Jacqueline Poh, Deputy Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office Strategy Group for Singapore, speaking at the 2019 Fortune Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore.
Stefen Chow for Fortune
By Robert Horn
March 14, 2019

The digital age is bringing about such rapid, unforeseen changes that some once-successful nations are in peril of being left behind.

Singapore is determined not to be one of them. Instead, it is using design thinking to become Asia’s first “smart nation.”

From a digital national identity for each citizen to paying for parking spaces with an app, Singapore is designing innovative approaches and digital solutions to make life easier for all of its 5.6 million people. But going digital isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success unless those solutions are well designed.

“It can take a long time for governments to make real shifts. You can’t look at just what is happening now. You have to telescope into the future and design for that,’’ said Jacqueline Poh, deputy secretary of the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office Strategy Group, speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore last Wednesday.

Poh played a key role in the founding of GovTech, the agency that is spearheading Singapore’s Smart Nation efforts and is driving the public sector’s digital transformation. While it is exciting, visionary work, “it’s not an easy job,” she said.

Making that job harder is the fact that Singapore has a large aging population, and many of them, particularly members of the “pioneer generation”—Singaporeans who were young when the country declared independence in 1965—are not comfortable with new technology.

“The innovation was how do we reach them,’’ Poh said. No matter how well designed the government websites were, members of the pioneer generation were not going to surf the Internet to enroll in programs that could help them and deliver the benefits to which they were entitled. So the government recruited members of the next generation, gave them Apple iPads and sent them house-to-house to register and sign them up.

In implementing the digital national identity program, an issue that cut across all generations was trust. Will personal data be secure? Can the government ensure the information won’t be misused?

“Trust is a huge factor when it comes to anything dealing with financial matters or government,” Poh said.

But surveys showed that Singaporeans’ trust in their government was fairly high, and many thought it already had all their information and so were puzzled why the government was asking for it.

More than 170 government agencies and 120 private sector companies (including banks and insurance companies) are using the digital platform where the information is stored. To maintain trust, the government requires private sector companies to ask customers for permission to access their information from the database.

Poh knows that to for Singapore to truly achieve smart nation status, the government must keep looking towards the future and design for it. It is easy to fall behind rapid changes and get stuck in old bureaucratic ways of thinking.

To demonstrate that point, she showed a slide with a form the United States government had sent to astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 after they returned to Earth from landing on the moon.

It was a customs declaration form.

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.

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