Singapore Futures Sustainability Symposium 2013

2013.09.02

Singapore’s future is in everyone’s hands. But in words of Mr. Devadas Krishnadas, Founder and Director of Future-Moves, “Decisions are made by those who turn up.”

At the first ever Singapore Futures Sustainability Symposium this past Saturday, over 110 participants engaged in furious debate on strategies for a sustainable future in the city-state of Singapore. Their visions ranged from addressing economic growth and demographic changes, to environmental conservation of biodiversity and green spaces in Singapore. Participants came from varying backgrounds – some were CEOs in the field of green business, others hailed from academia, and a few identified themselves as environmentalists.

Nominated Member of Parliament, Ms. Faizah Jamal, was invited to deliver the opening address as the Guest of Honour. She commended the organizers of the event  – students from the Bachelor of Environmental Studies course at the National University of Singapore – for their foresight in coming up with an event to critically engage people in the future of Singapore.

Not everyone subscribed to the same view of sustainability, which allowed for an interesting array of opinions and ideas to be shared. Questions arose during the panel discussion with the speakers on biodiversity that delved into the theme introduced at the symposium, which was based on the policy paper called the Population White Paper. Audience members questioned how an anthropocentric view could help policy-makers understand the intrinsic value of nature. Some wondered if there is a ‘correct’ way of approaching the issue of sustainability – should it be from a pragmatic perspective of economic growth, or from a more impassioned view of placing value on preservation of heritage for future generations?

The distinguished panel of speakers spanned across different sectors. Experts in their own fields, they presented their personal opinions on a range of topics in two specially-curated panels.

The Living Environment panel focused on conservation efforts and community engagement in Singapore, preserving nature versus recreational activities in protected areas, dealing with human-wildlife conflict, combating infectious diseases and their strains on Singapore’s infrastructure.

The Urban Environment panel revealed harsh truths about the constraints that Singapore faces as a dense, intensely urban city-state without a hinterland. Urban planning solutions were proposed, the economics of Singapore’s growth and immigration, dependency ratios that reveal changing social landscapes and new social infrastructures like community gardens.

The student organizers took extra care to ensure that the event itself “walked the talk” of sustainability. That meant no disposable plates or cups – they were loaned from the caterer or sponsored of by foodcourt operator Koufu – and no food waste from the tea break, which was promptly polished off by the large audience. Participants were directed to an online link to download the programme booklet for the event. Even signs for registration were printed on once-used paper – to be recycled after the event. Overall, the carbon footprint was impressively low when compared to other similar events of this scale, where waste is inevitably generated from printing materials for delegates, excess food and disposable utensils that could be made from Styrofoam.

Another exciting part of the Symposium that made it stand out from the rest – literally – was the tree created as the centrepiece of an interactive exhibition. It was painted on a large piece of recycled cardboard and adorned with cut-outs of a wild boar, a hornbill and gecko to represent the biodiversity of Singapore. Above it was the question: “What is your vision for Singapore?” Exhibition coordinators roamed the area, getting participants engaged in answering the question. Nearby, three easels asked participants: “What does ‘family-friendly’ mean to you?”; “What kind of recreational spaces would you like to see?”; “What sacrifices are you willing to make for the environment?”

That last question raised a few eyebrows. Some said they were willing to give up eating meat, which has a high carbon footprint, for one day each week, not unlike the popular ‘Meatless Monday’ campaign that has spread around the world as a way to promote sustainable eating lifestyles.

One of the speakers, Chong Keng Hua, Assistant Professor of Architecture and Sustainable Design at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), even admitted in his presentation that he had sold his car and now travels only by bicycle and public transportation.

However, not everyone was convinced that their own personal sacrifices would save the environment. “Come on, there has to be a way for us to live harmoniously with the environment,” said one anonymous sticky note pasted on the board. It channelled the idea that sustainable living is ultimately a ‘positive sum’ game between humans’ existence in the environment, as opposed to a function of trade-offs.

Even though the Symposium has now ended, it is not the last you will hear of the debate on Singapore’s sustainable future.

The rich discussion and wealth of opinions from the diverse audience, as well as the expert opinions provided by the panellists, will be captured in an upcoming document the organizers hope to present to the public or policy-makers in the near future.

We look forward to next year’s iteration of the Singapore Futures Sustainability Symposium. Until then, check out their blog (http://sfss2013.wordpress.com) and Facebook (http://facebook.com/sfss2013) for news and updates.

Report prepared by Judy Goh

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