A GROUP of 50 top information technology (IT) managers from Singapore has just returned from a trip to Japan where they had a first-hand look at the latest IT advances.

The trip included insights into the country's ambitious plans to become a "smart" nation in time for the 2020 Olympics there.

Mr Steve Lee, chairman of the Infocomm Technology Managers Association (ITMA), said trips of this type helped IT managers here as they were often too busy to catch up on the latest developments and innovations elsewhere.

He was one of the Singapore chief information officers (CIOs) who went to Tokyo for the two-day visit. "The visit gave CIOs first-hand insights into ideas and developments in Japan, something that would be difficult for CIOs to organise individually," said Mr Lee, who is also CIO of Changi Airport Group.

One participant, telco M1's CIO Alan Goh, said the trip built "networks that help to form relationships with counterparts in other organisations overseas". "We can then call on them to exchange ideas," he added.

CIOs can also learn how their counterparts are managing the implementation of new technologies that impact businesses, he said.

"Technology is the easy part but changing mindsets is the slowest part. We can learn from the examples we see on these trips. That's why the overseas trips are useful," Mr Goh said.

The group visited Uchida Yoko, set up more than 100 years ago as a writing instrument company. As its customers demanded other services, Uchida transformed itself by expanding into new businesses such as ergonomic office furniture and tech systems such as video conferencing, automatic translation systems and content management systems.

Other companies visited during the trip last month included broadcaster NHK and carmaker Nissan.

The group also heard at a seminar about Japan's plan to become a smart nation by the time of the 2020 Olympics.

Mr Alvin Ong, CIO of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, who was on the Tokyo trip said that it was a rare opportunity to hear about Japan's masterplan for that goal.

Liberal Democratic Party MP Takuya Hirai outlined some of the planned moves. Athletes may clear immigration using "smart entry" based on a digital system to allow immigration officials to electronically approve the athletes' entry into Japan, thus avoiding bottlenecks at immigration counters.

He said there could also be digital money for athletes, spectators and tourists for shopping and public transport - to save them having to change currency.

"To remove language barriers, there could also be simultaneous interpretation devices. For the visually impaired, there could be smart spectator, a wearable device which will guide them around the sports venues," he said.

Mr Hirai warned that a smart digital nation will attract hackers.

To secure the Tokyo Olympics website as well as other IT systems in the country, he is proposing a Cyber Bill for cybersecurity and hopes to get it passed before the end of the year.

ITMA's Mr Lee said: "There are still a lot of innovations coming out of Japan, and I sense a renewed energy and optimism among the organisations that was missing some years back."

The Tokyo visit was part of the 27th CIO workshop jointly organised by ITMA and IT consultancy Accenture. The first part was held in Singapore and it was attended by more than 100 delegates.