphones. “You will know where all the entrances and exits are, and you know how the crowd will be moving based on the historical data of previous years,” Loh explained. “If something really bad happens, through 3D predictive and intelligent agents modeling you can see how people would disperse and how they would behave. You create a plan for how you would evacuate people.”
Virtual Singapore will also develop a common data exchange platform, making much of the data that already exists in government ministries easier to access and share in a secured and controlled environment. Visualization is a major goal of the project so that the aggregated and integrated data from different sources can be “seen.”
A SMARTER CITY, A BETTER CITY
One implication of the Virtual Singapore project, and of similar efforts around the world, is that the way governments work will change for the better, IDC’s Holmes said. “You’re going to see a more integrated approach in government. If there is a sewage leak somewhere in the city, for example, you need to alert transportation authorities, you need the police to block the roads and you need the engineers to attack the problem. If all those agencies can ‘see’ the problem on the same platform, they will be able to better coordinate their efforts.”
Ultimately, the biggest challenge smart city projects face is that of involving average citizens, said Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab at the Urban Planning Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“Crucially, the work must demonstrate concepts that promote interaction and debate,” said Ratti, one of the world’s most renowned smart city experts. “The goal of design is to generate alternatives and open up new possibilities. The momentum of the crowd can project ideas into the future and spark development; as a result, our work is meaningless unless it ignites imaginations. This implicates each and every citizen.”
Ratti argues that the best smart city projects are bottom up, not top down, because they enlist average people in creating them and then using what is created to deliver tangible benefits. “The overall goal of real-time information in cities is to help people make better decisions,” Ratti said. “Giving data back to those who generate it allows them to be more in sync with their environment.”
BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE
Virtual Singapore also gives its leaders an opportunity to inspire the city’s young people to take up science and technology subjects through projects such as the National Science Experiment (NSE). The NSE has a dual goal of exposing students to real-world applications of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) while collecting environmental data that can be used to populate Virtual Singapore.
Organized by the National Research Foundation Singapore and the Ministry of Education, in partnership with the Singapore University of Technology and Design, the Science Centre Singapore and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, the program began in 2015 with a pilot project involving more than 300 young Singaporeans. By the time the NSE ends in 2017, more than 250,000 students are expected to take part.
Each participant is equipped with a simple device called SENSg, which can capture data, including temperature, humidity and noise levels, wherever the devices go. The information is transmitted wirelessly to a central computer server. Students can go online and log in to see their own data, including their number of steps taken, time spent outdoors and travel patterns. They can also compare notes with friends while discovering the relationship between travel patterns and carbon footprints.
As the students mature and begin to enter the workforce, organizers hope that projects like the NSE will have made using big data second nature for them. “This is the first step in crowdsourcing of data,” Loh said. “The people must be smart. The people must be able to leverage the massive amount of data we are going to make available.”
Much of the data that Virtual Singapore will display is already available, although not integrated, in numerical form on computer screens. One of the key goals of the project is to display that data visually in ways that do not require a user to whip out a calculator to understand the implications. That’s where 3D modeling becomes critical.
“A picture speaks a thousand words, even without doing any analysis,” Loh said. “Singaporeans should be able to access those images on their handheld devices. A visual display of a crowded train or bus station, for example, should communicate more information more quickly than mere numbers.”
Experience Virtual Singapore