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This American’s job? Make Singapore the world’s first ‘smart nation’

smart nation smart nation

Steve Leonard went to Singapore for two years. He stayed for 13. And now he works for the government.

When Steve Leonard – American-born, former head of EMC and Symantec in Asia – was hired by the Singapore government to run its IT strategy unit, it represented a major about-turn for the authorities.

How major?

Well, the previous boss was the retired chief of the navy.

Singapore, like many emerging nations, has erred toward the patrician when it comes to government. Should a big job come up, it generally goes to someone who already knows how government works.

So the decision to appoint someone who knows how an industry works? Pretty radical.

All the more so when the identified candidate is a westerner. Mind you, Leonard describes himself as an ‘inside outsider’ – a Westerner who knows Singapore pretty well having arrived for a two year stint and stayed for 13.

Not that he angled for the job.

He says: “I’d been running various US tech businesses in Singapore and they approached me and asked: have you ever thought about working for the government?

“I said no. For the simple reason I’ve never worked in government and I’m not Singaporean. But the job appealed to me.”

Aiming high

What appealed was the radical vision the country suddenly had for its IT infrastructure.

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) is a powerful institution. It serves as a combination of telco regulator, tech strategy board and investment vehicle. As such it was tasked to lead a project to turn Singapore into the world’s first Smart Nation.

This ambitious mission aims to connect the whole country and provide a data backbone that every business and public department can hook into.

Here’s how Leonard describes it: “We have this acronym which is E3A. It stands for ‘Everything, Everyone, Everywhere connected All the time’. So let’s say, at some point in the future, your doctor sends you home in a smart post operative vest to monitor your wellbeing. That’s not going to work if there’s no connectivity in the elevator or in the underground.

“So our smart nation thesis is to start with connectivity and then explore how we can do cool things in the sharing economy, in transport and health and so on.”

Small and agile

Leonard believes that Singapore is uniquely placed to pursue its smart nation vision because it’s effectively a city state anyway (it’s smaller that greater Los Angeles). But it is also crowded, with 5.4m inhabitants, so it needs to tackle infrastructure.

“Singapore has an ageing population and real issues with urban density. We want to explore how data can help us make better decisions on transport, health, education etc. We’re a small country so we really can come together on this. So when the minister of transport, for example, makes an announcement, he’ll reference how it advances our smart nation vision.”

Actually, it goes all the way to the premier himself. Last November, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong made a lengthy speech unveiling Smart Nation and calling for new technologies to develop sustainable solutions to improve the lives of the local population.

“We will make Singapore a smart nation: enabling safer, cleaner and greener urban living, more transport options, better care for the elderly at home; more responsive public services and more opportunities for citizen engagement,” Tan said.

The specifics of the project include a Smart Nation Platform that will capture and collect data via sensors placed around Singapore in ‘above-ground boxes’. Ultimately, the aim is to crunch the data to see how systems can be made more efficient.

Trials are already underway. One involving RF Net, Panasonic, and Elixir Technology uses video sensing to assess the length and flow of queues. This info could be shared back to taxi firms, bus companies and even passengers themselves.

Another smart nation initiative is the heterogeneous network (HetNet), which helps devices switch between various types of wireless networks. It should help users roam more freely and with fewer losses of connectivity.

Role of government

Of course, government can’t do it all. Actually, one wonders if government can do any of it. I put it to Leonard that if the world’s law makers were asked to create a map of every street on the planet it would never be completed. But Google, with commercial incentives, did it in months.

“I agree. We’re not trying to build everything. We’re actually trying to post the challenge by asking entrepreneurs, ‘how would you solve this?’ and then helping them.”

This help takes various forms. The IDA is self-evidently well-connected. It can get someone with a smart nation medicare idea, for example, a meeting with the minister of health – something pretty hard to imagine in the US for example.

It can also provide financial support. IDA has invested in several local startups and tours the world helping to promote their work to the world. Last year, it also began investing in overseas founders with a $200m European fund. It’s based in London and has a fintech focus.

It might seem a little illogical, but according to Leonard, the long term aim is to bind London and Singapore – two of the most influential financial hubs in the world – more closely together.

A recipe for edginess?

The IDA shouldn’t have trouble finding interesting startups in London. But one wonders about Singapore, a country notorious for being law-abiding and, let’s be honest, a little bland. These are not qualities that foster a hungry, disruptive founder mentality. True?

“Yes and no,” says Leonard. “The country has changed a lot. There is a real buzz here now, and things like F1 coming here have really helped there. But there is a cultural issue across all of Asia around failure, which makes people very uncomfortable. I think we can work on re-framing that as more ‘learning’ than failing.”

Meanwhile, there are specific practical ways to help. The IDA is actively supporting tenants in a former manufacturing plant in Singapore’s edgy Block 71 region, which has been given over to startups. The six floor building is now filled with over 100 small firms and, even better, startups are now filling other nearby buildings. Clustering is underway.

Leonard believes a dynamic new culture is forming. And he hopes that this, along with the arrival of VCs like Sequoia into the country, will present hungry entrepreneurs from following pioneers like Peng T. Ong (founder of Match.com) to the Valley. Maybe they’ll stay put.

In fact, Ong is now one of the country’s foremost supporters – previously chairman of Infocomm Investments, and now a venture partner with GSR Ventures and director at Banean Holdings.

Leonard also hopes to reverse the image of Singapore as merely a great place to sell technology. As a former company country head himself, he knows the value of Singapore as a base. He’s not complaining about that. He just wants more.

“We have historically tended to be a consumer of tech and a great gateway to 650m people in Asia,” he says.

“Long may that continue. Now, I want to work on making Singapore a tech originator too.”