Home PublicationsData Innovators 5 Q’s for King Wang Poon, Director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design

5 Q’s for King Wang Poon, Director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design

by Joshua New
King Wang Poon

The Center for Data Innovation spoke with King Wang Poon, director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKYCIC) at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). Poon discussed strategies for smart city development and how to address concerns about AI and the future of work.

Joshua New: Much of your work focuses on advancing the goals for the Singaporean Government Smart Nation initiative. What is the Smart Nation initiative, and what is the role for academia?

King Wang Poon: Smart Nation is Singapore’s smart city initiative, but at the scale and setting of a city-state. Hence it goes beyond urban services or public-private partnerships. It is about how Singapore—government, businesses, and communities—is transforming for the digital age so that citizen lives are uplifted.

Academia contributes through ideas and innovations. The smart city presents opportunities and poses problems arising from the complex overlapping of past and present industrial revolutions. Cities are thus searching for fresh thinking and effective solutions, and our research helps cities explore practical options.

We also ground our research in the human condition and shared humanity of the smart city. We explore how policies and technologies can build—and rebuild —better lives, and make a material difference that lasts.

New: You’ve written about how smart city development should more readily consider people’s “daily difficulties” and then pursue smart technologies to overcome these difficulties. What benefits would this have?

Poon: The key benefit is that people will clearly see and sense how the smart city benefits them. Our research, for example, has looked into how people can transition to new jobs when their current ones are disrupted, and how they can stay motivated about staying healthy. When people’s lives are uplifted by the smart city, it will bolster their support for current and future initiatives.

Moreover, overcoming “daily difficulties” means reducing the barriers to a better life. This is important—after all, the reason so many people move to cities or choose to stay put once there, is they believe it is where they have the best shot at a better life.

It has also become more acute with the economic, social, and political trends of the past decade. More and more people in more and more cities feel that a better future is slipping out of reach. Considering “daily difficulties” is a simple and straightforward first step to rebuild what has been lost.

New: In our work on smart cities, one of the main challenges we see is the difficulty cities have in sharing and learning from each others’ experiences. Has this been your experience in Singapore?

Poon: Yes, that has been our experience too. For example, when we looked at other cities’ cashless payment innovations, many of them did not have to contend with established—even entrenched—infrastructure and behaviors. And when other cities look at Singapore, they see a city-state with one layer of governance between city and state, whereas they have to work within federal, state, and municipal governance structures.

But that should not stop us from sharing and learning. What other cities do can help us see what is possible, especially when we compare across them. We learn a little faster, and a little better as a result. They give us a fillip when we start to consider what makes sense for our own cities.

New: Your work also touches on issues related to the impact of AI on jobs and the future of work, however your concerns are very different than the “robots will take all the jobs” crowd’s. Could you describe what your concerns are, as well as the opportunities you foresee?

Poon: Our concerns are on “so what do we do next?” The job loss predictions made many sit up, but we cannot stop there. Policymakers, corporate leaders, and workers need to know what to do next to navigate the future with a measure of confidence and certainty.

Besides being practical, focusing on the next steps offers several new opportunities. The first is we can track and tackle disruption better. We can do so by exploiting an obvious phenomenon: jobs are disrupted task-by-task, and not job-by-job. By seeing which tasks in a job are disrupted and when they are disrupted, we can better determine how much time we have to help workers and where we can help them.

The second is to choose to invest in technologies that increase the value of what workers do. Whether it is to augment what humans do, or to complement them, we can shift away from a narrow single-minded focus on substitution as the only path to efficiency.

Thirdly, we can make jobs more meaningful and valuable for workers. It is an opportunity to rethink what our organizations value, redesign it around the values that matter to us, and thus rebuild a stronger company and city.

New: As part of this work, you’ve proposed a strategy called MindxAI to ensure this impact is beneficial. Can you describe what this strategy would do?

Poon: There is clear and growing evidence that technologies like AI can diminish our cognitive capacities. For example, we no longer remember phone numbers and birthdays, and rely on the GPS to navigate the city. This effect has been found in many other areas such as accounting, financial trading, architectural practice, programming, reading, spelling, memory, and so on. All these could lead to the de-skilling of core competencies in our professions; there is even research that suggests this could lead to increased Alzhemier’s risks.

Our MindxAI strategy outlines how we can design—and redesign—our AI technologies to augment our cognitive capacities, instead of diminishing them. Take the conventional GPS for example. It provides turn-by-turn instructions, which drivers increasingly follow mindlessly. We can redesign the GPS to instead give visual and spatial cues, such as “turn right at the red building, or turn left at the Ferris wheel after the flyover.” This preserves and protects the drivers’ cognitive and spatial sense of the city.

MindxAI forces us to design technologies where humans and AI work together, and not against each other. At the same time, to design how we can protect cognitive capacities, we first have to decide which cognitive capacities to protect. In making this decision, we are also discovering and strengthening what makes us human.

You may also like

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons