The Singapore government recently hosted the visit of the 9th Forum of Small States Fellowship. It was a privilege for the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development to meet with the delegation and to share our work. 

Small states are often disadvantaged by their size, remoteness, lack of resources, and isolation. But bring smart city innovation into the equation, and these qualities could actually become strengths.

Small states like Singapore, El Salvador, Micronesia, and the Maldives, form a significant portion of the membership of the UN. While, they are more likely to be affected by defining challenges like migration and climate change, they are also particularly well-positioned to use innovation to tackle many of these issues. 

To date, much of the discussion around the role of smart cities in regard to these challenges has focused on large countries – and major cities. However, smart city approaches have enormous relevance to small states.  This is because smart cities are about more than just technology.

In fact, smart cities are about applying broader innovation to improve lives and livelihoods – whether through leveraging technology, developing different ways of working, or even applying nature-based solutions. This innovation can therefore play a key role in strengthening governance, building citizen skills, improving public realms, and driving citizen engagement. Each of these areas are priorities for any country – whether small or large.

Start small, think big

Small states are, by their very nature, agile in size and governance – useful factors to become an innovation ‘testbed’. They can move quickly to trial and scale new technology, providing innovators – big and small – with real-world environments for testing new ways of working. Singapore, for instance, is leading efforts here, including having designated much of the island-nation as an autonomous vehicle testbed.

Their smaller size is also an opportunity to shape global and regional best practice. The city of Sonsonate in El Salvador is one of the first in the region to explore the potential of intelligent lighting. With closer oversight of the workings of government, and less complexity, small states are also able to build the necessary processes, standards, and cultures to implement smart city initiatives nation-wide. Malawi is making interesting progress in this area, with its Digital Malawi initiative aiming to build the foundations of a digital state.

In this context, innovation can range from building national industries focusing on delivering smart city components, through to attracting talent and investment (as highlighted by Estonia’s eResidency initiative). Innovation can also be a catalyst for the broader digital transformation of nationwide systems, policies, and processes – as being explored in Micronesia.

Innovation as a strategic advantage

Innovation transcends borders. Many of the driving technologies behind smart cities – automation, artificial intelligence, big data, and the future of work – will impact every country. It becomes necessary for small states to engage with the technological innovation that is at the heart of smart cities. 

Smaller states, which typically have less political and economic weight, are always at the risk of being dominated by the practices, solutions, or standards steered by their larger country counterparts. The need for small states to engage with innovation is growing, so that they can shape trends, make themselves relevant and ensure they are not disadvantaged, marginalised, or left behind. Groupings such as the Forum of Small States are an excellent opportunity to collectively shape smart city strategies and solutions to meet the needs of small states.

Small states also have the advantage of fewer legacy systems, and more streamlined processes that can help them leapfrog their larger counterparts. The new city of Hulhumalé in the Maldives, currently under development, will be founded on full-fibre connectivity – providing some of the fastest speeds in the region. Similarly, Samoa is developing a foundational digital ID solution to increase the accessibility of public services. This also provides an exciting opportunity for larger states to learn from their more nimble, and forward-thinking, small state partners.

Looking forward

Singapore is a small state success story like no other. This small and smart city-state has become a global leader in applying technology and innovation to shape its development and success. The UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development – a partnership between UNDP and the Government of Singapore – is building on this national expertise and success. Singapore is uniquely positioned to enable the development of the next-generation of smart cities – both large and small – across Africa and Asia. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more, or work with us on this important issue.

Calum Handforth

Thematic Lead (Digitalisation and Smart Cities), UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development

Calum has a wide-ranging smart cities and digitalisation background having worked on the delivery, strategy, and management of a range of innovation projects and programmes across Sub-Saharan Africa, and South and South-East Asia. He has an MSc in Development Studies, an MSc in Epidemiology, and is currently working on a PhD in Behavioural Science.Calum has drafted and led legislation, policy, and strategy to rollout smart cities; delivered connectivity programmes (3G, 4G, and 5G pilots) and explored Internet-of-Things-related projects. He has also led the development of service delivery initiatives such as chatbots, digital identity projects, and digital inclusion programmes. He has worked in government, strategy consulting, and international development. More widely, Calum has built a strong expertise in driving and measuring the success and impact of smart city, digitalisation, and broader innovation projects and programmes – particularly in lower-income settings. This has included leading digital transformation efforts (and applying ‘Agile’ principles in international development), measuring behaviour change, exploring the potential of Big Data, building processes and workflows to leverage innovation, and translating findings to inform policy, strategy, and scaling.

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