Saturday, 16 August 2014

Building A Nation: Tomorrow

Where people take precedence
What kind of S'pore do we want and what will it look like in the future? MINT KANG reports on a roundtable discussion on these issues
The Business Times, 12 Aug 2014

WHAT will Singapore look like in the year 2065?

After half a century of development, we live in a modern, bustling metropolis with almost 50 per cent green cover, sparkling waterways and skyscrapers, barely recognisable from the Third World slum of the 1960s. The last five decades have changed Singapore profoundly: will the next five be equally or even more transformative'

Quite possibly, said Liu Thai Ker, who earned the sobriquet of Singapore's urban architect for his work on urbanising the city in the decades after independence, and city planners can never look too far ahead.

"These are the urgent questions we need to answer: how long will SG remain a country? How can population growth be limited? Is planning 100-200 years ahead excessive? What if we run out of land'" he said. And according to him, the Republic should plan for a population of 10 million in the long term if it is to remain sustainable as a country.

Dr Liu, who is today chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities, was delivering the keynote address at a July 31 roundtable on Singapore's future development, "Building A Nation: Tomorrow, Challenges and Possibilities for a Liveable Singapore". The roundtable, which was organised by The Business Times in collaboration with the Singapore Institute of Building Limited and supported by Hitachi, featured leaders from the public and private sectors whose work is intimately aligned with the development of Singapore. They discussed issues such as the trade-off between growth and quality of living, the use of technology and how to engage society in the discussion of Singapore's future.

Striking a balance

What kind of Singapore do we want in the future? Inevitably, growth and development will drive a need for more infrastructure here. But this has to be balanced with a sustainable environment and quality of life.

At the roundtable, the panellists held mixed opinions on the trade-offs involved. Chia Ngiang Hong, group general manager of City Developments Limited, was firm that infrastructure for green living and a green environment cannot be neglected, because such things encourage the community to embrace sustainable practices. "We want Singaporeans to take ownership of the environment they are living in," he said.

Some speakers felt that trade-offs could be ameliorated with careful planning and community engagement. Hwang Yu-Ning, the Urban Redevelopment Authority's group director for physical planning, said that she and her fellow policy-makers favour a long-term approach as this gives them a window of additional time to make adjustments if necessary. They also put infrastructure to multiple uses where possible, such as the Marina Barrage: a public utility that is also a recreational space and the site for the National Day Parade.

"We have to look for opportunities where our infrastructure can double up in such a manner," said Ms Hwang. "It's such ideas that will take us forward."

On the other hand, other speakers felt that trade-offs should not even be necessary.

"Have you ever heard of a world-class trade-off? I'm not sure such a thing exists," said Tai Lee Siang, the group managing director of design and engineering firm Ong & Ong. "Quality of life is a moving target ... I think we should still be relentless in our pursuit of infrastructure."

Pang Yee Ean, CEO of Surbana International Consultants, hypothesised that the nature of Singapore's infrastructure might change drastically over time, but he was emphatic that the mindset behind that infrastructure should not change. "We should not lose our pragmatism as we develop," he said.

The last word on infrastructure, however, came from Dr Liu, who cautioned planners and architects alike not to forget something fundamental: infrastructure once built is remarkably difficult to remove. "Be careful with what you build. Roads and houses are mercilessly permanent," he said.

Making Singapore a 'smart city'

Over the years, Singapore has invested in technology to improve various aspects of city life and make the urban environment run more smoothly. But one element cannot be neglected, said the panellists, and that is people.

"Our priority should be people," said Mao Whey Ying, the president of Jurong International. Formerly the consultancy arm of JTC Corporation, Jurong International was privatised in the previous decade along with several other JTC business units, including the subsidiaries that became Jurong Port and Ascendas. "Using technology should not cause people to incur more costs and spend more time worrying about the technology ... the use of technology should depend on usability, affordability and constraints of use."

Agreeing, Mr Pang suggested that the next level of a "smart city" should be community based, revolving around areas such as healthcare and care for the elderly.

Other speakers observed that Singapore already utilises technology to help balance trade-offs in urban planning, ranging from monitoring public transport use to simulating microclimate conditions in building design. Private companies such as Hitachi, the roundtable discussion's supporting partner, have also introduced smart technology in areas such as security, working in collaboration with government bodies such as the Ministry of Home Affairs.

However, the speakers also agreed that more attention should be paid to the softer aspect - the uses that connect people to concepts such as sustainability.

"You can't eliminate air conditioning, but why is it taking us so long to implement a meter that tells you how much you will spend when you turn the air conditioner on'" Mr Tai cited as an example of how technology could be better utilised.

Whatever the technology, the key to successfully using it is to make it consumer centric, said Mr Chia: "At the end of the day, the user must take the technology as part of their life."

Giving citizens a say in the city

A city is for and about its people, as Dr Liu observed in his keynote address, where he said that everything about planning begins with the population. Today, Singapore's people are educated, informed and increasingly vocal; how can we benefit from that'

The key thing, said the panellists, is to listen to the various voices, decipher them, and try to make use of as many viewpoints as possible to improve the quality of life here.

"A city is meant for the people living in it, so ... it makes sense to hear what people want to say about their living environment," said Chew Hock Yong, chief executive of the Land Transport Authority. Pointing out that people's views will differ depending on the city's stage of development, he added: "I don't see these voices as hurdles or noises, but people telling the planners what they want their city to be, how they want their environment to be."

Meanwhile, planners also need to find ways of using infrastructure to help people overcome their differences, said Mr Pang. "In the days of racial disharmony, the design of the HDB flats played a big part in building society," he explained, pointing to features such as common corridors and void decks as meeting places where people had the opportunity to see and talk to their neighbours. "So the question is, how we can go on doing that, having common spaces that people walk through and interact with others'"

Taking a slightly more cynical view, however, Mr Tai said that some members of the community, especially younger people, lack the maturity to engage with planners in a constructive manner. He suggested that planners should take some extra time to educate these groups and help them formulate clearer, more contributive opinions.

