Head Start

Government Support and Agile Transitions are Creating Fertile Ground for Next-Gen IT Projects






The densely populated city-state is quickly becoming a bleeding-edge incubator where robots bus trays at food courts and streets are scattered with driverless test vehicles. With the population expected to surge 23 percent to 6.9 million by 2030, Singapore's government has launched a sweeping effort to develop a next-gen tech environment that will help expand its economy. The Smart Nation initiative outlines the need to build skills, cut red tape and make investments in all things digital.


“If a project manager died a decade ago and came back to life now, he or she would be totally out of place.”

—Shailendra Malik, PMP, Optimum Solutions, Singapore

In May, Singapore's National Research Foundation committed up to SG$150 million for a new program to expand the state's artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities over the next five years. On the fintech front, the Monetary Authority of Singapore plans to invest SG$225 million through 2020 to help sustain traditional banks that take the fintech plunge. This initiative includes allowing financial institutions to experiment with new technologies and ideas without seeking regulatory endorsement—a move that helps organizations feel more comfortable about taking small risks before deciding whether to scale innovation. The government also will launch a data science consortium to boost collaboration and accelerate research among startups and other organizations.



But the hyperconnected country—which leads Southeast Asia in both smartphone and mobile broadband penetration—is already a high-tech proving ground. Pilot projects involving robotics, AI, the internet of things (IoT), fintech and big data are underway, paving a way to solve Singapore's challenges in areas like health, the environment and transportation.

For instance, U.S. startup nuTonomy began testing driverless cars on Singapore's streets last year. The company plans to launch the world's first commercial ride-sharing service using fully autonomous vehicles in 2018—with plans of expanding beyond Singapore in the future. And in January, Singapore's Economic Development Board kicked off its SG$50 million Living Lab program at Changi Airport. Tech companies will be allowed to develop products through pilot projects there, including robots that clean the airport and a camera and sensor system for taxis that helps track demand for drivers and wait times for travelers.

Yet such uncharted territory poses challenges even for Singapore's most experienced IT project professionals. As the demand for agility, flexibility and creativity increases, project managers must be able to adapt, says Bharath Ramesh, PMP, head of worldwide IoT product management, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Singapore.

“If you are talking about developing a smart nation, you are talking about huge numbers of connected sensors that collect and process data from everywhere—garbage bins, streetlights, autonomous vehicles,” he says. These kinds of projects require “a different and faster mindset” than traditional IT projects.


The country's lofty ambitions to accelerate digital transformation require organizations and their project managers to rethink delivery practices. For Tze Liang Goh, PMP, project manager, NCS, Singapore, that means leaping into agile approaches.

Singapore at a Glance

Population (2016)

5.6 million


697 square kilometers (269 square miles)

GDP (2016)

US$297 billion

GDP growth rate (2016)


GDP growth forecast (2018)


Primary industries

Consumer electronics, IT, medical devices and financial services

Gross national income per capita (2016)


Sources: The World Bank, CIA World Factbook

“Most of us are waterfall project managers in Singapore. Agile is not new here,” he says. “But recently there is a very strong trend toward it. This is where the IT industry is headed.”


“You must set up the architecture ... so that it can be expanded when the pie-in-the-sky becomes reality.”

—Bharath Ramesh, PMP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Singapore

The government is the economy's primary driver in project planning and investment, so it is actively pushing the use of agile for its agencies and clients through governance, Mr. Goh says. The government and its vendors have stepped up efforts to train project teams through agile coaches and scrum masters—a trend that bleeds into the many private companies in which the state is the largest shareholder, including NCS, Mr. Goh says. At NCS, for instance, the CEO and his team established an agile task force that includes a three-day seminar to help project managers transition to agile and other courses to build knowledge. Project managers are encouraged to earn agile certifications, and a task force within the organization is launching seed projects to help project managers ramp up to larger initiatives that use agile.

“If a project manager died a decade ago and came back to life now, he or she would be totally out of place,” says Shailendra Malik, PMP, senior project manager, fintech, Optimum Solutions, Singapore. “No one talks about software development life cycles and waterfall in the same breath anymore. Agile is here to stay.”


Singapore's government kicked off its Living Lab program at Changi Airport this year.


Mr. Malik says his client, DBS Bank, hired outside consultants for agile training and offers in-house certification courses for existing employees. The company also invested in new hires with agile experience. Those hires act as change agents to facilitate the transition and spur buy-in, he says. While IT team members were excited to get more frequent feedback on their work from management or business users, getting senior business managers on board meant more frequent deliverables.


Driverless cars are on the streets of Singapore, part of a pilot project backed by ride-hailing firm Grab that launched last year.


“Once they get hooked on seeing small deliverables more often, they get invested in the process and the dynamic starts to change,” he says.


