How to put the “social” into smart cities?

A German delegation hosted by FES, visited Singapore to find out how the city state uses technology for creating a liveable city.

Michael Gross, member of Germany’s Federal Parliament together with eight fellow representatives of influential German organizations and associations was part of a delegation to visit Singapore and learn more about the city’s Smart Nation programme.

Gross is part of the Smart and Social City study group set up by the Economic and Social Research Department (WiSo) of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Berlin. Members of the group critically explore the concepts of smart and social cities. The issues under study have led the group to Munich, and to lesser known cities, like Wolfsburg and Wenningsen. In this interview, Gross shares his insights after his Singapore visit.

You and your fellow eight representatives of influential German organizations and associations visited Singapore to learn more about its Smart Nation programme. What is this all about?

It is about a quality life within socially just structures, which are supported by new technologies. Some areas of services of general interest and citizens’ services are handled very well in Singapore. For example, in the future, a single app shall facilitate access to a variety of administrative services provided by the Singaporean government. I like that. On the other hand, I do not regard Singapore as a best practice example when it comes to topics like personal data protection, civic participation in the planning phase and democratic participation. We are concerned with the question of how digitalization and work 4.0 can offer new opportunities and what is lost in the process. We think ahead about this.

You are concerned with the fundamental question of how technological innovations can contribute to bringing more social justice to the cities.

Yes, and I understand that Singapore is thinking along similar lines. However, the process of implementation is different. In Germany regulation comes first, followed by testing and finally implementation. In Singapore innovations are first tested, then approved and later regulated. In the context of Germany and Europe I find it hard to imagine this approach because it would go against our democratic principles. We cannot and do not want to approach future-oriented processes top-down.

In Germany it is however increasingly being lamented that the government and politics implement innovations too slowly. This is a popular criticism from Asia to Berlin.

Of course, especially after our experience in Singapore, I recognize that our way of approaching innovation does not only bring about benefits for companies and industry. We clearly got this message when visiting German companies and talking to numerous entrepreneurs. But it is nevertheless a great achievement that the rights of individuals are very strong in our country. While I do regard the fact that we have planning processes which are a bit cumbersome as a disadvantage, on the other hand, this is a result of our democracy. Fortunately citizens in Germany have the opportunity to question projects and possibly even prevent them.

In addition to a modern infrastructure and an ideal geographical location in the middle of Southeast Asia, Singapore offers something else that many value: planning reliability. Here, rather uniquely, infrastructure is being planned up to three generations ahead. What are the chances of this happening in Germany?

I have heard from various sources how much German and international companies value long-term planning perspectives, especially for infrastructure projects, in Singapore as a hub for their Asian business. At the same time companies appreciate the willingness of the Singapore government to experiment. In return, companies like our German companies offer Singapore innovative developments which they cannot or cannot yet implement in this form in Germany. We obviously have to work on this.

How can the German social democracy bridge the gap between legitimate concerns? Namely that all citizens can participate satisfactorily in this modernization versus the objective of the economy, to advance fast solutions in the interest of the market?

What we as the German society need are open debates about these supposed contradictions. It is very important to me, in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, that the debate focuses on that we want progress for the people, for the environment, and not only for the markets. On this basis, we can assess what is feasible and where there is a need for regulation.

Many people associate Singapore with shopping malls and a rigid system. What is your impression of Singapore, which for many Asians is an admirable model?

I have experienced a great openness. And an incredible vibrancy and diversity, people from all over the world live and work together towards very ambitious goals here. I will treasure the memories of my walks through the back alleys of old Malay and Chinese quarters.


The interview was conducted by Adrienne Woltersdorf, Managing Director of FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. For more information on the work by FES on Social Cities and strategies towards a sustainable economy of tomorrow, visit the dedicated page and contact the FES Office in Indonesia

FES Asia

Bringing together the work of our offices in the region, we provide you with the latest news on current debates, insightful research and innovative visual outputs on the future of work, geopolitics, gender justice, and social-ecological transformation.