Imagining a sustainable Singapore for the future

Tan Szue Hann For The Straits Times 5 Aug 17;

Think virtual reality layered on real life, buildings that make the most of tech advances
As Singapore enters midlife, it needs to begin to consider its urban future. After half a century of successful urban planning, what will define the new planning parameters, architecture and development over the next one or two decades?

Or even the next 50 years? The development challenge it faces today is to meet the demands of a growing and increasingly urbanised population, while developing resiliency and sustainability, and reducing dependency on fossil fuels.

As the population increases and the physical landscape densifies, there will be a growing need to align and interconnect investment in housing and commercial property with investment in transport and other public infrastructure - both physical and digital. The scale of the challenge will see investment flow into infrastructural development projects across Singapore, underpinned by large projects that encompass the upgrading or overhauling of existing public infrastructure, to sustain the growing population, as well as international trade and transport routes.

Air travel infrastructure is being expanded with a soon-to-launch Terminal 4, and a Terminal 5 being planned. In the longer term, the relocation of the port facility from Keppel to Tuas will free up even more land and coast area for a new, extended downtown area, while providing ample harbour for seaward traffic. Meanwhile, highways and roads will be completely rethought to embrace new cycling and active mobility infrastructure, as the population - and the sheer monetary and environmental cost of cars - increasingly demands more sustainable urban transport options. Similarly, the Rail Corridor is set to be redeveloped as a vital green recreational space.

At the heart of this future development must be the aspiration to boost the efficiency and productivity of Singaporeans' working lives and businesses, and so create a sustainable future. This new infrastructure must be designed as the backbone of a new, "smarter" nation - a nation with a vision to be the best in the world on the sustainable, resilient and smart fronts. It is a future that will inevitably have to be fully networked with digital technology embedded and enabled. Only by using these new tools to boost the capacity and efficiency of infrastructure will Singapore be able to overcome the limitations of physical planning in an increasingly densely populated nation and so ensure its continued competitiveness.

Multiple initiatives have been planned, centring on the goal to drive forward sustainable development, productivity and smartness. Retrofitting and greening of existing buildings and infrastructure will continue.

But with the Building and Construction Authority aiming for 80 per cent of buildings to be Green Mark-certified by 2030, the biggest wins will come from the augmentation of physical assets with smart digital intelligence. This development will be critical as Singaporeans embrace - with some, begrudgingly - a digital lifestyle in which virtual realities are increasingly layered upon real life.

The future conversation about the built environment - beyond style, typology or aesthetics - will be more focused on the effective integration of physical assets with the evolving architecture of information technology. The critical questions to answer will be around how to help the nation continue to survive, evolve and thrive, through smart sustainable living. This aspiration will need to be augmented by constant innovation, where technologies can be seamlessly integrated into buildings, to further reduce reliance on energy and fossil fuels.

The need to ensure food resilience - the ability of the food system to withstand shocks or stresses that could lead to disruption or collapse - can also be integrated into the design of buildings, with urban farms now a burgeoning trend - although not quite a replacement for food imports as yet.

Renewable energy will now feature even more significantly in the landscape, with solar farms on the rooftops of buildings already a reality. Sustainable transport modes such as electric cars and autonomous vehicles may not fully replace the traditional motorcar in the near future, but they will certainly start to increasingly present a viable transportation alternative.

The focus on designing assets to perform efficiently and with predictability over their whole life will become even more significant, as life-cycle costing software models gain sophistication and enable consultants and asset owners to understand the longer-term built outcomes, way into operation and maintenance.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) will continue to evolve and provide an even higher level of sophistication and coordinating among disciplines, from construction management through to asset management.

As French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once expounded, one's task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it. For Singapore, it would seem that, through its governance and efforts from both the public and private sectors, it is already pulling out all the stops to prepare for a brave, new, resilient and sustainable future.

The writer is head of urban and infrastructure sustainability at infrastructure consultancy Surbana Jurong.