Cities are key players in tackling issues of environmental sustainability and climate change. Urban areas represent about 2% of the global surface, yet produce 80% of the world’s greenhouse gases and consume 75% of the world’s resources. This past decade, Singapore has risen as an exemplary model for sustainable cities. The metropolis of nearly 6 million inhabitants is striving for a denser and more efficient city while minimizing its environmental impact and preserving economic growth.
What drove Singapore to be more sustainable?
When Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965, it was a small city mainly composed of slums and with little regional power. It is today a world-leading metropolis for smart cities and a pioneer in green growth. As resources and land are very limited in Singapore, the nation-state has had to adopt new ways to design sustainable urban planning while keeping its national economy competitive and less reliant on imported goods and energy.
Singapore’s economy used to be largely based upon import-export, manufacturing and oil refining, therefore making most profit from their geographical location and their port, strategically located at the heart of the Asian and global maritime routes. Even so, these past fifteen years Singapore has focused on developing “cleaner” industries to support their economic system, such as sustainable technologies, financial services and tourism. The country invested heavily in the aforementioned sectors to diversify its economy and attract new businesses. The city has become one of the most high-tech metropolises around the world and is using that technology to reduce its environmental impact and improve urban quality of life.
Smart cities and green growth, key concepts for Singapore
In 2014, Singapore launched the Smart Nation program. Smart cities use technology and data to organize, regulate and optimize an urban area in terms of economy, transportation, utilities, energy-saving and environment. The goal is to create a sustainable city with a high quality of life and to stimulate interaction between city officials, urban infrastructure and citizens thanks to technology. Telecommunications, Big Data and Internet of Things (network of electronic devices that are connected and exchange data) are some of the elementary tools used by smart cities.
Singapore is also very keen on promoting development based on green growth. Green growth is a concept of balanced development that promotes “economic growth, human well-being and environmental performance”, as stated by the OECD report on green growth in Southeast Asia (2014). The idea is to adjust economic growth to climate change mitigation via policy design and implementation. Along with green growth goes a huge market for green finance, financial bonds and policy tools to fund projects with positive environmental outcomes. Singapore is at the centre of those transactions, with a global market currently estimated at US$80 billion.
A development driven by State policies
The vision for a green state was launched by the father of modern Singapore and former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. After its independence, the city-state placed a bet on green development to outshine other raising Asian countries. Smart and green development in Singapore is therefore generally implemented and funded by government agencies. A whole set of policy measures, ranging from water utilities to urban parks, contribute to the city’s sustainable vision.
The government has pushed for a very strict sustainable agenda, thus earning the nickname of “Green Tiger”. For instance, the Ministry of National Development designed in 2009 the Sustainable Development Blueprint, which establishes a set of “green targets” for 2030. These targets include improving energy efficiency by 35% and recycling rates by 70%, currently at 22% and 61% respectively in 2015. The massive collection and processing of data is used in all sectors to plan projects and innovation in services, therefore serving favorably the green target goals.
A notable example is the optimization of the Singaporean urban transportation system by applying smart utility grids. The government unified in 2009 two separate charging systems, one for road tolls and another for public transportation, under the same smart card, e-Symphony. Users therefore can use the card to pay for public transportation (buses and subway), taxis, and even for shopping. The card is also used to collect data on traffic and users’ patterns, so as to maximize commuting efficiency, avoid traffic congestion and provide improved infrastructure. The same system was applied to the water and sewage grid to promote self-sufficiency, preserve catchment areas, and optimize an integrated public service.
Singapore has also strived to make the city greener by focusing on greenery and parks. According to a study by the MIT and World Economic Forum, almost 30% of the city is covered by green, making it the greenest urban area in the world. The Gardens by the Bay, a megaproject adding more greenery and biodiversity to the urban landscape, opened in 2012. The most iconic elements are the Supertrees, vertical gardens between 25 and 50 meters high shaped like giant trees and filled with a great variety of vegetation. The whole structure is equipped with smart technology including photovoltaic cells, a rainwater collection system, and lighting.
A global model for sustainability?
Singapore has become a leading world expert in the field of sustainability and smart urban growth. By creating a unique and successful model, green initiatives are driving the city’s economic success and attractiveness. Singapore now hosts a World Cities Summit every year, attended by mayors and urban governors from across the world, to promote its model and sell its green services.
The city-state’s political choice to invest in green development some fifty years ago seems to have been a strategic one. Although substantial financial investments were necessary, Singapore’s political organization proved to be a decisive factor for success. A strong centralized government and a clear political vision were determining. Unlike most cities, national policies are the same as urban policies. Applying this model to other cities would be more challenging because of different political configurations (especially the overlap between urban and state/national policies) and different cultural contexts.
Despite undisputable progress on urban sustainability and quality of life, the city-state still faces many challenges. Food for instance is for the most part imported, the country has very little farmland and urban farming is still underdeveloped. Likewise, the city’s booming urban development, although controlled by environmental standards, still has negative outcomes. Singapore is often criticized for importing much sand (the required material to make cement), to satisfy the construction of its numerous skyscrapers, roads, gardens and destroying the coral ecosystems of neighboring countries. Achieving true green growth is yet a challenge worldwide, even for Singapore.
Article written by Sofia MORGAVI