Portrait photo of Lynette Cheah

Lynette Cheah champions sustainable cities.Credit: Singapore University of Technology and Design

Singapore houses 5.5 million people in an area less than half the size of London and is the second most densely populated country in the world, after Monaco. In 2014, it pledged to put digital innovation and technology at the heart of its society, economy and government.

Five years later, the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) In Lausanne, Switzerland, launched the Smart City Index, which ranks 118 cities on the basis of citizens’ perceptions of how technology can improve their lives. Singapore has held the top spot since the index began. The citizens who responded to the survey were satisfied with their city’s greenery and air quality. But one in four respondents listed traffic congestion as an issue that needs addressing.

In 1975, Singapore became the first city to introduce congestion pricing — a flat fee during weekdays and Saturday peak morning hours. Congestion pricing went electronic in 1998, and as car ownership rose, it covered an expanded area, with rates based on vehicle types and time of day. The policy coincided with expanded public-transport and cycling-path networks.

The city state also hosts a number of green spaces, including 18 giant ‘supertrees’ — vertical gardens that generate solar power and collect rainwater.

It was the availability of such green spaces that drew Lynette Cheah into sustainability science. As a child, she would escape Singapore’s bustling urban environment by retreating into nature, heading to places such as Pulau Ubin, an island nestled off the northeast coast of Singapore’s main island, filled with mangroves and the last remaining rural villages.

Today, Cheah is an engineering systems researcher at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, which partners with the IMD on its Smart City Index. Her focus is on sustainable urban mobility, and particularly on the use of data-driven models and tools to study freight transport and its impact on traffic flow.

She is also interested in sustainable cities and public attitudes to driver-less vehicles. For her, a smart city is one where data and information technology connect people and infrastructure to make public transport more efficient and enhance urban living.

How do transport and other services bolster Singapore’s reputation as a smart city?

As well as congestion pricing, Singapore, in common with many cities, has intelligent transport systems that alert travellers to traffic levels and potential delays, alongside bus arrival times. These are all at our fingertips through different apps, as are on-demand mobility and car-hailing services. There are lots of initiatives to manage the demand and supply of services — flagging flight arrivals to taxi drivers, for example.

But smart cities are about more than transportation. In health care, for example, they’re about national databases such as vaccine records. These can be accessed through an app offered by the Government Technology Agency, the department in charge of digital government services. Citizens can use the Singpass app to access various government services and keep track of their medical records. These are alongside the tools that emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as contact tracing.

Overall we’re a very tech-savvy population. For example, the average person has more than one smartphone (overall, smartphone penetration in 2021 was 159%) and there are lots of opportunities for children to use electronic devices in their school work.

At the same time, I think there’s a recognition that some segments of the population aren’t as digitally connected as others. For example, when the government gave out vouchers in May as part of an economic relief package, there were deliberate attempts on the ground to ensure that the packages reached the intended beneficiaries in low-income households and vulnerable groups.

An autonomous shuttle bus on a road in Singapore, during a trial run.

An on-demand autonomous shuttle bus at Sentosa Island resort in Singapore.Credit: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty

Tell us about your transportation research and how it fits into the smart-city initiatives.

It’s important to venture beyond individual disciplines to bring in fresh perspectives to solving problems, and I work with urban designers and planners, computer scientists and technology experts. Also, my university is receptive to interdisciplinary research. One collaboration, supported by Singapore’s Public Transport Council, was with Samuel Chng, a psychologist in our Urban Psychology Lab, which is part of the Lee Kuan Yew Center for Innovative Cities.

We looked at public perceptions of autonomous vehicles in Singapore1. Self-driving shared-use vehicles such as buses are gaining a lot of interest in cities, and they are being trialled here. We surveyed passengers with different mobility and communication needs, including those with sight and hearing impairments, people who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids and autistic people and their caregivers. We were keen to hear their concerns or fears about being in a driver-less bus when they are used to having drivers, who would often help them with wheelchairs, for example.

Also, between 2016 and 2019, I worked with Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, using data to understand how goods move around the city. The models for understanding freight transport and the movement of commercial goods are less developed than are those for passenger transport. Increasing e-commerce, brought about partly by the pandemic, means that freight is becoming a more significant contributor to urban congestion and pollution. Our research provided insights on the daily activities involving truck drivers2 and loading bays3 at two retail malls, looking at truck arrival times, how long the vehicles were parked and when congestion happened. Tackling these problems depends on bringing different groups together. If off-peak deliveries are encouraged when loading bays are available, how willing are shops to stay open to receive them? And how willing are logistics providers to collaborate and share capacity?

You’ve worked and studied abroad and you collaborate internationally. What have you seen in other cities that Singapore could perhaps learn from, and vice versa?

It’s interesting having lived in different cities and seen how they organize themselves. Singapore is unique in that it has a very high population density and very limited space. That defines a lot of policies around how we organize our land — making sure that greenery is part of our environment, for example — and where we get our resources from.

In Singapore, many initiatives can be rolled out quickly, because there is a relatively high level of trust in authorities to serve the best interest of the public. This trust has to be cultivated over time and maintained, through transparency in data governance and positive experiences.

I find there are so many plus points of any city. Whenever I visit one, I always ride on the public transport and visit a supermarket to get a sense of people’s lifestyles. I find Japanese and Korean cities are very advanced at introducing technologies to improve the lives of the people. Also Chinese cities, to monitor traffic levels.

In June, I returned from an eight-month sabbatical at the University of Victoria in Canada, where I taught classes in the civil-engineering department on sustainable cities.

I found many people and organizations in Victoria to be respectful of different cultures and I was impressed by the use of land acknowledgement in relation to Indigenous peoples. These values can guide the development of smart-city initiatives that are equitable and meant to serve everyone.

A June article in MIT Technology Review warns that too strong a focus on smart cities reduces the cities to technology projects, not places where people live and work (see go.nature.com/3jkkbh5). What are your thoughts on that?

I can relate to that, yes. We don’t need ‘too smart’ cities. Instead we need human-centric ones. It should not be about the technology itself. It’s more about the services that are provided and enabled by the technology. We sometimes get excited by technology, but it’s a means to an end.