With contribution from The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), National University of Singapore.

Technology has sustained us through the pandemic and now continues to redefine how we work, live and interact. Imagine life in the year 2050 to be like this: Society as we know it has become a hybrid of the cyber and physical worlds, typified by how daily interactions are conducted via “body-to-sensors” interfaces. The sci-fi movies of old have come to life, as people have their metabolic data and digital currency embedded in wearable electronic/nano skins for day-to-day activities such as eating, dressing, commerce, transport and other daily lifestyle tasks

Welcome to the brave new world, where deep technology is now accessible to – and very much a part of – everyone on the street.

Yet, as the world moves forward with such rapid advancements, challenges in shaping cities and urban living would inevitably arise. How can we ensure that our future cities remain safe and secure, even as technology significantly impacts society and our way of living.

Here are three emerging paradigms of change to consider:

1. The physical-digital nexus

Within the decade, all services would be transformed and our natural resources could be managed very differently with cloud connectivity, according to research done by students of the Policy Innovation Lab at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), National University of Singapore.

Data points and algorithms can be applied to almost everything to improve the way we work and live. Using Internet of Things (IoT) technology, a combination of sensors and networked intelligence can already do things from tracking your tennis game to checking if city dustbins need to be emptied.[1]

Besides keeping tabs on the environment around us, technology will also be able to make predictions based on realistic simulations.  

Take digital twinning. LKYSPP’s Policy Lab team estimates that twinning technology will come to the fore in the next five years. Virtual models of places, processes, products and people will be so realistic that simulations can be run in real-time to test multiple what-if scenarios – especially crucial in complex safety and security situations that cannot be replicated easily in the real world. For example, buildings’ evacuation scenarios will be planned, tested, and reviewed before a single brick is laid. First responders will use digital twinning and other real-time location awareness technology to plan the best rescue path even before stepping into the building. Inputs from multiple varied sensors, external data, cameras, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) could help anticipate outcomes.

Digital twin can also help in addressing challenges such as urbanisation, demographic change, and climate risk. For example, on a bigger scale, twinning technology can help planners facilitate innovation and operations. In Shanghai, a complete virtual clone of the city was created to help monitor everything from traffic and building operations to bridge maintenance.[2] Floods can even be simulated for disaster planning.

2. Segments at risk

In making sure that the world of the future is an equitable one, it is imperative that technology be harnessed to make our environments safer for vulnerable groups.

A Building Management System is a central “brain” that can oversee facilities such as electrical power, fire, and security systems to optimise resources like power usage.

Imagine the possibilities of a central control system that takes the concept of a Smart Building into a Caring Building of the future. An integrated network like this will be able to identify safety hazards. For instance, if an elderly person living alone displays incongruent behaviour – such as not turning on their taps or lights, not opening and closing their main doors – it could alert their family living elsewhere to not only their physical safety but also mental wellness. That such technology is non-intrusive and non-surveillance-like also allows the elderly to live an independent life. An initial concept of this is already being trialled in Singapore public housing using motion sensors.[3]

City-wide data insights can also be useful in boosting urban safety. Worldwide, women face a common fear of being out on the streets at night. Data from European Social Survey show that almost a third of women in the United Kingdom feel unsafe walking alone in their local area at night. In Bulgaria, the figure is a shocking 62 percent.[4]

A solution could be a mobile app that uses real-time data to make travelling safer. Data-driven insights – using information from public infrastructure, smart street lamps, for instance – could help the authorities improve night safety. It could provide a safe route option based on street lighting and crime hotspots, give women a chance to pin problem spots on the city map, and even help connect women with others travelling in the same direction.

3. Internet crime

With growing digitalisation, online fraud will remain a constant and growing menace. In the United Kingdom, romance fraud increased by 38 per cent in 2020, with over £21 million lost to scammers, a 17 per cent year-on-year increase. More than £135 million was lost to investment fraud, which comes up to 42 per cent more than the previous year.[5]

Closer to home, more than S$201 million[6] was lost to scams in Singapore in 2020, with cases rising from 9,545 in the year before to 15,756.

Even as new laws are being drafted to tackle such fraud, more advanced technology may prove such efforts futile. With the emergence of “deep fakes” – extremely realistic computer-generated faces in videos – it could be a struggle for law enforcement to clamp down on scam cases.

A data-driven comprehensive approach could be the solution. Key data sets can be used to detect potential victims, spot scams, capture perpetrators, and improve reporting. For example, Singapore is using AI to monitor scammers’ behaviour and predict their next move. The police have integrated robotic process automation into operations and share information with banks to forecast the next steps by the criminals.[7]

Besides scams, other forms of online criminal activity also pose a deep concern to the public. The scale of online child sexual exploitation and abuse is increasing at an alarming rate from year to year. For instance, in 2020, reports made to the US hotline, CyberTipline, included 33.6 million images and 31.6 million videos. To counter this, innovative techniques are being explored in Europe, such as automated detection technologies by private sector actors to detect, report, and remove such material.[8] You could read more about combatting cybercrime’s perfect storm, an article by James Slessor, our public safety lead. 

Expanding battlegrounds

As more aspects of living are taken into the digital realm, more cybersecurity threats will emerge and evolve. Current crimes involve data fraud, fake identities, and scams, which are driven by physical world controls may eventually take on a life of its own.

The rise of “deep fakes”, where anyone – including influential personalities – can be easily imitated to transmit false and potentially deadly messages, may result in an uncertain world full of distrust. more fractures may be expected in national or global financial and network systems, disrupted by androids engaging in rapid learning and algorithmic triggering behaviour.

Such scenarios require policymakers to unite – not just nationally but across the world, especially as crimes become borderless. Regional blocs such as ASEAN have already taken steps to protect cities digitally. One of these is the ASEAN Framework on Digital Data Governance, which provides a platform where data flow and the use of new technologies can be carried out safely.[9]

As much as technology can expose vulnerabilities, it can also predict weaknesses to strengthen responses.

Amid such fast-moving technology, cities of the future must ensure that residents are free of fear and violence, vulnerable groups are identified and protected, and the public is able to discern cybercrime while the authorities can anticipate and address crimes early.

You could read more on the technology trends which will shape the future in our latest Tech Vision 2021 report for Public Service here.

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[1] https://www.postscapes.com/internet-of-things-examples/

[2] https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/opinion/digital-twin-technology-can-open-up-vast-new-possibilities

[3] https://www.hdb.gov.sg/about-us/our-role/smart-and-sustainable-living/smart-hdb-town-page/hdb-smart-home-exhibition

[4] https://theconversation.com/survey-shows-32-of-british-women-dont-feel-safe-walking-alone-at-night-compared-to-just-13-of-men-157446

[5] https://www.ft.com/content/99f727b1-b1b7-4a00-855a-e126a97188a9

[6] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/more-than-201-million-cheated-top-10-scam-types-2020-police-14145720

[7] https://www.straitstimes.com/tech/tech-news/anti-fraud-experts-use-ai-to-predict-cheaters-next-move

[8] https://rm.coe.int/respecting-human-rights-and-the-rule-of-law-when-using-automated-techn/1680a2f5ee

[9] https://theaseanpost.com/article/aseans-data-governance-challenge

Eleana Liew

Managing Director – Health & Public Service, Client Lead, Southeast Asia

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