The Possibility of an Inclusive Smart City: Designing for Foreign Domestic Workers
BY JOSHUA TAN
“Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” asked architect Cedric Price during a lecture in 1966. Price was one of the first architects to argue that technological progress possessed the potential for the creation of new spaces, programs, and activities.[i] For Price, this progress extended to urbanism too.[ii] 55 years later, his question continues to be relevant. The information age has introduced the possibility of an urbanism with unprecedented “efficiency” and “connectivity” that manifests as the smart city.[iii] But as Singapore considers what the smart city can offer, it is essential to consider how it intersects with the state’s goals of being a “caring and inclusive society” with “Asian values.”[iv] The goals of inclusivity and care are particularly important because they directly affect how livable and harmonious Singaporean society is, expressing themselves in everyday interactions and national identity. This article will consider how the design of the smart city’s physical and digital infrastructure in Singapore can include foreign domestic workers and why it is important to do so.
Smart City Singapore
Various definitions of the “smart city” have been proposed by urban scholars, with a common thread unifying them—the use of technology and its implementation in the city. Professors Albert Meijer and Manuel Pedro Rodríguez Bolívar have more specifically defined smart cities as cities that use technology to solve urban problems and integrate models of governance while relying on tech-savvy human resources.[v] Smart cities were initially celebrated as the panacea for urban problems, but as many critics have pointed out, they still suffer from many issues.[vi] Smart city initiatives have also been criticized for their lack of engagement with citizens,[vii][viii] and the creation of inequality through the production of a digital divide.[ix]
Singapore is situated at the forefront of the smart city movement. The EasyPark Group ranked Singapore the second smartest city in the world by measuring the quality of internet services, Internet of Things (IoT) integration, energy cleanliness, efficiency of mobility, and traffic management.[x] Unlike many other smart cities under development in the world, the Singaporean government has been extremely involved in the push towards smart and green urbanism.[xi] This has largely been beneficial for its citizens. Singapore has a specialized Smart Nation and Digital Government Office that aims to digitize government operations and support talents and businesses in the digital economy.[xii] The government has also been improving the infrastructure for internet access, electronic payment systems, streamlined government apps, digital services, and transportation efficiency.[xiii] [xiv] Smart city technologies provide the potential for cities to become more inclusive than before as they make public services more accessible, allow urban design to be more responsive, and improve physical mobility and digital accessibility. However, these initiatives primarily target the Singaporean citizen, claiming that these digital advancements will allow the Singaporean government to give “citizens the best home possible” and respond “to their different and changing needs.”[xv] What about those that take care of our homes?
Digital Technology and Foreign Domestic Workers
Foreign domestic workers (FDWs) are live-in workers who take care of domestic tasks like cleaning and cooking services, childcare, and elderly care. In 2020, the number of FDWs in the country was 247,400, about 4.3% of Singapore’s total population.[xvi] Since there are 1.37 million households in Singapore, a significant percentage of households (18%) potentially employ FDWs.[xvii] There have been numerous studies that demonstrate how working and living conditions of FDWs leave much to be desired—physically, mentally, and spatially.[xviii] Their mobility is usually limited due to the domestic duties they have to perform.[xix] Sociologist Shirley Hsiao-Li Sun has gone further to argue that live-in maids experience Erving Goffman’s conceptualization of the “total institution” since they are separated from the wider society and lead enclosed lives.[xx] This kind of working condition has been described as “soul-destroying hollowness” due to the extent that a domestic worker’s life is scrutinized, controlled and monitored.[xxi]
Digital technology has significantly affected the lives of foreign domestic workers, and FDWs are increasingly reliant on it for employment purposes, domestic care, entertainment and mental health. For instance, digital technological services provide domestic workers with more recruitment agency and remittance channel choices.[xxii] Social media aids the search for better employment conditions while also improving access to redress, welfare, and support services through networks of contacts.[xxiii] Using smartphones and connecting to mobile data or Wi-Fi has helped with the domestic worker’s physical and mental health. It enables them to cope with the effects of migration and the “double isolation” that domestic workers experience since they are separated from their loved ones and are prevented from fully integrating into their new communities:[xxiv]
When I have to meet up with friends, and I cannot find them at the designated spot, then the mobile phone comes in handy. It also serves as an extension for communication with my friends in Singapore after my weekly day-off.Dale, 45, Filipino[xxv]
