Singapore retains smart city lead with tech use in COVID-19 pandemic

Singapore has retained its pole position for the second year in a global smart city index, thanks partly to its use of technology in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Helsinki climbs six spots to claim second position this year, while Zurich drops a spot to rank third. 

Auckland and Oslo round up the top five in fourth and fifth position, respectively, in this year’s IMD-SUTD Smart City Index, which is a collaboration between IMD and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). The report defines a smart city as “an urban setting that applies technology to enhance the benefits and diminish the shortcomings of urbanisation for its citizens”. 

The 2020 index assessed 109 cities, seven more than its debut last year, based on economic and technological data as well as citizens’ perceptions of how “smart” their cities were. In each city, 120 citizens were asked questions in April and May 2020 on the technological provisions of their city across five key areas: health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities, and governance. The final score for each city then was measured based on the perceptions of the last two years of the survey.

In particular, the report noted, a city’s use of technology to combat the COVID-19 outbreak had proved a key indicator. 

Citing a recent study by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), IMD said digitalisation had played a pivotal role in emergency responses to COVID-19 and pushed many cities to “systematise the use of smart city tools more permanently”. 

The IMD report added that the pandemic was likely to widen inequalities between the haves and have-nots of connectivity amongst the cities, noting that governments should dedicate some attention to this. 

IMD SCO’s president Bruno Lanvin said: “It is of course too early to draw final lessons from COVID, however, it is clear we are at a critical juncture where the health crisis is still very much with us, while the economic and social crisis that it will entail has hardly started.

“This year’s Smart City Index suggests that the cities that have been able to combine technologies, leadership, and a strong culture of ‘living and acting together’ should be able to better withstand the most damaging effects of such crises,” Lanvin said. 

IMD pointed to a correlation between smarter cities and those handling the pandemic better. “Cities are showing ever differing approaches to technology, and managing the pandemic is becoming more and more a matter of local politics,” it said.

Specifically, IMD World Competitiveness Center’s director Arturo Bris noted, cities with better technology managed the pandemic better. 

Singapore this week began distributing COVID-19 contact tracing wearables to all residents and introduced new measures, including the mandatory use of these Bluetooth-enabled wearables or contact tracing app TraceTogether to facilitate digital check-in procedures at some locations. It also deployed four-legged droids equipped with cameras at parks, gardens, and nature reserves to remind people to observe safe distancing as well as track the number of visitors at parks. 

The city-state is further tapping Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) in its next-generation Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) network, which is expected to be complete in mid-2023. 

Elaborating on a citizen’s perception of what constituted a city’s smartness, the IMD report noted that this might vary depending on how developed the city was. For instance, if free Wi-Fi access was added to a city such as Medellin, which climbed 19 spots this year, this was deemed to significantly impact their quality of life. In an already highly developed city such as Zurich, however, this was perceived to have little improvement on a citizen’s quality of life. 

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