Insights on Smart Nation: 4 Things Industry Professionals Say

By Brendan Loon

At Discover Smart Nation, Advisory brought together 2 panels of professionals from Smart Nation careers to give their insights on what this national project for a Smart Nation means for students and professionals alike.

The young professionals panel comprised (from left to right): Mr Joel Choo, Software Engineer at GovTech; Mr Alwyn Tan, Senior Software Engineer at GovTech; Mr Sistla Sumanth, Customer Success Manager at Dynamic Yield: Mr Chia Jeng Yang, Senior Manager at Antler; Nicolette Tan, Manager at the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office; and Mr Rene Tan, Product Manager at Singtel.

The senior professionals panel comprised (from left to right): Mr Mock Pak Lum, former Chief Technology Officer of StarHub, and Mr Khoong Hock Yun, former Assistant Chief Executive (Development) of Infocomm Development Authority.

  1. There are many ways to get involved in Smart Nation.

When you hear the words ‘Smart Nation’, you might immediately think ‘coding’ too – but you don’t necessarily have to know how to code. With Smart Nation spanning both the private and public sectors, there are really many different types of Smart Nation careers. While coding is another useful skill you can always pick up via the many courses – offline and online – that are available, there is also a need for non-coders (or less experienced coders). These may be people with the conceptual knowledge to help to translate and communicate technicalities to people with no background at all, or use their knowledge to help tech start-ups grow, or use their knowledge to advise on tech and organisational direction and policy – though their own technical know-how might need some working on.

Just like how tech alone won’t solve all our problems, similarly, tech-inclined people can’t fill all the roles needed in a Smart Nation. There will still be a need for promotional roles, market analysis, data science, user analysis, judicious deployment of resources in an administration, discernment as to what to support and spearhead and what to abandon. In fact, we will need a whole range of people: presenters, innovators, data analysts, coders, marketers, inventors, founders. Smart Nation is not about tech per se, but using tech for common good.

Even if you don’t pick up coding as a professional skillset, you could always do so as a hobby or out of interest. You’ll never know when something your passionate about could come in handy for work, after all. Often, the difficulty with coding is not in picking up the skills per se but in finding useful applications of the skills so that you can create an effective solution to a real problem. As a coder, even if you don’t get to exercise those skills at work, you could always teach others and help them to pick up these skills too. In fact, in some Smart Nation careers, this is what you might do. Once you’ve gained experience in your work and organisation, you may not be tasked with the actual coding all that often anymore – though you may be really good at it by then. Instead, you’ll be guiding the less experienced younger professionals to do it.

  1. You don’t need a formal academic qualification in these fields.

There are people working in Smart Nation careers today who do not possess formal academic qualifications in fields such as engineering, computer science and data analytics. The range is as broad as political science, business and even law. So, it is not so much the formal qualification you have but what skills you have – skills which you can learn and develop a real capacity for beyond an academic setting. For example, you could find internships in your area of interest, and see how you like it there and how well suited you are for that field. Furthermore, even if you want to work only in a technical capacity, there is still a need for you to develop some skillsets that are people-oriented, such as relationship building. At the end of the day, a lot of these qualities and competencies may not be printed on a piece of paper.

  1. Smart Nation is user- and citizen-centric.

Smart Nation is about using technology that is user-friendly to deliver effective services that improve the lives of people in the nation and that solve real problems that people face. This could come in the form of apps. Some of these, like Parking.sg and Beeline, were initiatives by GovTech and the government; others have come from the private sector.

Sometimes, in figuring out a problem, machine learning is applied, as an Artificial Intelligence (AI) unit can more quickly pick up on patterns as compared to the mere human brain and eye. This helps to establish more useful sets of data, which institutions can then use to build solutions, and increases the overall efficiency of the problem-solving process.

  1. The obstacles toward a Smart Nation must be overcome together.

Finding breakthrough technological solutions to solve problems is never easy, so the chances of success are increased with private-public sector cooperation and partnership, as well as the support of the people. The people are important because they are the ones who will ultimately use these solutions, and they will only do so if they see that it effectively solves the problems they face. From a regulatory standpoint, it is difficult for the government to regulate this tech landscape because it is volatile and unpredictable. It is difficult to foresee what new technologies will be confronting society, and the world, even 5 to 10 years down the line. A 20- to 50-year masterplan approach will not work here. Neither will slow legislative responses prove helpful.

Yet, regulations cannot be rushed because if regulations are too light, then they have no effect; if they are too heavy-handed, then tech and innovation cannot take off. It is a difficult and delicate balance to achieve a level of regulation that both makes sense and ensures safety, and yet does not hold things back from progressing. When an innovation first emerges, however, it is difficult to know, or even predict, how far it will go. Shared bikes, for example, were a good function to have for society, but then the littering of shared bikes all over brought into question the readiness of the masses for such freedoms. And when such tech and regulations fail, more often than not, the regulators sit at the receiving end of much blame and many complaints—in which case regulators’ future response will understandably tend more toward a conservative and cautious approach than a liberal and open approach.

Perhaps more forgiveness on the part of the people would help, and so too should the regulators develop a thicker skin to learn from past mistakes, adapt and move on. Regulators also need to keep up and move faster, while meaningfully engaging and listening to the private sector to understand the industry landscape and realities. The private sector, on the other hand, needs to be open and candid with regulators about the concerns and hopes of the industry. This way, decisions about which instances warrant intervention and which do not can be better made. Only with concerted and synergistic efforts by industry players, the government and the people can society move toward effective adoption and innovation of tech which serves the common good. If each party only focuses on itself, little progress will be achieved.