At the Happy Hawkers food court in Singapore’s Tampines, a leafy township in the eastern side of the island and well off the usual tourist radar, robots with sensors on their heads and racks for bodies roam the aisles collecting used trays to return to the cleaning area. The Wall-E-like humanoids, also trawling the food courts in malls such as Punggol Plaza and Toa Payoh Interchange, are difficult to ignore. “They’re very futuristic,” observes one local, “but they’re here, collecting my tray. It’s a little disorienting but I could get used to it.”
These smart tray collectors aren’t the only examples of high-level automation penetrating everyday life in the city-state — several hotels are also turning to robots to do part of the work, like delivering room service. Entire food courts have also gone cashless, encouraging customers to acquire digital wallets.
As with many things in Singapore, it’s all part of the government-led Smart Nation initiative, which isn’t just about adopting the most sophisticated tech, but how well residents, business and government can harness technology to improve lives. “These smart initiatives serve to enhance livability in areas such as urban mobility, health and public services,” says a representative from the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office. “For example, drivers can pay for public parking digitally via parking.sg, citizens can access a range of municipal services through the OneService app and parents can easily access their children’s health records via the HealthHub online portal and app.”
But what makes Singapore’s forward-thinking urban planning so notable is that it is far from the one-dimensional, tech-saves-all approach you might expect from a city of robot pioneers. Toe-to-toe with the Smart Nation initiatives are eco-conscious conservation programs that together form a heartening picture of the future.
Two wheels good, two legs awesome
At 719.9km2, Singapore is only slightly larger than Metro Manila — you can drive from the west of the country to the charming Changi Village in the east in a little under an hour. There’s not a lot of space for its 5.6 million residents — not to mention their cars. In addition to the Certificate of Entitlement quota scheme, which curtails the number of new cars on the road, the government has heavily encouraged electric vehicle alternatives.
But lurching into the future means taking the classic old ways of getting around along for the ride. Since the beginning of last year, a boom in bike-sharing services, fueled in part by the government’s Walk Cycle Ride SG campaign, has encouraged locals to take their cars out less frequently, and to walk or cycle when they can. If the mark of a truly progressive urban spread is how much room it makes for walking and cycling, then Singapore is doing quite well.
The campaign is not just feel-good lip service, but also a huge infrastructural undertaking that includes expanding the current 400km cycling network to 700km island-wide by 2030, and building Singapore’s first “integrated transport corridor” — the North-South Corridor will stretch 21.5km from Woodlands to the city — with dedicated paths for cyclists and pedestrians by 2021.