Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the World Cities Summit 2021 on 21 June 2021.
A very good afternoon to everyone.
It has been more than a year since COVID-19 disrupted the world. The toll on lives and livelihoods has been staggering. Almost 4 million people have lost their lives, and the equivalent of more than 250 million jobs globally has been wiped out.
Global vaccination is underway. This provides some hope. But new and more virulent strains have emerged, triggering new waves. COVID-19 may be with us for some time. It may become endemic and learning to live with it will be critical to our future.
Beyond the immediate public health crisis and the global economic fallout, COVID-19 has also disrupted our world in other lasting ways. The pandemic has accelerated existing structural shifts and created new ones. The global shift to digital is a clear example as we go online to meet our needs, including connecting with others, like in today’s hybrid event. I hope you have had good discussions since this morning. The pandemic is challenging us to rethink our assumptions and our ways of doing things.
Are Cities Still Relevant?
One key assumption that is being questioned is the role of cities. For centuries, cities have been the lifeblood of economic, social, and cultural activities. More than half of the world’s population live in cities, and this is growing. Cities account for more than 80% of global GDP today.
But with the experience of this pandemic, will cities still have the same relevance? The high population densities and concentration of activities in cities make them more vulnerable. Some people have moved out of cities to work remotely from the countryside.
But the reality is far more complex and nuanced. The virus has had an uneven impact across cities, and even within the same city. Population densities matter, but other factors such as access to quality healthcare, trust in government, and compliance with safe management measures matter just as much, if not more. And there are early signs that people are making their way back into cities.
This is not surprising - there are good reasons why cities have flourished over the centuries. The economies of agglomeration are a powerful driving force for urbanisation. Cities have thrived as hotbeds of innovation, creativity, knowledge sharing and networking. While virtual interactions are useful, these cannot fully replace face-to-face interactions, and the sparks that some call the “collaborative chains of creativity”.
Once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-envision our cities
I believe cities will remain powerful magnets, bringing people together to explore, learn, create, and interact with one another. Urbanisation will remain a powerful driving force post-COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic has presented us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity, to re-envision and build cities of tomorrow.
The immediate lesson from COVID-19 is the need to develop greater resilience. Cities thrive when they are part of a global network and efficient supply chains. These global linkages have powered global growth. Over time, cities have become more inter-connected and inter-dependent. But this also means that cities are more vulnerable to disruptions in other parts of the world. The pandemic is a clear example, and so was the recent blockage in the Suez Canal. The pandemic has also exposed the lack of crisis preparedness, with many cities experiencing a severe crunch in healthcare capacity. Cities of the future will need to be resilient, besides being efficient. We will need to review our planning assumptions and infrastructure needs.
The pandemic is also a sharp reminder that countries must work together to better respond to complex global challenges like climate change. COVID-19 will fade at some point, but the global climate challenge will be with us for generations. Cities are a critical part of any solution – they produce 70% of global CO2 emissions. As the economy picks up, we have a window of opportunity for a green recovery by investing in sustainable solutions.
More broadly, COVID-19 has reinforced the value of building liveable cities. I have spoken about resilience and sustainability, which are critical in ensuring that our cities remain liveable. But liveability goes beyond that. Liveability is fundamentally about people - enabling people to flourish, and improving their quality of life. This includes fair and inclusive access to basic necessities, such as clean water, sanitation and affordable housing. And the good redesign of spaces, including indoor and common spaces, to enhance the health and well-being of residents.
Innovate, Invest, and Integrate
Let me offer 3 suggestions on how we can build more resilient, sustainable and liveable cities of tomorrow. They can be summarised as 3 “I”s – Innovate, Invest and Integrate.
First, to push the next bounds of liveability and sustainability for urban living, we will need to Innovate.
We must explore new possibilities in how we plan and run our cities. With the pandemic changing our daily routines, how can we redesign our homes, public transport networks, and cities to be more liveable and sustainable? For example, prior to COVID-19, Singapore has been building a “polycentric” city. Instead of a single Central Business District, we have multiple regional centres to bring work and amenities closer to homes and reduce commuting times. COVID-19 has given us fresh impetus to these efforts. The pandemic has also shown us the value of integrating green spaces within our urban landscapes. Like in many cities, footfall has increased significantly in our parks and nature reserves. In Singapore, we value our greenery despite our land constraints. For example, the Gardens by the Bay, is a green space spanning more than a hundred hectares in the heart of our city. We will make our green spaces even more accessible. By 2030, every household can be within a 10-minute walk to a park. This represents our steadfast commitment to building a green and liveable city.
