The smart city as layered policy design: Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative

The growing application of advanced information and communications technology (ICT) to urban governance and policymaking has led to the emergence of the “smart city” as an urban policy innovation capable of addressing the increasingly complex policy issues faced by city governments. More than simply applying new technological tools and solutions to urban problems, smart cities have given rise to new and more responsive modes of urban governance. This chapter will take a policy design approach to understanding urban governance in a smart city. Focusing on Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative, the chapter identifies the various design components and dynamics of the initiative that have influenced Singapore’s development as a smart city. I argue that the Smart Nation initiative constitutes an act of “policy layering”, where new policy elements that are related to the smart city are layered upon Singapore’s existing developmental approach to governance and policymaking. The result of this is an increasingly complex urban policy mix that features new interconnections between novel policy instruments and old policy goals.

Introduction

The advent of advanced information and communications technology (ICT) and the growing prominence of data analytics as a possible tool for policymaking have led to the emergence of the “smart city” as an urban innovation deemed capable of addressing increasingly complex policy issues through the application of advanced ICT and digital technologies (Batty, 2013; Crivello, 2015; Gil-Garcia et al., 2016; Goldsmith and Crawford, 2014; Goodspeed, 2015; Townsend, 2014). Indeed, urban policymakers are increasingly focused on establishing the infrastructure necessary for smart city formation (Bakici et al., 2012; Crivello, 2015; Lee et al., 2013; Zygiaris, 2013), with the “smartness” of a city seen as part of a broader set of urban strategic agendas aimed at addressing emerging and increasingly complex urban issues and problems (Gil-Garcia et al., 2016: 2). As Gil-Garcia et al. further point out, a city’s “smartness” tends to be determined by the extent to which it uses ICT in urban policy and governance.

Beyond this focus on the application of ICT and digital technology, however, smart cities continue to be plagued by a lack of definitional precision and

The smart city as layered policy design 33 universality, with understandings of the socio-political and policy processes underlying smart city formation particularly fuzzy (Albino et al., 2015; Hollands, 2008; Neirotti et al., 2014). Nonetheless, there is emerging interest in the various “smart governance” mechanisms and institutions that determine the emergence and success of smart cities (Calder, 2016; Gil-Garcia et al., 2016).

This chapter aims to continue on this trajectory by taking a policy design approach to understanding the policy initiatives and dynamics that have driven the formation and governance of Singapore as a smart city. In doing so, it seeks to provide a design-centric approach to understanding urban governance in a smart city. More than simply a case study of smart city formation in Singapore, the findings of this chapter have significant implications for other emerging smart cities in Asia.

The choice of Singapore as a case study is by no means arbitrary. First, Singapore is known to be a leading proponent of the smart city movement ( Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, 2014; Mahizhnan, 1999; Watts and Purnell, 2016; Woodhouse, 2016), beginning with its early efforts at implementing e-government initiatives (Chan et al., 2008; Sriramesh and Rivera-Sanchez, 2006). In 2016, Juniper Research named Singapore the top smart city of the world, ahead of Barcelona, London, San Francisco, and Oslo (Juniper Research, 2016).

Furthermore, Singapore’s status as one of the world’s few functioning city-states also suggests that its approach to transforming itself into a smart city differs from those of other cities. Unlike other cities that exist under the aegis of a larger nation-state, smart city initiatives in Singapore tend to be elevated to the national level. As Calder (2016: 3) notes, Singapore’s dual identity as city and state allows for the “pragmatic, flexible, nonideological domestic politics characteristic of cities”, even as “national standing provides the legitimacy and resources required to play credibly on the international scene”. Evidence of this can be found in its Smart Nation initiative, a suite of smart city policies that were introduced in 2014 as part of the government’s efforts to address complex urban issues through technological means. While the initiative is centrally developed and administered by a Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO) situated within the Prime Minister’s Office, it also involves public agencies that deal with citizens at the grassroots level, such as the Housing Development Board or Municipal Services Office (Ministry of National Development, 2015; SNPO, 2017a).

This chapter will discuss Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative as policy design, identifying the various design components of the initiative as well as the design dynamics that have influenced its development. In so doing, I argue that the Smart Nation initiative constitutes an act of “policy layering”, where new policy elements that are related to the smart city are layered upon Singapore’s existing developmental approach to governance and policymaking. The result of this is an increasingly complex urban policy mix that features new interconnections between novel policy instruments and old policy goals.

The findings of this chapter suggest that there is much scope for taking a policy design-centric approach to understanding urban governance. While the policydesign approach has often been applied to policy domains such as economic development, healthcare, and climate change, efforts to draw on the insights of policy design in urban policy are much harder to come by. Conversely, smart city governance tends to emphasize the incorporation of smart technologies in decision-making and policy implementation (Meijer and Bolivar, 2016) without sufficiently addressing the macro-level policy design processes.

The following section will provide a brief overview of the existing literature on smart cities and, at the same time, provide a broad introduction to Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative. I will then discuss the Smart Nation initiative in the context of policy design. This is followed by a discussion of the design dynamics that underpin the initiative, before concluding with theoretical implications and potential avenues for future research.

 
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