Learning from other cities

Singapore's political will and strong administrative system have driven its success in urbanisation and city-building over the last half-century. But no city stands alone, and Singapore still needs to work with other cities to share and develop urban solutions for the coming decades.

Top on the list of priorities is a win-win approach, said panellists: Singapore has to share solutions with other countries and collaborate wherever possible, always looking for the mutually beneficial path. "We need to respect our neighbouring countries in order to continue to collaborate with them and others," said Ms Mao.

Singapore also needs to internalise the solutions it learns from other cities and adapt them to local conditions, said Ms Hwang; there is no one-size-fits-all solution for urban planning. In the same vein, Mr Tai observed that other countries often comment that Singapore's solutions are practical, not necessarily expensive and easy for developing countries to adopt. "That's a great compliment," he remarked.

Singapore must also make an effort to be seen as a supporter of concepts such as sustainability and quality of living even if, as a small country, it cannot make a major physical difference. And planners, whatever the source of their solutions, need to maintain their own connection with the land, the people and the environment - the scientist's mind and the artist's eye, as Dr Liu described it in his keynote address.

"The job of a planner is to assemble the city like a huge machine for living ... but at the same time you must make the machine look beautiful, so you have to have a romance with the land, you have to respect the land," he said.

Ultimately, the panellists reiterated, all planning and projections go back to the same thing: people. "When we build cities for people, we always think that the people living in the cities will be people like ourselves ... but we need to think of people who are not us," said Ms Mao.

This is the final part of the Building a Nation series brought to you by Hitachi in collaboration with Singapore Institute of Building Limited, and with resource assistance from Centre For Liveable Cities Singapore

Roundtable panellists:

Mao Whey Ying, President of Jurong International

Pang Yee Ean, CEO of Surbana International Consultants Pte. Ltd

Hwang Yu-Ning, Group Director for Physical Planning, Urban Redevelopment Authority

Chew Hock Yong, Chief Executive of Land Transport Authority of Singapore

Chia Ngiang Hong, Group General Manager, City Developments Ltd

Tai Lee Siang, Group Managing Director, Ong & Ong


Associate Professor Chiew Sing Ping, head of the structures and mechanics division in the Nanyang Technological University's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the Professional Engineers Board ofSingapore

The 10 million population question
By Tai Lee Siang, The Business Times, 12 Aug 2014

WITH a population of 10 million over 700 plus square kilometres, Singapore will probably become the most densely populated country in the world. I am not sure if this is the kind of title that Singapore will like to have. This bags the big question: Are density and liveability diabolically opposite? Going by the definition that more space equals premium quality, it is challenging to imagine a better quality of life with decreasing space. From such deduction, it seems that Singapore is entering into an era of extreme challenges and a one-way risky road with no return.

Before we drive the nail into the seemingly foregone conclusion, I will like to suggest that we rethink a few paradigms. Firstly, the assumption that more people means a stronger economy will probably warrant a rethink. Traditional economy tends to be a pyramid structure where creativity, wealth and strength are narrowly centred at the top of the population. Assuming that we can level up education, innovation and productivity of the population, the assumption that a 10 million population equals a competitive economy may be questionable.

Nevertheless, assuming that 10 million is the right number, the next question to ask is how can an infrastructure be developed in a responsible manner to house them. The more basic issue to examine is the space actually required for each person to live, work and play comfortably.

Modern cities are planned based on the silo approach where specific land-use is given to different activities.

During the industrial revolution, pollution resulted from overdeveloped industries that gradually destroyed the quality of living in the cities. This was the beginning of garden city ideals where functions are separated to ensure no environmental contamination. The irony of separating or zoning is that it led to greater commuting and duplication.

Picture this: people live in nice environments that are separated by miles from their places of work and a large number of people need to migrate daily across cities resulting in massive traffic jams. Food services need to be duplicated in places of live, work and play. The result is actually cities that are inefficient compared with the past traditional towns where people just lived, worked and played all in one location. There was little separation between these activities in the past. Today, we call it efficiency but in truth it is not. We fear blurring of lines and lack of clarity of use but we have paid for this with a price that we don't know how to reverse.

I am a firm believer that the IT revolution can change all that. What we used to fear can be overturned by appropriate use of technology. Furthermore, we can correct some wrong that we could not do with modern planning. For example, I was told the Italian tradition of taking long business lunch breaks is to allow families to have lunch together. This is only possible if living, working and playing are co-located. Through this, family bonds are stronger and people are happy to work longer hours.

Another example is the use of technology to allow working from home. I have visited a Dutch institution where office space is reduced by 20 per cent and productivity went up because people can better manage their time in office through IT. I am of the opinion that city planning now needs to be reviewed in tandem with technology, social development and creative economic growth. Traditional urban planning must be challenged to "compress" space usage through the relaxed lens of co-usage and not silo of usage. Instead of fearing "contamination" of use, we should think of social benefits and productivity gained from happiness - some things just cannot be easily measured by KPIs alone.

Until we are willing and able to rethink fundamentals and paradigms, housing a 10 million population will always be a challenge and an uncomfortable one. If we keep to the existing paradigm in trying to solve the problem of housing 10 million, we are not going to achieve a ground-breaking solution. I am afraid we are like frogs swimming comfortably in the gradually boiling water and not able to recognise the pitfalls of traditional mindset. By the time we do, we inherit something that is already irreversible and cast in stone.

The writer is the group managing director of Ong & Ong and an architecture iconoclast who sits on several boards and councils on architecture, design and sustainability

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