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Q&A: Huawei's Hong-Eng Koh on the value of digital transformation

Sponsored by Huawei

Hong-Eng Koh discusses how data is central to a smart city and the value technology offers.

Q&A: Huawei's Hong-Eng Koh on the value of digital transformation

Hong-Eng Koh’s extensive experience working with public sector agencies globally for the past three decades has left him best placed to develop Huawei’s public sector digital transformation and smart city strategy for its Enterprise Business Group. After starting his career at the Singapore Police, he moved on to a major role in the country’s early national e-Government programme. This led him to Sun Microsystems which was acquired by Oracle, where he spent a total of 16 years in a variety of leadership roles in the global public sector business before he joined Huawei.

At the centre of his career has been an enthusiasm for the opportunities digital transformation can offer, whether it’s a collaborative e-government tailor-made for the sharing economy, socially enabled policing and collaborative public safety. He is also an artificial intelligence evangelist and created the 7A framework in identifying how the technology can accelerate government digital transformation.

SmartCitiesWorld sat down with Hong-Eng to discuss why digitalisation is so critical for cities to thrive in the decades ahead.


SmartCitiesWorld: What opportunities does smart technology offer cities?


Hong-Eng: If we look at how smart technologies complement development of cities, we can nail it down to six broad areas:

  • Intelligent Connectivity: You simply cannot realise digitalisation without connectivity. As witnessed during the pandemic, people and machines are connected through broad bandwidth to work anytime anywhere. Increasingly, constituents expect city services to be 24/7, preferably contactless and available online. But the machines and sensors enabling these services need to have high quality connectivity, especially mission-critical services. Cities need to invest in city-wide connectivity, especially wireless technology such as 5G, and intelligent technologies which improve user experience and energy efficiency, optimise resource utilisation and enhance O&M efficiency, such as Huawei’s Autonomous Driving Network (ADN), which has it all
  • Ubiquitous Computing: Because of its background role, the importance of computing is often understated. Digitalisation and AI are all about data, and data crunching. Computing power has to catch up with the ever-increasing astronomical amount of data we have to deal with. Intelligent traffic management, autonomous vehicles, telemedicine, smart education, etc. all require strong computing power, which has to be present everywhere and ubiquitous. The pandemic is driving almost all things online and the traditional way of building data centres is a challenge. This is where Huawei’s Smart Modular Data Centre comes in handy, especially with efficient power management
  • Inclusive AI: AI has to be inclusive and everywhere for everyone and everything given the volume of disparate use cases it supports. These can range from analysing a CT scan, assessing a tax submission for fraud, determining whether a railway track needs repair, giving dynamic information to first responders, to enabling driverless public transport
    Huawei offers a full-stack and all-scenario AI platform to support the myriad use cases. The platform features its Ascend AI processors, the MindSpore framework with independent machine learning libraries, and the ModelArts pre-integrated end-to-end services for application enablement
  • Universal Cloud: In the fight against Covid-19 and with ICT business continuity management challenges, the importance of Universal Cloud becomes even more obvious. In the last few months, many healthcare providers around the world took advantage of an AI assisted CT scan analysis readily available on Huawei Cloud to identify Covid patients. The previous manual method took 14 minutes per patient, and it is now reduced to 2.5 minutes with AI on cloud. However, cities have to maintain digital sovereignty, ownership and control, by having the infrastructure and data within their jurisdiction. Data crossing borders is not avoidable; we need close monitoring and management of such flows. We need in place all the necessary privacy measures and to gain the trust from all stakeholders. Last but not least, local skills and capabilities to build, operate and maintain sovereign cloud
  • Industry Digital Transformation: This is where we integrate all these technologies to develop the various smart city solutions, such as smart healthcare, digital tax, converged city operations, smart education, and smart municipal services
  • Smart Devices: Digitalisation means we have to literally bring the services and data to the fingertips of the constituents and city officials, and at an affordable cost. Otherwise, the digital divide will become a major issue and could divide societies further. In addition to smart devices for the people, we are also seeing more devices collecting and sensing data, such as air quality monitoring sensor and flood sensor.

SmartCitiesWorld: By enabling digitisation, what kinds of new services will cities be able to offer citizens?


