Since 2010, the World Cities Summit (WCS) has brought together political and industry leaders in Singapore to discuss the challenges of urbanization, to learn from each other’s expertise and experiences in developing solutions that affect millions of lives, and to foster relationships across the sectors, with eyes always towards the future.
This year’s WCS was held at the Marina Bay Sands from 1 – 4 June, alongside the 6th annual Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) and the 2nd CleanEnviro Summit Singapore. Urban planning, water management and environmental solutions are inextricably linked as policymakers prioritize the search for sustainability across these areas, a move that businesses are already anticipating and citizens are already demanding. These simultaneous events, when taken together, paint a picture particular relevant today – one cannot look at any of these issues in isolation, and must consider how they feed off of, and even trigger, other complex scenarios.
“The three events have one common theme – how to develop livable and sustainable cities, and build beautiful and endearing homes,” said Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the opening ceremony. The trifecta of summits, and the cutting-edge WasteMET Asia and Water technology expo that accompanied it, attracted 20,000 delegates, including 130 mayors and city leaders. 3.3 billion people live in cities today, a number that’s expected to double by 2050, which is estimated to reflect only 70% of the global population. “So the cities are driving economic growth and creating new hubs for talent and innovation, “PM Lee continued. “They are also pioneering solutions to the world’s problems like climate change, public health and green technology. At the same time, new challenges have emerged. Climate change is causing unpredictable consequences – extreme weather like the first snowfall in Cairo in a hundred years, or flooding in London.”
Leaders can choose to invest in a vast array of technological solutions to drive their states and organizations towards a more environmentally-friendly, less energy-intensive model with greater sustainability, many of which were on display in the exhibition hall. A random sampling of booths informed me of STREAM’s hygienic, energy-efficient suction-based waste collection system, Volvo’s fuel-efficient, driver-centric Dynamic Steering that reduces rough road tremors and the effort needed to control the wheel, and IBM’s intelligent cities system that was used to help streamline delivery networks in the aftermath of the typhoon in Manila and is currently being used in Washington, D.C. to plan and maintain the city. Shell Scenarios Team states that between 2010 and 2040, energy consumption in cities will increase from 66% of total global energy usage to 80%. Investing in more sustainable practices on a larger scale and demanding a high level of energy-efficiency from manufactures will ensure that energy is being utilized to improve the everyday lives of citizens.
It has been estimated that between now and 2030, an estimated $57 trillion USD will be spent building infrastructures for cities. How well this money is spent will depend on the decisions of our leaders today, and how astute they are. A good way to begin such a pivotal discussion is by analyzing and emulating case studies and success stories. The narratives of Su Zhou Jiangsu Province in China and the Orange County Water District in California were spotlighted at the WCS and SIWW, and awarded the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize and Water Prize respectively. The Jiangsu province has worked hard to develop the city, while maintaining its ancient cultural heritage and architecture and preserving its idyllic waterscapes. Orange County’s success lay in its engagement of the local community in its water management decisions, alongside its stellar technological processes.
The dialogue continued through a series of insightful plenaries that centered on urban themes, and tapped into the knowledge and expertise of a plethora of esteemed panelists, exploring questions like what makes a city livable, and the relationship between social equity and a city’s economic competitiveness, which are often at odds with one another. Ms. Elsa Noguera de la Espriella, Mayor of Barranquilla, Columbia, said, “Equity is important as competitiveness is founded on labor. The labor force must not be [or feel] marginalized.”
Mass transport is one way a society can be democratized. In Medellin, the industrial capital of Colombia, where in 1991 there were 381 homicides per 100,000 people and extreme poverty, extensive investment and government commitment to building transportation infrastructure repaired the violent, drug-ravaged city, as the Metro increased both the citizen’s quality of life and the presence of the local administration, decreasing crime levels. Further, by making all parts of the city accessible even to the poorer classes of society, citizens were given greater social mobility, as they could accept jobs and take advantage of opportunities that would have otherwise been cut off to them, and participate in the social and cultural experience of living in proximity to a city.
Other problems, like those associated with ageing populations, providing for their housing, healthcare and social needs, received significant airtime at the WCS. To put a face on the problem, and see how the Singapore government engaged its citizens, the summit organized a site visit (among other efforts) for selected mayors to the South-East District, to interact with a few elderly residents and learn more about the Neighbors for Active Living Program, which links healthcare professionals with neighborhood volunteers to meet the needs of “at-risk” elderly residents. While such initiatives are indeed timely, since the program began last year, the number of residents who have been offered this service is just a drop in the bucket. Out of the 15-20% of the population of district who are over 65, only 400 elderly residents are provided for, probably due to an excessively narrow definition of “at-risk,” or standards that are too stringent, or simply due to a lack of awareness or volunteers.
Citizen engagement emerged as a major theme in this year’s summit, and there is truth in the belief that at the end of the day, a city is its people. But the words “citizen engagement” can be nothing more than a vehicle for political succession planning, and it is difficult to separate the politics from the policy at a conference organized by and for politicians and arrive at tangible insights to leave the conference with. I found the exchange of views at SIWW clearer and more fruitful, and captured the idea of forward thinking more succinctly. In the water industry, companies are taking it upon themselves to improve energy efficiency and use green practices (whether alternative forms of energy, less wasteful processes, or recycling or monetizing waste products), not just for the purposes of corporate social responsibility, but for the bottom-line. At the industrial water forum, much of the discourse focused on the trend to start considering and internalizing the risk of negative externalities like environmental degradation and climate change, or complex issues like water rights, and calculate the price of uncertainty into the decision-making process.
Achieving sustainability is a winning outcome for everyone – businesses, governments, citizens, and the global community. Ajay Popat, Executive Vice President at Ion Exchange (India), summed the industry’s outlook up in two words: awareness and inclusion. First, everyone with something at stake (industry, government, and the public) must be educated about the issues, the complexities arising from them and the options available moving forward. Then, they must be included in the decision-making process, and have their concerns taken seriously. Silencing any one of these voices may result in expensive mistakes or irreparable damage to a company, a country, a city or a government. This applies equally to water management as it does to governance, and any sector of industry that hopes to grow steadily and sustainably.
Article prepared by Janice Liu