Singapore rides into the future on crowdsourced bus

Louise Lucas
Lonely Planet | Getty Images

Singapore has seen the future — and is busily putting it into practice.

From crowd-sourced buses, designed to do for public transport what Uber has done for taxis, to hologram doctors conversing with elderly patients while running simple medical tests, the tiny island nation is striding into the new digitized era.

"Uber is democratizing taxis and we want the same for buses, so all transport can be booked," says Liu Feng Yuan, Singapore's director of government analytics.

"I don't think it's in the realm of science fiction, but an opportunity . . . where we are now is a tiny experiment."

It is one of several experiments that harness big data and digital disruption to tackle commonplace challenges, such as ageing populations and transport bottlenecks. These, Singapore hopes, could ultimately become templates for the world to copy.

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Steve Leonard, executive deputy chairman of Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority tasked with spearheading the government's digital-nation drive, believes the Lion City is a natural experimentation ground.

"Because we are a compact place we can do things that would not be possible for others," he says, adding that the single layer of government also facilitates speedy decision-making. Rather than sending ideas up the ranks, relevant politicians sit down, talk and then "it's high-fives all round".

Crowdsourcing of buses will begin this summer, with transport rerouted according to data amassed from commuters' smart cards. Unlike many similar cards elsewhere, these are tapped on boarding and alighting from buses, providing a fuller picture.

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Based on this data, plus passenger feedback, routes will be retraced with fewer stops and — courtesy of expressways — shorter times

Ultimately, the plan is to build into crowdsourcing on demand, where passengers use smartphones to tell buses their locations and, depending on volume, can expect be picked up accordingly.

"Economics is the question at the end of the day," says Mr Liu. "Will people be willing to pay a bit more for this convenience and direct service? So will it make commercial sense?"

Hosting virtual medical consultations is equally bold — but again, Singaporean logistics help. The vast majority of citizens live in public housing apartment blocks, making it easy and efficient to house equipment in densely populated areas, from where data are then transmitted to hospitals.

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Singapore is already trialling tele-rehab, physiotherapy by sensors that enables patients to rehabilitate at home rather than trek down to the local hospital, as well as remote monitoring for commonplace conditions such as diabetes.

Last year, the IDA says, was all about blueprint visions and this is the year of prototyping and trials. The future beckons.