Hong-Eng: This pandemic is providing many reasons and even the urgency for the digital transformation of some of these services. Let me give you some examples. A citizen usually has to interact with several different public sector bodies in order to complete a certain task. To drive a car, I have to learn how to drive, pass the highway code and driving test, buy a car, register it, pay the road tax and maintain the vehicle. Quite often that may mean visiting agencies separately, whether onsite or online. We need to reduce such multiple contacts, especially those involving physical transactions. There is an urgent need to move away from the agency-centric to the user-centric model.

To do so we need two things. Firstly, a public sector-wide enabling platform, which will connect up the different systems and databases across the different public sector agencies and provide a true one-stop service to the user. One example is the Saudi Government Service Bus. Secondly, a public sector app store just like those on our mobile devices. Different agencies may require similar applications, so why not build a store for the sharing of apps? We can invite businesses and even individuals to build such apps. India has a plan for such e-Government Apps Store.

There is an urgent need to move away from the agency-centric to the user-centric model.

Many transactions with the public sector are mandated by regulations. It means many of these processes can be automated using AI. An added benefit is consistency in delivering services to people and businesses and the ability to help overcome the digital divide. In any society there will still be people with limited access to digital services. There is a need for one-stop service centres for them to go to for physical transactions. These centres can also be educational centres to promote the use of technology.


At least at the city level, it is critical for business continuity management and monitoring of essential supplies, services and personnel. Top decision makers need to make cross-agency decisions based on such data. With companies going bankrupt and increasing unemployment, the grassroots economy becomes even more important. Individuals and small businesses must be encouraged to produce more goods and services. The public sector has a role to play by digitally enabling such small businesses and protecting them amid a tough economy.


Be it big enterprises or small businesses, and even public sector transactions, we do need a cashless society, probably with multiple online payment providers. Another critical component of digital transformation is a non-fragmented and standard electronic identity. While it may be managed commercially, the public sector has to be the driver behind such a national electronic ID for people, enterprises and agencies to trust and transact with one another. Blockchain technology seems promising in this area.


SmartCitiesWorld: How will they be able to transform their own operations?

Hong-Eng: This pandemic is the catalyst for the public sector to evolve and even transform. Let’s start by looking at governance and internal operations. The top priority must be looking after the safety and wellbeing of public servants, with many of them performing essential services. This may involve redesigning the workplace, including the use of technology to detect threats.


The public sector too has to allow decentralisation of the workforce and enable them to work from anywhere. Do we really need a huge centre in the middle of a city staffed by hundreds of employees, especially with today’s broadband connectivity and 5G? For example, during the height of the pandemic, some UK emergency call centres allowed their call takers to work from home. Earlier this year Fujitsu also announced that by 2022 it will reduce office space by 50 per cent since more staff are working from home.

The public sector has strict governance and process in adopting innovation. But this is a period of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We need to support more agile public-private joint-innovation to overcome this pandemic and economic downturn. Beyond video-conferencing, the public sector can adopt more technologies brought about by 5G, cloud and AI to improve collaboration, such as AR, VR, immersive reality, full multimedia user interface, and even robotics. Automation too can increase efficiency and reduce physical contacts.

"A smart city is not a project, it is one big vision."
"A smart city is not a project, it is one big vision."

SmartCitiesWorld: What are the areas that will be most suited to this digital transformation?


Hong-Eng: Covid-19 may prove to be THE black swan event of our generation. We are living through a major change in the course of human history. Back during the Spanish Flu a century ago, the world was not as connected and as globalised. Many governments are now juggling between taming the virus, ensuring the health of the constituents, dealing with increasingly unhappy constituents, preparing for the upcoming economic recession, and managing fast diminishing budgets. I believe governments will thus prioritise these areas for digital transformation:

  • Healthcare and people wellbeing
  • Economic development, such as grassroots economy
  • Public safety

SmartCitiesWorld: What are the key obstacles to developing an effective smart city?


Hong-Eng: A smart city is not just about digitalisation, connectivity, going online, cost reduction, or improvement of ROI. It has to involve a lot more, such as redefining a city’s mission, organisation, governance, process, and skillsets. Let me be more positive and share what I feel are the critical success factors in developing an effective smart city.