In the face of rapid disruption, project managers in Singapore must guard against impatient sponsors or other stakeholders who have unrealistic expectations or an outsized appetite for risk. That's why project professionals must develop strong leadership skills and maintain a strategic vision during all phases.

Managing scope is the first step toward realizing benefits, Mr. Ramesh says. Too many IoT projects fail because objectives are too ambitious, he says. For example, government leaders might demand IoT solutions that don't yet make economic sense or aren't technologically mature.

“Limit your scope to what is realistically achievable in the lifetime of the project, which could be six months to a year,” Mr. Ramesh says. “But you must set up the architecture in such a way so that it can be expanded when the pie-in-the-sky becomes reality.”

Whether it's a new health app that improves patients’ ability to monitor and treat diabetes or a robot that delivers room service to hotel guests, projects should start with small sprint goals—rather than try to deliver a product to the market that's a complete solution, says Felipe Daguila, PMP, head of Asia Pacific digital operations and product specialists, Google, Singapore. Traditional banks take this bite-size approach on fintech projects so they can mitigate risk and leverage swift innovation, he says. Further, project managers hoping to elevate Singapore's next-gen IT need to validate project strategy constantly at each small cycle of sprint and with clear feedback and data from final users—and be ready to change direction if required.

For example, last year Mr. Daguila was mentoring the fintech startup Hektor, which was developing a digital wallet for savings. But feedback collected from a board of advisers to map user journeys pushed the team to switch directions. Data showed millennials had an average of US$800 in their savings accounts. So the team decided to pivot, launching a two-month project to build an app that tracks spending trends to help users reach savings goals. The organization was more successful because the team kept an open mind and leveraged data, Mr. Daguila says.

“The project manager of the future for these projects is not just a pragmatic person following the book and the procedures—he or she can validate strategy before and during the life of the project,” he says.

Facilitating strong decision making also requires project professionals to develop people skills, Mr. Ramesh says. In an IoT project environment where requirements can change rapidly as new technologies and capabilities emerge, project managers who build strong relationships with stakeholders can more effectively provide a healthy reality check against impulsive decisions that don't align with the original project goals and organizational strategy.

“An end user reads about something new in IoT and immediately might want to change things,” Mr. Ramesh says. “You have to manage those expectations and deal with the repercussions in a way that doesn't introduce risk.”

As Singapore adjusts to the warp-speed environment of change, project leadership roles are being transformed. Project managers must become facilitators who remove impediments for their teams and empower members to make their own decisions, says Aman Garg, PMP, business transformation lead, Prudential, Singapore. It's an approach that's helping the city-state to become a pacesetter in the global digital race.

“Singapore is competitive. It strives to be number one,” Mr. Garg says. “The government is always looking five years ahead and preparing for what's next.” PM

“The project manager of the future for these projects ... can validate strategy before and during the life of the project.”

—Felipe Daguila, PMP, Google, Singapore

Learning Curve

We asked project professionals: How can project managers stand out today—and in the future—in Singapore?


“You need to understand the project team's different cultures. There are a lot of multicultural teams and products from all over the world to be designed and implemented. So it's crucial to understand and map these different cultures—and learn how to adapt with them.”

—Felipe Daguila, PMP, head of Asia Pacific digital operations and product specialists, Google, Singapore


“Project managers need to think outside the box and be creative. Creativity is essential for solving problems and even for finding new methods to improve processes in your project.”

—Tze Liang Goh, PMP, program/project manager, NCS, Singapore


“Don't be married to a particular methodology or approach. We need to be aware of and open to practicing different styles of project management for different projects and different stages of a project.”

—Aishwarya Prasad, technology project manager, Lucasfilm, Singapore

Seeding the Future



Already a global testing ground for driverless cars, Singapore is expanding the technology to public transportation, too. In April, the government's Land Transport Authority launched a public-private partnership with ST Kinetics to develop and test two 40-seat driverless buses.


The Land Transport Authority will transform the streetlight system that currently operates on timers. Its project will make the lights remote-controlled so they can easily be turned on if storm clouds darken streets during the day, for example. The team will convert 110,000 sensor-equipped lampposts into an interconnected sensor-equipped network that allows the agency to gather data for use in future urban planning.



Singapore's Smart Nation initiative is focused on developing both public and private projects and programs that will help organizations scale up next-gen technologies.



The government has committed SG$450 million over three years to support the development of robots that can be deployed in healthcare, construction, manufacturing and logistics. The program is designed to reduce labor costs and create more high value-added jobs.


The Imperial College London and governmental research organization A*STAR are launching a four-year, SG$5.3 million project to add sensors to public housing facilities. The sensors will help the public housing authority generate detailed data to better manage water, lighting and elevator systems.