The mobile phone was also used to maintain relationships with family and friends back at home:[xxvi]
Hearing my family’s voice across a thousand miles is a big help for me. Gave me strength to ease my loneliness, burden and boredom.Respondent 42 from “Connection as a Form of Resisting Control[xxvii]
This increasingly affordable technology provides opportunities for domestic workers to achieve “temporal and spatial simultaneity,” such that they are still able to play their domestic roles to their children overseas.[xxviii] The use of smartphones provides domestic workers the space to create an identity beyond the domestic work that they have to do. They allow domestic workers to engage in leisurely activities like accessing entertainment and social media platforms.[xxix] In the COVID-19 Pandemic, this has manifested itself in the form of TikTok dances and trends.[xxx]
While digital technology seems to have largely been beneficial for the working and living conditions of domestic workers, there are still unresolved structural issues like inequality, lack of protection and the reproduction of power structures between employer and employee. Unequal access to these technologies continues.[xxxi] The International Labor Organization’s 2019 research found that less than half of the 297 employers surveyed allowed mobile phone usage by their domestic workers.[xxxii] Phones and Wi-Fi access are largely considered “privileges” that need to be earned.[xxxiii] Even with a phone, connection to the internet that is vital for access to worker services or social media platforms is not guaranteed. While domestic workers are not completely dependent on employer Wi-Fi, mobile data costs do form a financial limitation:[xxxiv]
I use the mobile phone as well as the landline at my employer’s home. My mobile bill itself works out to S$50 and added to that I use two calling cards a month to speak to my family thrice a month.Teena, 37, Indian[xxxv]
When domestic workers are dependent on employer Wi-Fi, employers can easily restrict internet usage. Other issues include the susceptibility to the spread of misinformation when using social media, and a lack of protection of personal data and online privacy.[xxxvi] These problems demonstrate that digital technology is not a panacea, and larger issues exist outside the scope of digital technology and smart city initiatives. Regardless, keeping these issues in mind for smart city planning can help to ensure that our urban spaces are designed to be inclusive.
Beyond smart devices and internet access, to what extent does the Singaporean smart city provide benefits for FDWs?[xxxvii] At the scale of the physical district, smart developments like the Punggol Digital District (PDD) and Jurong Innovation District (JID) are focused primarily on business, research and education development. The PDD in particular is designed with the tech-savvy “student, resident, worker or entrepreneur” in mind.[xxxviii] The district’s buildings will house tech businesses and the new Singapore Institute of Technology campus. These programs are unlikely to tangibly affect the lives of foreign domestic workers. On the digital front, smart city strategies and apps are focused on businesses and citizens. As part of its 2021 Smart City Government study, the Singapore-based Eden Strategy Institute ranked Singapore first, citing the SMEs Go Digital initiative and the LifeSG app.[xxxix] The former helps small to medium businesses in Singapore adapt to the digital economy,[xl] and the latter provides governmental services like healthcare, Central Provident Fund checks, or housing for citizens.[xli] Both urban and digital infrastructure development are aimed towards businesses and citizens. Providing avenues for local entrepreneurial growth and developing services for citizens are essential, but could they also include FDWs by aligning with existing national priorities like creating a caring and inclusive society?
The Smart Inclusion of Foreign Domestic Workers
A “caring society” with “Asian values” must consider the “Other” in the design and conceptualization of smart districts and masterplans.[xlii] When surveying smart city initiatives like Smart Nation Singapore and the Punggol Digital District, there is hardly any mention of the FDWs that contribute to the domestic labor that is vital for our nation’s development. A substantial inclusion of FDWs into these strategies could make domestic work more efficient and humane, benefiting not only FDWs but the households they serve and regions from which they came through the transfer of education and training. Digital technologies targeted towards citizens or businesses do not have to be exclusive or indifferent to them and can include and benefit FDWs too.
Singapore’s unique organization of statutory boards in its smart city initiatives is one area that can provide initiatives that include FDWs. These statutory boards, specifically the Economic Development Board, A*STAR and the JTC Corporation, have the potential to enlist the private sector without compromising on national and societal goals.[xliii] Furthermore, Singapore’s large-scale infrastructural and technological investments are made through government bonds like the Singapore Government Securities, Special Singapore Government Securities and the Singapore Saving Bonds. This avoids a total reliance on funding from large private sources for funding.[xliv] This unique financial structure and public accountability enables control over the development of smart urbanization, and it can be directed towards the formation of a more inclusive smart city.
