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UNDP Global

Singapore's Gardens by the Bay is innovation and sustainability in practice.

Singapore recently hosted 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, and lack of resources. But bring smart city innovation into the equation, and these qualities could become strengths.

Small states such as 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 such as migration and climate change, they are also particularly well-positioned to use innovation to tackle many of these issues.

Much of the discussion of the role of smart cities has focused on large countries and major cities. However, smart city approaches have enormous relevance to small states.

This is because they are about applying broader innovation to improve lives and livelihoods whether through technology, developing different ways of working, or even nature-based solutions. Innovation can play a key role in strengthening governance, building citizens’ skills, improving public realms, and increasing citizen engagement. Each of these are priorities for any country, whether small or large.

Start small, think big

Small states are, by their very nature, agile, useful for becoming an innovation testbed. They can move quickly to try new technology, providing innovators big and small with real-world environments for testing new ways of working. Singapore is leading efforts here, including having designated much of the island-nation as an autonomous vehicle testbed.

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 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 as being explored in Micronesia.

Innovation as a strategic advantage

Innovation transcends borders. Many of the technologies behind smart cities—automation, artificial intelligence, big data, and the future of work—will affect every country. It’s 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 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 left behind. Organizations such as the Forum of Small States are an excellent opportunity to shape smart city strategies.

Small states also have the advantage of fewer legacy systems, and more streamlined processes that can help them pull ahead of their larger counterparts. The new city of Hulhumalé in the Maldives, which is still being built, will be founded on full-fibre connectivity. 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 success story like no other. It has become a global leader in applying technology and innovation. The UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development, a partnership between UNDP and the government, is building on this national expertise. Singapore is uniquely positioned to enable 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.

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