Apart from shifts in urban planning, we also need innovative solutions to make our cities more sustainable and resilient. One example is water. Addressing urban water needs is not new – the Roman aqueducts were built 2,000 years ago to transport water into cities. Today, climate change has exacerbated the water challenge, with many cities facing severe water stress. Innovation will be critical in overcoming this challenge. Technologies like desalination are useful, but the key is to do so in an energy-efficient and cost-effective way. Smart metering and automated leakage detection systems can also help to stretch every drop of water. To catalyse urban innovations, we need to invest in research and development. That is why Singapore has a 19 billion US dollars Research, Innovation, and Enterprise plan for our R&D efforts over the next 5 years. One major focus is on urban solutions and sustainability, to ensure that Singapore’s highly built-up environment remains climate-resilient and liveable. One example of this effort is a project called “Cooling Singapore”. There are studies showing that Singapore is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world. This is partly due to global warming, compounded by the urban heat island effect – where our buildings and roads trap the heat from our tropical environment. Greenery helps to some extent, but more needs to be done. New solutions could include the use of cool paints and reflective glass coatings to lower absorption of heat energy from the sun. The “Cooling Singapore” project is also developing a Digital Urban Climate Twin, to simulate how the various features of a city – such as the street scape, buildings and climate conditions – affect the ambient temperature. It is not just a Singapore effort to tackle these challenges. We can achieve much more if we work together. I am glad that the “Cooling Singapore” project is a multi-institutional initiative between Singapore and international partners from Switzerland, Germany, the US and the UK. The solutions developed will be useful not only for reducing urban heat in Singapore, but also for cities around the world. It is also in the same spirit that international events like the Singapore International Water Week are organised. They serve as useful platforms to showcase innovative solutions and spark new collaborations.
Second, to build liveable and sustainable cities post-COVID, we will need to Invest.
Even prior to COVID-19, there was recognition of the infrastructure financing gap in many cities. In Asia alone, the ADB had estimated an infrastructure gap of 1.7 trillion US dollars per year till 2030, with needs ranging from transport to telecommunications infrastructure.
With the structural changes that have been accelerated by COVID-19, we will have to speed up our investments, including in Digital infrastructure like fibre broadband and 5G networks, to harness the digital wave, Social infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools, to enhance the social resilience of cities, Greener buildings that are more energy-efficient, and cleaner energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines.
Given the large and growing financing needs, we need to improve the flow of capital, across borders, to benefit communities in Asia and beyond. To help address this, Singapore set up Infrastructure Asia – to facilitate the flow of funds and expertise into Asia, especially from the private sector, to bridge this infrastructure gap. This week’s Asia Infrastructure Forum is a part of this effort to bring the various stakeholders to work together. An important aspect is to catalyse green financing. Singapore accounts for over one-third of the sustainability-linked loan market in Asia Pacific today. The Singapore Government is also taking the lead by issuing green bonds, to support the financing of up to 15 billion US dollars of public infrastructure projects. We welcome further collaborations to harness the power of finance to promote cleaner and greener forms of energy and activities in the region.
Outside of urban spaces, we can also invest in nature-based solutions for carbon abatement. Nature-based solutions have the potential to provide one-third of the global mitigation necessary to stabilise warming to below 2 degree Celsius. For example, Southeast Asia is home to the largest blue carbon stock in the world, with the largest areas of mangrove swamps and seagrass meadows in Indonesia and the Philippines. To realise this potential, we need to attract investments. One way to do this is to create vibrant exchanges for the trading of carbon credits. Singapore will be launching one such global carbon exchange – “Climate Impact X” – later this year. This will allow large-scale, high-quality carbon credits to be sold through standardised contracts. Climate Impact X is one way Singapore is doing our part to contribute to a green recovery in the region.
This brings me to my last point – the need to better Integrate our efforts so that we can build on one another’s strengths to create a more sustainable and liveable future.
COVID-19 has shown how interdependent and interconnected our world is, and why global cooperation is critical. While there have been some shortcomings in the global response to COVID-19, there were also bright spots. One such area is the unprecedented level of information sharing and cooperation in science and technology. Let us build on this momentum. For example, as the digital economy grows, we should collectively expand digital trade - by harmonising standards and enabling trusted data flows across borders. To build a more resilient world, we will also need to better facilitate supply chain linkages through digitalisation and a “single window” for the movement of goods.
As key engines of growth and innovation, cities will have a critical role to play in forging a stronger network of cooperation. By working in partnership, cities can amplify our growth and innovation efforts, and build on one another’s strengths. We can build networks of collaboration – to prototype ideas across different contexts, and to enhance connectivity among cities. These can take different forms. One example is the Smart City partnership between Singapore and Shenzhen. This seeks to strengthen digital connectivity and collaboration, by piloting paperless cross-border trade, through mutual recognition of electronic trade documents. Another example is the Global Innovation Alliance, which connects Singapore to innovative cities around the world. This initiative encourages aspiring innovators and students to learn and collaborate with innovators based in other cities. This network currently spans 15 cities. We will be expanding it to over 25 cities by 2025. We hope that Singapore can play a useful role as a “Global-Asia node” - as a gateway for people in cities around the world to explore opportunities in Asia, and for Singapore to serve as a launchpad for those in Asia to expand into global markets.
It is also this same spirit of cooperation and learning that platforms such as the World Cities Summit seek to harness.
In conclusion, COVID-19 has disrupted our way of life, especially in cities. But I believe cities are here to stay. Cities will remain the best venues for humans to explore, learn and interact to flourish as individuals and to collaborate and achieve more, together.
But COVID-19 has also given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink how we plan and run our cities, so that we can build more sustainable, resilient, and liveable cities for future generations. To do this well, we must innovate, invest and integrate our efforts. I am confident that if we put in our best effort, we will not only manage the current pandemic well, but we can also manage other challenges and disruptions in the years to come, and emerge stronger.
I look forward to exchanging views with all of you in the dialogue.
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