Thus far, the digital technology used by domestic workers and the advocacy for them remain outside of the smart city initiatives and have not been concerned with urban or spatial dispositions. Consideration of these domains is important because they affect physical accessibility and can potentially address and alleviate more complex problems. Communications and New Media researchers Minu Thomas and Sun Sun Lim have recommended broad policy strategies in their research on how to improve working and living conditions of FDWs[xlv], some of which can be extended to smart city policies. Firstly, they outline the importance of a digital education about communication devices and services, recommending that this is included in the regular training of new maids. Secondly, they suggest that there should be an effort to reduce the technological divide between the host and home countries of domestic workers so that both parties would be able to access these services.
To facilitate digital education, what if plans for new districts like the PDD and JID had digital training centers for domestic workers? This would make training particularly convenient for FDWs that would live in new major residential areas like Punggol and Tengah. It would also help introduce FDWs into the districts that they are living in, incorporate FDWs into the smart city infrastructure from the get-go, allow ease of access for continual digital training, and directly help with the other policy suggestion by reducing the technological divide. It could also supplement existing training programs, many of which seem to be concentrated on the outskirts of the central business district.[xlvi] For further housing estates, autonomous vehicle networks of smart city initiatives could extend out of their digital districts in the future and intentionally connect these estates to training centers. Could the regularity and possibly improved mobility that autonomous networks provide convince employers to allow FDWs to undergo these training programs during working hours? If not, could it help make journeys more efficient for FDWs?
Concurrent with these initiatives, what if smart city initiatives are retrofitted into existing housing estates and implemented with all in mind? The Punggol Digital District Brochure boasts the development of new technologies in the near future like “light fidelity technology” or “Li-Fi” which is a wireless communication technology that allows users to connect to the internet by utilizing light to transmit data. What if Li-Fi could provide domestic workers with unrestricted internet access regardless of spatial configurations in the house? If Li-Fi technologies are considered too imaginative for actual implementation, what if HDB housing flats had centralized Wi-Fi services? This could expand on the Building Digitally Inclusive Communities (BDIC) project and the Kebun Baru Void Deck Wi-Fi Project, both of which have been working to provide free Wi-Fi for rental HDB estates.[xlvii] Such centralization in existing estates could help remove challenges to internet access and potentially liberate some FDWs from their current spatial constraints and employer-employee power dynamics. These “What If” scenarios can dangerously fall into a similar amorphous ambiguity that smart city discourse falls into. It is therefore important to clearly define how these could work in plans while also ensuring that things do not become overspecified, allowing change and community activity to shape the development of spaces.
By focusing on how migrant workers live, learn, work, and play in the smart city, Singapore could also be improving the city for citizens and migrants alike. This is referred to as the “Curb-Cut Effect.” Angela Glover Blackwell documents how the curb-cut—which is literally a cutting of the curb to create makeshift ramps—can have ripple effects on other areas, providing more accessible streets for everyone.[xlviii] What could the “Curb-Cut Effect” look like in Singapore when we consider foreign domestic workers? An example could be the provision of centralized Wi-Fi in HDB estates as mentioned above. This could help bring internet access to other disadvantaged communities. Another possibility could be further research into how digital technologies could make domestic labor more efficient, benefitting both FDWs and all households.
Beyond benefits that can be tangibly linked to Singaporeans, creating more inclusive spaces and environments for FDWs and other traditionally sidelined communities has inherent value that stems from human empathy and care for one another. Rather than simply drawing lines to separate “us” from “them,” why don’t we concentrate on what is common? Given the technological and financial opportunities that we have in Singapore, it is important and possible for us to imagine a radically different urban future—one that never loses sight of all the people who actually participate in it.
This article owes direct and indirect gratitude to Professor Esther da Costa Meyer, Professor Keller Easterling, Aniket Shahane, Al Lim, and Wong Shi Le for its conceptualization and development.
Joshua Tan is a M. Arch I ‘22 candidate at the Yale School of Architecture. He is interested in the intersection of politics, architecture, and urbanism. He has previously written about housing in Singapore and urban farming in Havana.
