Drew Hemment reports from The Singapore Dialogue, a prestigious speaking gig for the Singapore Government at Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona on Wednesday 18th November 2015.

I have spoken often at Smart City Expo on engaging citizens and artists and building future cities from the ground up. Following hot on the heels of the success of FutureEverything Singapore I was invited by Singapore to be the external speaker at The Singapore Dialogue, alongside Jerry McArthur Hultin, who is Chairman of Smart City Expo World Congress, and so, in a sense, our host.

The event was opened by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister in Charge of the Smart Nation initiative, whose impassioned people-first speech was a highlight of FutureEverything Singapore last month. Dr Balakrishnan spoke of challenges facing an island nation with no natural resources, the big changes over the horizon, and how a Smart Nation needs to be more than a technology solution.

I shared reflections our work with Singapore over the past two years. Singapore is both a city and nation. So compared to other cities gathered in Barcelona, it is an ideal place to build a bigger, broader ‘smart city’ vision, one also about national identity and macroeconomic policy. I spoke about the role of designers, artists and citizens in creating innovative livable cities.

A fantastic story came from Rosina Howe, Chief Innovation Officer at the Land Transport Authority, who described tweaking Wi-Fi so it is strong at the edges of subway platforms and weak in the centre to solve the problem of a crush of people around the lifts in the middle. An important Government figure in Singapore is Dr Cheong Koon Hean, CEO of the Housing Development Board. Her agency has built and oversees more than one million residential apartments and tens of thousands of car parks – yes, car parks, not parking spaces. Her thinking is all about living labs and engaging residents in experiments in future urban living at a massive scale. She also shared an idea to build a freight pipeline through Singapore – literally a sealed tube so that goods and materials can circulate unseen.

Over coffee Steve Leonard, Executive Deputy Chairman of the technology development agency in Singapore, IDA, had questioned me on the impact of FutureEverything Singapore on artists and asked to be introduced to some of the artists who had given testimonials. Steve was our lead Government contact for FutureEverything Singapore, and he spoke after Tan Kok Yam, Head of the Smart Nation Programme Office, sharing some of the important messages I had heard while in Singapore, such as the importance of “innovation as culture” and opening mindsets.

Listening to agency heads in conversation, sharing insights and reflecting on what more they can do, the take-home I shared in the discussion is that in Singapore it is possible to have an idea and go do it. The city is at a scale to make big ideas feasible and within reach.

Singapore describes the Smart Nation as a whole-of-nation journey, and has called for a culture of experimentation between citizens, businesses and Government. The Singapore Dialogue set out to build Singapore’s profile for industry development and nation building, and to promote Singapore as a living lab and a place to testbed and pilot integrated solutions to create smart cities in close collaboration with government. The discussion was expertly handled by moderator Monty Munford of The Economist, Forbes and Mashable.

Drew Hemment is Founder and Creative Director at FutureEverything, and a Dundee Fellow at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee.