THE X FACTOR – SINGAPORE’S DRIVE TO URBAN EXCELLENCE
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Singapore has always given people the impression of being a progressive, modern and efficient city. But it seems to be currently developing well beyond that and forging an increased reputation for being at the forefront of promoting innovative, forward thinking, approaches to sustainable urban living. Where once it was seen as a city learning from others, and ‘walking amongst giants’ the city now ranks third, ahead of European countries like Germany and Switzerland in the Bloomberg Innovation Index and was chosen as the Smart City of 2018 at the Smart City Expo World Congress, which recognizes the most outstanding initiatives and projects in the urban innovation and transformation industry. Singapore has now become a global beacon of how to implement smart urban solutions in a meaningful manner that not only enhances the city’s functioning but also improves the services provided to its citizens and through them their quality of life.
In this interview I meet with Elaine TAN Sze Hui, Director of Architecture and Urban Design Excellence at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which is tasked with land use planning and conservation for the city. Brimming with erudition, Elaine is clearly well practiced in efficiently and eloquently expressing both her passion for the exciting work being undertaken in the city as well as its global importance in rapidly testing alternatives approaches to urban change.
ENVISIONING A FUTURE
“It was an exciting time in 2005 to leave private practice and move into the public sector,” Elaine tells me the day before her presentation at the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design Conference on Actions for Active Ageing. It’s not often nowadays that you hear of leaving the private sector to work in government is due to the excitement of the opportunities. “I wanted to be in the team that was responsible for meeting the vision of the time, to create the city with an ‘X Factor’, that unknown something special” she reveals. As former Director of Strategic Research at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Elaine was able to study new emergent ideas and address how these could support concept panning and envisioning as the shapers of development for the city. ‘Envisioning’ is the key role of the URA she suggests, whilst directing Architecture and Urban Design Excellence meant pushing the frontiers and boundaries of good design, particularly in working in collaboration with industry. This does indeed sound like exciting governance, one she explains where a special synthesis of the government working with both academic researchers and industry is adopted to help to forge the required visionary policy and formative development. Today’s environment is a more challenging dynamic than that of the past, where observing and adapting others solutions was the accepted mode, and this has required self-innovation in the city to generate solutions specifically suitable to Singapore’s unique urban context.
An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.
The Singapore ethos seems to form around the three distinct cores of ‘vision’, ‘partnership’ and ‘community’ in order to achieve a greater sense of joint ownership, product and empowerment through development. Increasing the emphasis on community solutions is a key factor in ensuring no single perspective dominates whilst addressing problems. The Singapore government recognises the complexity surrounding all issues and the need for greater interdependency of systems in land development, including infrastructure, housing, transport, community governance and ageing. “Multi-dimensional issues need multidimensional approaches” Elaine suggests, explaining further how Singapore is moving increasingly to mass co-operation, not just of public and private sectors but also ensuring academia, NGO’s, and non-profits are collaborators in creating holistic, comprehensive, integrated solutions and not just consulted for opinion.
There is a school of thought that addressing demographic ageing issues could have been initiated earlier by Singapore, especially in the light of Japan’s experience, however the catalyst for such awareness seems to have been the realisation that 1 million of the city citizens would be ‘elderly’ by 2030, a figure that resonated with public and policy makers alike. Addressing the issue later however has given Singapore the advantages of being better armed with an understanding of how to tackle the issues as well as having more resources in terms of data and technology to address them she feels. New types of community are emerging, such as that recently completed at Kampung Admiralty, where high density elderly housing units have been plugged into an existing community to provide integrated facilities of amenity, service and medical support, not just for the new development but for the additional benefit of an existing wider catchment whilst structuring a multi- age district wide solution. Singapore continues to research how to widen the housing palette, to allow age mobility through both downsizing to smaller units or providing multi-generational homes.
A matrix of housing product supply and allocation should respond to individual’s needs, mobility and functional capability rather than income groups alone Elaine explains. Communities need to allow for differing forms of ageing in place, both independently or with assisted living, community or family support. Understanding the social needs is key to providing a responsive physical environment where no ‘one size fits all’. One interesting facet is that of incentivising young couples to adopt housing within walking distance of their elders. What we might call the “soup model” of housing where you can travel to your family within the time it takes to walk with a hot bowl of soup before it gets cold. By supplying financial subsidies to such couples, Singapore’s government is financially recognising the significant benefits this can bring in cross-generational support of both elderly and very young together. Whilst this is employed at a large city level, I do also wonder about how this might also be relevant in a larger context. How perhaps could this be used as a further instrument related to dealing with the global problems of rural - urban migration and depopulation of rural economies?
We seem to be at a point of urban revolution she suggests, whereby regular and real time data will be able to allow us to plan and optimise facilities significantly better. It will allow us to “get under the skin and into the real issues” of providing appropriate city fabric. I press her for the urgent areas needing to be addressed in the next five years and immediately receive the suggested priority of developing resilience to meet the climate emergency, in terms of both physical and social resilience. Other key areas needing new approaches include rapid movement to sustainable and optimised transport nodes; improved leveraging of data with better digitisation, utilisation and analytics to predict problems; and the importance of addressing social issues arising from change, such as increases in the death rate and reliance on a sharing economy. One particular area she draws me into is the new field of ‘complexity science’ that has emerged in the last decade and is an approach to systems and problems that are dynamic, unpredictable and multi-dimensional. Whilst this has primarily been developed in the healthcare sector its appropriateness for considering the interconnected relationships and parts making up the city seems undeniable. Unlike traditional “cause and effect” or linear thinking, complexity science is characterized by non-linearity appropriate for the complex world we live in at the turn of the 21st century. It uses new theories that let us look at age old problems with a fresh perspective that leverages the use of powerful computation and the large data sets that are offering us new insight into the fundamental workings of our interconnected world of networks, globalization and sustainability. As Elaine points out, cities are solutions to the future and not the problems. Our future is to expect the unexpected, be as best prepared as possible for such eventualities and then to have systems in place to deal calmly with the future as it arises.
Elaine TAN, Director, Architecture & Urban Design Excellence (AUDE), Urban Redevelopment Authority