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Cities need architects and artists to make them sustainable

Technology offers tremendous opportunities to improve urban life by reducing energy consumption and making transport more efficient, but good design is also important to translate scientifically sound solutions into plans that are socially and economically viable, says Professor Peter Edwards, the director of the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability, who will be a panellist at the Julius Baer Next Generation Summit today. The centre was established in Singapore in 2010 and has two research programmes — the Future Cities Laboratory and Future Resilient Systems. Here, Prof Edwards talks to TODAY’s Sue-Ann Chia about the future of cities of South-east Asia and how science, technology and design can help improve liveability.

Technology offers tremendous opportunities to improve urban life by reducing energy consumption and making transport more efficient, but good design is also important to translate scientifically sound solutions into plans that are socially and economically viable, says Professor Peter Edwards, the director of the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability, who will be a panellist at the Julius Baer Next Generation Summit today. The centre was established in Singapore in 2010 and has two research programmes — the Future Cities Laboratory and Future Resilient Systems. Here, Prof Edwards talks to TODAY’s Sue-Ann Chia about the future of cities of South-east Asia and how science, technology and design can help improve liveability.

Can you share your vision on the future of cities in South-east Asia? What are the strengths and weaknesses in each major city, such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Jakarta?

The major cities of South-east Asia are at different stages in their economic development and face different challenges for that reason. Prosperous, well-organised cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, where the process of urbanisation is essentially complete, face problems related to a high population density, limited land, and very high consumption of energy and resources.

The challenge for these cities will be to ensure liveability while improving sustainability. Increasingly, these cities will also be confronted with new challenges because of their rapidly ageing populations. Given the political will, however, these cities have the financial resources and institutional structures to tackle these problems.

In contrast, many cities in Southeast Asia, for example, Jakarta and Bangkok, are still urbanising rapidly, and have to cope with rapid population growth through rural-urban migration, growing income inequality, inadequate infrastructure and poor public transport. Issues of governance such as poorly defined division of responsibilities between central and city governments make some of these problems very intractable.

How can each city — which is typically densely populated with heavy traffic and have mixed use — improve on its sustainability and liveability?

Cities such as Singapore must find ways of increasing liveability while reducing their environmental footprint. Fortunately, there is a wide range of technology, which — if applied at scale — could greatly reduce the consumption of natural resources.

For example, the Future Cities Laboratory has developed new systems for air cooling that can reduce electricity consumption by up to 40 per cent. When installed in new buildings, these technologies could also reduce space needed for ducting and therefore reduce the quantities of building materials needed for construction.

Using a similar approach, centralised air-cooling systems can also be installed in existing shophouses, thereby eliminating the multitude of air conditioner condensers that at present emit heat and noise into the back lanes.

Not only would this bring potentially great gains for the local environment by reducing the urban heat island effect, but these rejuvenated back lanes could well make way for al fresco dining and become areas of leisure.

Similarly, there are exciting opportunities to revolutionise transport using autonomous and electrically powered vehicles. Suitably applied, these technologies could lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of vehicles in the streets of Singapore, with significant gains not only for mobility, but also for urban comfort, liveability and sustainability.

These opportunities, while also available for the fast-growing, sprawling cities such as Jakarta, are arguably of lower priority in these cities. Of greater urgency are housing the burgeoning population, reducing the contamination in urban rivers, preventing flooding of low-lying areas, and upgrading the transport infrastructure.

What are the main obstacles standing in the way of making these cities sustainable and liveable?

Perhaps surprisingly, the main obstacles are not of a scientific or technical nature. With the knowledge and technologies we have today, we could — in theory — build cities that are in balance with their environment, produce little or no pollution, and eliminate problems such as the urban heat island effect.

Far more often, the main obstacles relate to individual lifestyles, public awareness and political will on the one hand; and to institutional structures and governance on the other.

For example, as long as a primary measure of success is wealth and possessions, citizens will continue to consume high levels of resources and drive large motor vehicles.

And as we see in international attempts to reduce carbon emissions, the best attempts to improve sustainability are often frustrated by problems of weak governance.

What are the key characteristics of each city that ought to be preserved and/or improved?

First and foremost, cities should be places where people can live alongside one another in peace and harmony, and have the opportunity to develop their potential and talents. Urban areas need to be liveable at the personal level, as places where people feel safe and comfortable, and can move around freely.

So, however cities need to change to meet the challenges I have described, we must preserve the sense of community. People attach social and cultural meaning to their surroundings, so as we replace older buildings with modern, more efficient structures, we need to preserve the qualities of the urban environment that give it a distinctive character and that shape the personal identity of citizens.

How can science, technology and design help cities improve the quality of the urban environment?

All three have a major role to play in improving the quality of the urban environment. From a historical perspective, large cities are a very new invention, and we have only a limited understanding of how they develop and function. The rates of urbanisation in South-east Asia, in particular, have far outpaced those in the developed world, much to the detriment of the inhabitants and the environment. We urgently need better scientific theories to guide our efforts to improve urban life.

As I have indicated, technology offers tremendous opportunities to improve urban life by reducing energy consumption, recycling materials, making transport more efficient and so on. But good design is also important to translate these scientifically sound solutions into plans that are socially and economically viable. The architect and artist are essential to provide us with a positive vision of what our cities could become.

With Singapore’s smart nation initiative, how can the city-state tap the power of modern information technology for more effective planning and management, and give residents a voice in the development of their cities?

Thanks to the huge amounts of data becoming available through sensors and broadband-enabled technologies, we are on the verge of a revolution in how cities are designed and managed. By harnessing these data, urban planners and policymakers will have access to powerful new tools that will improve decision-making.

We already know that such data can greatly increase the efficiency of urban transport, for example, by providing motorists with real-time information about best routes, optimising traffic lights, and allowing passengers to benefit from shared taxi or bus rides.

Big data can also be used for smart metering of gas and electricity, tracking stolen goods, signalling when leaks in water mains occur, and so on. The same technologies will also allow planners to interact and obtain the opinion of citizens at all stages of the planning and construction cycles.

These are just a few of the possibilities, but I am convinced that we have scarcely scratched the surface of what can be done. In the future, we will see many more applications, some of them surprising, based upon the new streams of data. Many of these innovations will be co-created by individuals or groups of citizens who spot an opportunity to use publicly available data for some novel purposes.

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