World Cities Summit: A business opportunity, showcase for the world

Summit a chance for S’pore to be thought leader on issue

This time two years ago, the inaugural World Cities Summit hosted by Singapore - the world’s first international conference on public governance and the sustainable development of cities - attracted hundreds of delegates.

Today, as the second World Cities Summit begins at Suntec City, it is gathering thousands, including 25 ministers, 40 mayors and governors and more high-level experts and policymakers from around the world. The interest in the event suggests Singapore has hit the sweet spot identifying an issue of global interest.

This is not surprising given the growing importance of sustainability in a world facing the threat of climate change and dwindling natural resources. It also underscores the need to look at the challenges of urban development from a more macro, holistic perspective.

But even as Singapore plays host to the thousands of delegates - also in town for the Singapore International Water Week - there are some questions to ponder.

Why, exactly, is Singapore hosting this summit, at a cost of millions? And what are the implications of doing so?

On the first question, there are many economic and social benefits to hosting a large-scale conference like this, some more long term than the effects of the spending by delegates.

By 2050, more than 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, with the number of city dwellers expected to double, from 3.3 billion today to 6.4 billion in 2050.

As cities develop rapidly, so will demand for urgent solutions to meet their challenges. The Economic Development Board has aggressively pursued investments in clean technology and solutions - an industry identified as a key pillar of growth, estimated to contribute $3.4 billion to Singapore’s gross domestic product by 2015.

It also recently set up a new division called Urban Solutions to promote solutions for sustainable cities.

Home-grown engineering firms such as Keppel, Sembcorp and Hyflux will also be able to capitalise on the summit as a platform to sell their products and solutions, while smaller enterprises will be able to learn and exchange ideas from their counterparts across the globe.

By positioning itself as the centre for urban solutions, Singapore’s ultimate aim is to develop a robust industry where its products and services have a place in tomorrow’s global economy.

As director Andrew Tan of the Centre for Liveable Cities, who is co-organising the summit, highlighted, there is no other platform yet where leaders, policymakers and solution providers can converge to discuss the challenges facing cities in a holistic manner.

This is where the World Cities Summit can be significant. The Republic has built its reputation over the past four decades as one of the world’s best urban planners, and there is some altruism in its initiative to share best practices in urban development with cities around the world.

Simply put, Singapore is gunning to be the world’s thought leader for sustainability and to brand itself on the international stage as a desirable city to live in - a model city where the twin goals of economic growth and environmental sustainability have been proven to work. Hence, the conference theme: Liveable and Sustainable Cities For the Future.

Some critics have pointed out that ‘sustainable development’ is in itself a contradictory term as any increase in population and affluence (economic growth) are inherently damaging to the environment, regardless of mitigating measures.

Other more ideological movements have called for a complete re-think on pursuing economic growth, arguing it is unsustainable and should be stopped or drastically curtailed.

The problem with such arguments is that it does not sit well for developing nations struggling to lift their populations out of poverty.

Singapore’s model proves that a middle ground between the old-school ‘growth at all costs’ and the more radical ideals that favour giving up growth, is possible and can work.

Singapore’s leaders, in speeches in the run up to last December’s United Nations climate change conference, emphasised their belief that there can be no sustainability without economic growth.

Singapore’s policy on sustainability thus takes the view that it should not derail growth. The argument is that economic growth generates resources that can then be put to use to improve infrastructure and sustainability.

In Singapore’s opinion, there are five key factors to creating liveable cities: namely, master planning, environmental sustainability, quality of life, good governance and competitive economy.

Its formula seems to have worked. Despite its scarce resources, Singapore has lifted its people from poverty while building a green city with good infrastructure.

The challenge now is to achieve ‘green growth’ - growth without environmental degradation through improved economic strategies, new product designs and new technologies.

Singapore is in a great position to lead this ‘emerging global discourse on cities’, as Mr Tan puts it. Its links with East and West provide it with a neutral platform to develop new solutions, which can also be tested in Singapore’s ‘living laboratory’ infrastructure.

But if Singapore wants to be a shining beacon for sustainable cities, it must be seen to walk the talk, and be subject to more scrutiny.

Environmental groups have pounced on recent reports alleging that Cambodian sand imports into Singapore cause severe environmental degradation along Cambodia’s coastlines.

The Singapore Government has strongly rejected such claims, pointing out that the policing and enforcement of sand extraction licences is ultimately the responsibility of the source country.

But this does little to ease the pressure from those who feel Singapore’s ‘sustainability credentials’ are undermined by its link to such unsustainable activities.

This is but one example of the implications that come with putting Singapore on the international stage. If it is to succeed in being the world’s thought leader for sustainability, Singapore must demonstrate leadership in its own actions and policies beyond staging a world-class conference.

This commentary first appeared in The Straits Times.

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