  • Firstly, a city requires the right laws and regulations to support this redefined mission, organisation, governance and process. For example, a city may need to change the law to allow AI to answer emergency calls.
  • Strong governance, structure and leadership are needed to pull the agencies and public servants in the same direction.
  • Digitalisation is all about data. Upholding privacy and cybersecurity must not be neglected. The public sector is the servant of the people and businesses. Trust is everything.
  • Last but not least, the budget and the operating model. Is the effort going to be based on capital expense, operating expense, or even as a cloud model? A smart city is not a one-off technological implementation, it has to be a journey.

As I said earlier, a major critical success factor is strong governance, structure and leadership to pull the agencies and public servants in the same direction. It is crucial that a permanent city digital transformation steering committee be created, directly reporting to the most senior members of the governing body of a city.


The terms of reference for such a committee include:

  • Processes and services transformation led by constituents and business users experience;
  • City-wide strategies, such as ICT connectivity, digital access, and data;
  • Architecture, platform and standards;
  • Privacy and cyber-security, especially sovereign cloud and;
  • Talent management, compensation and rewards.

A smart city is all about data. A data strategy needs to answer many questions such as:

  • What data is needed?
  • Do we need standards?
  • What are the considerations for privacy and data protection?
  • Where can the data be found, created or acquired?
  • How can data accuracy be ensured?
  • Is there a legal authority to access, share and fuse the data?
  • How can data be protected at rest and in transit?
  • Who can access the data?
  • How can the data be accessed in a timely fashion?
  • Do we need data transformation and cleansing?
  • Will the data be stored centrally or in a federated model?

Everything has to start with visioning and expected outcomes. The steering committee has to lead in driving such ongoing visioning and refinement efforts. A smart city is not a project, it is one big vision and that can be implemented through transformation and ICT:

While we need data and ICT to support a smart city, it is ultimately about its operations and services to the people, businesses and organisations. Assessing the strengths and weaknesses is ultimately on the operations and usage of such services, and not just on the hardware.


SmartCitiesWorld: You have 30 years of extensive knowledge working with public sector organisations and leading digital transformation projects. What does the past 30 years of change in cities teach us about how they will change in the next 30?

Hong-Eng: With the depth of digitalisation by the private sector, people and businesses are increasingly expecting more from their public services. However, the public sector can sometimes be slowed down by various challenges such as budget, competing against the private sector for talents, and even business continuity management on critical supplies and services (as witnessed during the height of the pandemic). We are likely to see “Smart City as a Service”, with greater involvement by the private sector to design, build, operate and maintain public sector digital transformation projects. This calls for a review of procurement rules and vendor relationships.


On the other hand, transactions with the public sector are usually a means to an end, and often guided by laws and regulations. Earlier I gave the example of wanting to drive a car. Another example is customs clearance. Many importers and exporters have to clear with various agencies before they can import or export. Things are easier now with the introduction of single window clearance and transacting with the different agencies through a one-stop service. But since the single window already possesses so much data, we can consider allowing other value-adding service providers (e.g. bankers, insurance companies, freight forwarders, warehouse operators) and even the buyer and seller to come on board.


This will transform an otherwise regulatory mandated single window to a digital trading platform. The public sector can become the platform to link people and businesses, while allowing them to fulfil their regulatory requirements. This represents true digital transformation, and not just computerising current manual, and usually bureaucratic, processes. Huawei’s ROMA (Relationship, Open, Multi-cloud, Any-connect) hybrid integration platform is well-suited to power such transformation. It offers comprehensive integration for applications, businesses, clouds, and devices — connecting applications and data to eliminate data silos, allowing public sector departments and trusted partners to explore ecosystem value, and bridging the physical and digital worlds.


Click here to learn more about Huawei’s solutions for public service.


Hong-Eng Koh has 30 years of government operations and ICT knowledge and experience, including the years with the Singapore Police and subsequently driving the Singapore national e-Government program. Before joining Huawei to lead the Global Government Industry Expert Office, he spent 16 years in Oracle holding various government business lead roles, including the global lead for public safety.


A globally recognized industry expert, he was voted by the US based Security.World as the world’s top 12 market influencers in security. He was a visiting researcher at the China Public Security University, and currently serving on the expert panel of the Geneva based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Over the years, he developed various government digital transformation concepts and architectures, such as collaborative e-Government in the age of the sharing economy, Social-Enabled Policing, and Collaborative Public Safety. In 2018, he created the 7A framework in identifying use cases for AI adoption to accelerate government digital transformation.

Sponsored by Huawei
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