[i] Cedric Price Lecture. Pidgeon Digital. 1966. Available at https://www.pidgeondigital.com/talks/technology-is-the-answer-but-what-was-the-question-/chapters/. Last Accessed: May 31, 2021.
[ii] Cedric Price designed urban projects like Potteries Thinkbelt that sought to harness emerging information technologies and adapt redundant railway systems.
[iii] See Simon Marvin, Andrés Luque-Ayala, Colin McFarlane. “Introduction,” in Smart urbanism: Utopia vision or false dawn? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 1-15.
[iv] See SG Cares, National Council of Social Services and National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre. Last accessed July 22, 2021, https://www.sg/singaporecares.
[v] Albert Meijer and Manuel Pedro Rodríguez, “Governing the smart city: A review of the literature on smart
urban governance,” in International Review of Administrative Sciences, 82, no.2 (2016): 392–408.
[vi] See Fiona Chang and Diganta Das. “Smart Nation Singapore: Developing Policies for a Citizen-Oriented Smart City Initiative” in Developing National Urban Policies, ed. Debolina Kundu, Remy Sietchiping, and Michael Kinyanjui (Singapore: Springer Nature, 2020), 425-440. This chapter provides an extensive survey of the benefits and problematic claims of the Smart City.
[vii] Hug March and Ramon Ribera-Fumaz (2014). “Smart contradictions: The politics of making Barcelona a
self-sufficient city,” European Urban and Regional Studies (2014): 1-15.
[viii] Dan Hill. “Essay: On the smart city; or a ‘manifesto’ for smart citizens instead.” City
of Sound. Last accessed May 31, 2021, https://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2013/02/on-the-smart-city-a-call-for-smart-citizens-instead.html.
[ix] Patrick T.I. Lam and Ruiqu Ma, “Potential pitfalls in the development of smart cities and mitigation measures: An exploratory study” in Cities, Volume 91 (2019): 146-156.
[x] Casey Hynes. (2017). “Singapore ranks as world’s no. 2 smart city, report says.” Forbes. November 10, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/chynes/2017/11/10/singapore-ranks-as-one-of-thetop-
smart-cities-in-the-world/#34bc9540717d. Last accessed May 31, 2021.
[xi] Chang and Das, Developing National Urban Policies, 434.
[xii] See “Pillars of Smart Nation,” Smart Nation Singapore Website. Last Accessed July 27, 2021. https://www.smartnation.gov.sg/ .
[xiii] Infocomm usage—Households and individuals, Infocomm Media Development Authority. Last accessed May 31, 2021, https://www.imda.gov.sg/infocomm-media-landscape/research-and-statistics/infocomm-usage-households-and-individuals.
[xiv] Chang and Das, Developing National Urban Policies, 431.
[xv] See “Transforming Singapore,” Smart Nation Singapore Website. Last Accessed July 27, 2021, https://www.smartnation.gov.sg/
[xvi] Foreign Workforce Numbers, Singapore Ministry of Manpower. Last Accessed 31 May, 2021, https://www.mom.gov.sg/documents-and-publications/foreign-workforce-numbers
[xvii] Number of households in Singapore 2011-2020, Singapore Department of Statistics, February, 2021.
[xviii] Aihwa Ong. “A Biocartography, maids, neo slavery, and NGOs,” in Neoliberalism as Exception. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 210.
[xix] Brenda S. A. Yeoh and Shirlena Huang. “Spaces at the margins: Migrant domestic workers and the development of civil society in Singapore,” Environment and Planning A, 31, no.7 (1999): 1149-1167.
[xx] Shirley Hsiao-Li Sun. “Isolation without privacy: Cellphone usage and everyday resistance of live-in maids in Singapore,” 2006 Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association, Dresden, Germany (2006).
[xxi] Elizabeth Clark-Lewis. Living in, Living out: African American domestics and the great migration. (New
York: Kodansha International, 1996).
[xxii] “Digitalization to promote decent work for migrant workers in ASEAN,” 11th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (2018): 2.
