Becoming Citizens of the Smart Nation
BY JOCELYN LANG
What, or who, really is the Smart Nation? In the era of the #SmartNation Singapore, discussions of “smartness” abound in the news space, but corresponding discussions of nationhood are few and far in between. In 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong officially announced Singapore’s goal to becoming the world’s first Smart Nation. Fast forward to 2017, and the report card is mixed on the extent to which those stated goals have been met. While these evaluations mainly concern technological infrastructure and capacity, what’s worryingly missing is a sufficient discussion on the social and political implications of Smart Nation development.
Why be a Smart Nation?
Singapore’s Smart Nation pursuit is no simple whim or fancy, but a strategic move. It is succinctly summed up in Minister Balakrishnan’s, head of the Smart Nation Programme Office, words: because ‘we have to’, and because ‘we can’. Being “smart” seems to be the way forward in today’s increasingly data and technologically driven world. From this perspective, the progression of this First World Nation to a Smart Nation is only natural. Development in Singapore has never been just about achieving technical competency. It is what makes Singapore Singapore – a nation that constantly develops and constantly moves forward. Staying ahead has become part of our national ethos. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that the development of the Smart Nation would also entail discussions of nationhood, governance, belonging, and citizenship. It is as much about nation-building and national direction as it is about technological development – who we are, and who we will be.
The Human Face of the Smart Nation
Minister Balakrishnan cites the three “essential ingredients” for a smart nation to consist of a “world-class infrastructure; a capability layer; and a global ecosystem.” The capability layer directly speaks to the human face of the Smart Nation, which can be categorized as those who build the technology, and those who can effectively use it.
Builders of Smart Nation technology need to be aware of and intimately concerned with the various contours of Singaporean citizens, who are ultimately those most affected by a national strategic shift. Being spearheaded by the government, the building of Smart Nation technology inevitably invites discussions of governance and the social compact. The process of becoming a Smart Nation concerns national development and national direction, and whether the needs and desires of the citizens who constitute the democratic republic are met. These are questions of governmental accountability to its people, and a potentially changing nature of citizenship and belonging. Builders’ concerns thus cannot merely be technical.
The Smart Nation will not consist a perfectly engineered nation where technological interventions run like clockwork. It will entail the meeting of the ideals and ideologies of those who design the technology and those who use them, and the subsequent compromises that will have to be struck. This means having to consider issues like the affordability and accessibility of technology for all who are to be part of this nation, including those who may be resistant or even opposed to these developments.
The other aspect of the capability layer is the ability of citizens of the Smart Nation to effectively use the technology. As part of this development, students are being offered more opportunities to pick up computational thinking and programming. Such investment is integral to the development of the Smart Nation and the citizens who will comprise and belong to it. Along with that, while equipping future generations to effectively navigate the Smart Nation and be fully incorporated as smart citizens is no doubt essential, current generations in this teething period of development must also be considered. Age is not the only consideration in the potential ‘digital divide’. Income, wealth, and even the subtler divisions of race and nationality, can also be markers of distinction. If technological access and competency are to be so key to the Smart Nation, they must also become rights in and of themselves, or risk further deepening and/or creating new fault lines of inequality.
The Smart Nation is more than a material reality. It is also a social and political reality. To nation-builders (and policy makers), this means: listen; engage the people who are as much a part of the Smart Nation as the technology. To fellow citizens: do not fail to speak; engage because you are a rightful part of this nation.
That Singapore can be smart is undisputable; how we can be a smart nation will be our next frontier.
Jocelyn Lang is currently completing a MSc in Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
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Image Source: Smart Nation Singapore