COMMENTARY ONLINE EXCLUSIVE SPECIAL FOCUS

World Cities Summit 2021: How to build more resilient, sustainable and liveable cities of tomorrow

Image by Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI)

Summary of Keynote Speech by Heng Swee Keat, Deputy Prime Minister,
Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, Singapore

Beyond the immediate public health crisis and the global economic fallout, COVID-19 has also accelerated existing structural shifts and created new ones. The global shift to digital is a clear example as we go online to meet our needs, including connecting with others. The pandemic is challenging us to rethink our assumptions and our ways of doing things.

One key assumption that is being questioned is the role of cities. The high population densities and concentration of activities in cities make them more vulnerable. Some people have moved out of cities to work remotely from the countryside. I believe that the reality is far more complex and nuanced. The virus has had an uneven impact across cities, and even within the same city. Population densities matter, but other factors such as access to quality healthcare, trust in government and compliance with safe management measures matter just as much, if not more. And there are early signs that people are making their way back into cities.

Cities will remain powerful magnets, bringing people together to explore, learn, create, and interact with one another. Urbanisation will remain a powerful driving force post-COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic has presented us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity—to re-envision and build cities of tomorrow. Resilience and sustainability are critical but liveability goes beyond that as it is fundamentally about people enabling people to flourish, and improving their quality of life.

There are three suggestions on how we can build more resilient, sustainable and liveable cities of tomorrow: to innovate, to invest and to integrate.

To Innovate

Innovation is needed to push the next bounds of liveability and sustainability for urban living. With the pandemic changing daily routines, there is an urgent need to redesign homes, public transport networks, and cities to be more liveable and sustainable. For example, prior to COVID-19, Singapore has been gearing towards becoming a polycentric city; and COVID-19 has given fresh impetus to these efforts. Instead of a single CBD, we need multiple regional centres to bring work and amenities closer to homes and reduce commuting times.

Cities also need to be more sustainable and resilient; for example, as climate change has exacerbated the water challenge, many cities are facing severe water stress. Innovation will be critical in overcoming this challenge; and technologies like desalination are useful, but the key is to do so in an energy-efficient and cost-effective way. For example, smart metering and automated leakage detection systems can also help to stretch every drop of water. To drive more smart innovation, Singapore has invested US$19 billion dollars in its Research, Innovation and Enterprise Plan for the R&D efforts over the next five years.

One example of this effort is a project called Cooling Singapore. Singapore is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world and this is partly due to global warming, compounded by the urban heat island effect, where buildings and roads trap the heat from the tropical environment. Greenery helps to some extent, but more needs to be done. New solutions could include the use of cool paints and reflective glass coatings to lower absorption of heat energy from the sun.

The Cooling Singapore project is also developing a Digital Urban Climate Twin to simulate how the various features of a city, such as the street scape, buildings and climate conditions, affect the ambient temperature. What’s more is that it is not just an effort by Singapore alone, but a multi-institutional initiative between Singapore and international partners from Switzerland, Germany, the US and the UK. The solutions developed will be useful not only for reducing urban heat within the country, but also for cities around the world.

To Invest

Even prior to COVID-19, there was recognition of the infrastructure financing gap in many cities. In Asia alone, the ADB [Asian Development Bank] had estimated an infrastructure gap of US$1.7 trillion per year by 2030, with needs ranging from transport to telecommunications infrastructure. With the structural changes accelerated by COVID-19, investment acceleration is needed, including in digital infrastructure like fibre broadband and 5G networks; in social infrastructure, in Greener buildings that are more energy-efficient; and in cleaner energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines.

Given the large and growing financing needs, there is a need to improve the flow of capital, across borders, to benefit communities in Asia and beyond. To help address this, Singapore set up Infrastructure Asia—to facilitate the flow of funds and expertise into Asia, especially from the private sector, to bridge this infrastructure gap.

Green financing should be catalysed. Singapore accounts for over one-third of the sustainability-linked loan market in Asia Pacific today. The Singapore Government is also taking the lead by issuing Green bonds, to support the financing of up to US$15 billion of public infrastructure projects.  Outside of urban spaces, there could be investment in nature-based solutions for carbon abatement as they have the potential to provide one-third of the global mitigation to stabilise warming to below 2-degree Celsius.

Southeast Asia is home to the largest blue carbon stock in the world, with the largest areas of mangrove swamps and seagrass meadows in Indonesia and the Philippines. To realise this potential, attracting investments is key and one way to do this is to create vibrant exchanges for the trading of carbon credits. As such, Singapore will be launching one such global carbon exchange, Climate Impact X, later this year. This will allow large-scale, high-quality carbon credits to be sold through standardised contracts.

To Integrate

COVID-19 has shown how interdependent and interconnected the world is, and why global cooperation is critical. While there have been some shortcomings in the global response to COVID-19, there were also bright spots. One such area is the unprecedented level of information sharing and cooperation in science and technology. Building on this momentum is the way forward; for example, as the digital economy grows, digital trade could be extensively expanded by harmonising standards and enabling trusted data flows across borders.

As key engines of growth and innovation, cities will have a critical role to play in forging a stronger network of cooperation. By working in partnership, cities can amplify growth and innovation efforts, and build on one another’s strengths. To prototype ideas across different contexts, and to enhance connectivity among cities, there could be more intensive collaborations. These can take different forms; such as smart city partnership between Singapore and Shenzhen that seeks to strengthen digital connectivity and collaboration.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has disrupted our way of life, especially in cities; but cities are here to stay and remain the best venues for humans to explore, learn and interact, to flourish as individuals, and to collaborate and achieve more. COVID-19 has also given an opportunity to rethink how we plan and run our cities, so that we can build more sustainable, resilient, and liveable cities for future generations. To do this well, industry players and the wider community need to innovate, invest and integrate efforts. With this, we will not only manage the current pandemic well, but we can also manage other challenges and disruptions in the years to come, and emerge stronger.

– Construction+ Online