[xxiii] Minu Thomas and Sun Sun Lim. “On maids and mobile phones: ICT use by female migrant workers in
Singapore and its policy implications,” in ed. James Katz. Mobile communication and social policy. (New Jersey: Transaction, 2010), 188
[xxiv] Maria Platt, Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Kristel Anne Acedera, Khoo Choon Yen, Grace Baey and Theodora Lam. “Migration and Information Communications Technology Use: A Case Study of Indonesian Domestic Workers in Singapore,” Migrating out of Poverty Working Paper 24 (December 2014): 5-8.
[xxv] Thomas and Lim, Mobile communication and social policy, 188.
[xxvi] Platt et al. Migrating out of Poverty Working Paper 24, 5-8.
[xxvii] Trisha Tsui-Chuan Lin and Shirley Haiso-Li Sun. “Connection as a Form of Resisting Control: Foreign Domestic Workers’ Mobile Phone Use in Singapore” in Media Asia, Vol 37, no. 4 (2010): 189.
[xxviii] Fernando Paragas. “Migrant workers and mobile phones: Technological, temporal and spatial simultaneity,” ed. Scott W. Campbell and Rich Ling. The reconstruction of space and time: Mobile communication practices. (New Jersey: New Brunswick, 2009), 39-66.
[xxix] Migration and Information Communications Technology Use: A Case Study of Indonesian Domestic Workers in Singapore Maria Platt, Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Kristel Anne Acedera, Khoo Choon Yen, Grace Baey and Theodora Lam Migrating out of Poverty Working Paper 24 December 2014. 19
[xxx] Desmond Ng and Abhiram V. Subramaniam. “When mobile phone usage comes between employers and domestic workers” Channel News Asia Insider. 31 May, 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/when-mobile-phone-usage-comes-between-employers-domestic-workers-12392704.
[xxxi] “Digitalization to promote decent work for migrant workers in ASEAN,” 11th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (2018): 14.
[xxxii]Desmond Ng and Abhiram V. Subramaniam. “When mobile phone usage comes between employers and domestic workers” Channel News Asia Insider. 31 May, 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/when-mobile-phone-usage-comes-between-employers-domestic-workers-12392704.
[xxxiii] Platt et al. Migrating out of Poverty Working Paper 24, 16.
[xxxiv] Platt et al. Migrating out of Poverty Working Paper 24, 17.
[xxxv] Thomas and Lim, Mobile communication and social policy, 190.
[xxxvi] “Digitalization to promote decent work for migrant workers in ASEAN,” 11th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (2018): 15.
[xxxvii] While construction, marine and processing migrant workers are no less important, this article will focus on FDWs due to constraints of space.
[xxxviii]JTC Corporation, Punggol Digital District Brochure. Last Accessed: May 31, 2021, https://esrisingapore.com.sg/sites/esrisingapore.com.sg/files/2020-01/JTC0049_18%20PDD%20ebook%20R5_0.pdf.
[xxxix] Justin Ong. “S’pore takes top spot in ranking of smart city govts, praised for ‘sterling’ Covid-19 response, digital initiatives,” Today Online. March 31, 2021, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/spore-takes-top-spot-ranking-smart-city-govts-praised-sterling-covid-19-response-digital
[xl] SMEs Go Digital, Infocomm Media Development Authority. Last Accessed: September 6, 2021, https://www.imda.gov.sg/programme-listing/smes-go-digital
[xli] LifeSG. Last Accessed: September 6, 2021, https://www.life.gov.sg/what-you-can-do/government-services
[xlii] Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception, 209.
[xliii] Chang and Das, Developing National Urban Policies, 434.
[xliv] Chang and Das, Developing National Urban Policies, 435.
[xlv] Thomas and Lim, Mobile communication and social policy, 184-5
[xlvi] See Training Providers at the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training. Last Accessed: July 21, 2021, https://www.fast.org.sg/fast-training/training-providers/
[xlvii] Nigel Chua. These S’pore volunteers are working to give rental HDB blocks S$3-a-month WiFi access. Mothership. January 31, 2021. https://mothership.sg/2021/01/rental-hdb-free-wifi/ and “Kebun Baru Void Deck WiFi Project,” Bridging the Digital Divide. Last Accessed: September 6, 2021, https://www.bridgethedigitaldivide.sg/work-in-progress
[xlviii] Angela Glover Blackwell. “The Curb-Cut Effect,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2017. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_curb_cut_effect.