We often hear of city comparisons.  In my many years in Russia, I must have heard that St. Petersburg was the Venice of the North hundreds of times.  Another is Paris.  How many times have you heard “[Insert city] is the Paris of the [insert region]”?  Actually, a quick search reveals that there are at least 11 cities that are “the Paris of the East.”  Some are quite surprising:

And, there are 17 other cities who have claimed to be “the Venice of the East” including five in China, three in India, two in Thailand, and one each in Bangladesh, Brunei, Micronesia, Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia and Japan.  Most of these would love to attract even a fraction of the 20 million tourists who visit Venice annually. 

A recent Economist suggested a new angle – or in fact the original angle on these comparisons. Venice’s canals were not only a tourist attraction. They were the infrastructure investment of the time, enabling the city to develop into a commercial hub. 

 The article “A Singapore for Central America?” muses as to whether Panama City has the potential of being a “Latin American Singapore.”  Not as a tourist destination, but as a commercial hub.  Of course, this potential is yet unrealized.  But the lessons are there for the taking.

Singapore has re-invented itself over the past 60 years, and for several years running has claimed the number one spot on the World Bank’s Doing Business Index.  With just under 5 million residents and a per capita income of $37,000, Singapore has invested in infrastructure, ICT and education to become one of the world’s smartest cities.  Several examples of Singapore’s “smarts” include:

  • Singapore eGovernment. Singapore’s eGovernment initiatives began in the 80s with the Civil Service Computerisation Programme (CSCP) to improve operational efficiency through automation of work functions and reduced paperwork.  Next came improved service delivery in the late 90s, followed by two eGovernment Action Plans which mapped the online roll out of as many public services possible, and, in the second plan, to improve the service experience of customers. The iGov2010 Masterplan (2006 – 2010) then focused on integration, for greater efficiency and better customer experience.  The public facing side of this effort was the Singapore Government Online (SGOL) presence which is made up of an information gateway, and three other portals targeted at Citizens & Residents, Business and Non-Residents . For eGovernment Governance,  the Ministry of Finance acts as the eGovernment owner, working closely with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore as the technology advisor. 
  • Singapore eGovernment – Accounting and Corporate Registry Authority (ACRA).  As the Doing Business Index indicates, Singapore has streamlined and automated registration, filing, and information retrieval processes such that registering a new business via Singapore’s Internet-based system, known as Bizfile, now takes less than 3 days.  The system launched in 2003, reduced information updates from 14-21 days to only 30 minutes.  The time to register a new business or to incorporate a new company fell from 24 hours and 5 days respectively to only 15 minutes each.  And, the cost savings to the government was passed along to the constituents with business registration fees falling from S$100 to S$50 and incorporation fees from a rate of S$1,200 to S$3,500 to a flat rate of S$300.   Bizfile now offers 284 electronic services.
  • Singapore Land Transport Authority (LTA).  LTA was formed in 1995 through the merger of four public sector entities: Registry of Vehicles, Mass Rapid Transit Corporation, Roads and Transportation Division of the Public Works Department and the Land Transport Division of the Ministry of Communications.  The past 15 years have seen significant development of transportation infrastructure, implementation of technology to improve efficiency and services delivery and policies to encourage greater use of public transportation.  In 1998, the LTA launched Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), a licensing and pricing system for the country’s roads. 2001 saw the first integrated portal for transportation services; 2007 saw the introduction of real-time bus arrival panels to help commuters better manage waiting time and transfers, and to make more informed travel decisions.  And, 2008 saw the launch of the Land Transport Masterplan, the transportation policy and infrastructure development plan for the next 15 years. The list goes on.

So the challenged has been launched for Panama.

The real challenge, however, is not to imitate Singapore but to develop its own path based on the best practices demonstrated by others.  Most tourists who visit the Parises or the Venices are not expecting to see an Eiffel Tower or a St. Mark’s Square (except those who go to Las Vegas).  Tourists go to St. Petersburg go for the midnight sun, the pre-revolutionary architecture, the experience of Russia and maybe the canal tours as well.  The Venices and the Parises of the North and East have their own variation to the themes they were imitating. 

The modern day wannabees – a Singapore of Latin America, for example – will also need to innovate.  Imitation may be the highest form of flattery.  But these cities are not looking to flatter.  They have aspirations of economic growth, higher living standards, political stability, and other goals.

The real challenge is not to be just another Singapore of the North and West.  What will Panama, and others, become?  That’s the exciting part of following smart cities.