How government and business can work together to build better cities

Cities are the driving force of the global economy and will be home to most of the world’s people by 2030. Can the public and private sectors learn to work hand-in-hand to ensure human habitats become resilient and future-ready?

Ice skating in Seoul Plaza
Public space Seoul Plaza is turned into an ice skating rink during winter in South Korea. Image: Republic of Korea, CC BY-SA 2.0

Governments and businesses make for unnatural bedfellows but in order to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they will need to find ways to collaborate. 

Within the next 15 years, the world can expect to see an unprecedented surge in urbanisation. The metaphorical engines of human society and progress, cities will collectively become home to 1.5 billion more people by 2030; the sixth out of every 10th person will be an urban citizen in 2030, and Africa and Asia are where more than 90 per cent of urban growth will take place.

However, the way cities have been built is unsustainable, with the lack of planning and control leading to problems such as overcrowding and pollution. Coupled with climate change affecting everything from food and water supply to weather patterns, the time has come to reinvent the urbanisation paradigm and innovate to find new solutions to old problems.

The SDGs, targets to achieve human progress and well-being by 2030 rolled out in September 2015, have a specific goal for cities. SDG 11 sets the bar for the cities of tomorrow by urging the international community to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Lauren Sorkin, regional director, Asia Pacific of 100 Resilient Cities, a non-profit set up by The Rockefeller Foundation to help cities better withstand the physical, social and economic challenges of today, explained to Future Ready Singapore that sustainability addresses the need to bring the world into balance amidst the continued depletion of natural resources. On the other hand, resilience is about the “implementation of transformative actions that make systems endure and, more importantly, thrive in an imbalanced world”. 

The creation of resilient and sustainable cities is therefore a business opportunity for the private sector, who can build a marketplace for resilience tools and services.

Lauren Sorkin, regional director, Asia Pacific, 100 Resilient Cities

There is therefore the need for cities to go beyond adopting coping strategies and focus on “implementing actions that truly transform our cities’ ability to withstand whatever comes”, she said. Furthermore, building resilient cities requires a new way of thinking about city planning, community engagement, disaster prevention and recovery and private-public collaboration. 

How business can build better cities

Governments cannot go it alone. The innovation, resources and experience of the private sector is needed in order to build better cities. 

“There is no resilience in a vacuum,” Sorkin told Future Ready Singapore. “Cities can’t implement meaningful solutions if they don’t understand the needs of every stakeholder – be they corporations or communities.”  

Lauren Sorkin, regional director, Asia Pacific, 100 Resilient Cities

These sentiments were clearly echoed at the Responsible Business Forum for Sustainable Development in Singapore last year. At a workshop focused solely on SDG 11 that Sorkin moderated, representatives from the public and private sectors exchanged ideas for how to build more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities.

Businesses themselves want to be involved when it comes to urban and long-term planning, said Huawei’s general manager, strategy and business consulting, Kriv Naicker. He said that a service and technology provider like Huawei is “heavily invested in enabling smart and sustainable cities” and keen to share its expertise as cities move towards being Internet of Things-enabled.

“Huawei is (usually) engaged at the point of the procurement rather than in an experience-sharing or advisory perspective on where we can help accelerate some timelines,” commented Naicker. The company has the potential to take on a more advisory role in terms of “informing some of the decisions” for infrastructure investment and planning and digital enablement, he said.

Governments should therefore review and change their current procurement models to allow businesses to provide their expert advice without compromising the integrity of the procurement process, urged Naicker.  

Besides participating more actively at the urban planning level, businesses can also help cities become more resilient by collaborating and creating opportunities for shared learning with the government.

Singapore-headquartered real estate developer and a local leader in sustainability, City Developments Limited (CDL), offered “experience and knowledge” when the Building and Construction Authority in Singapore first began putting together the Green Mark certification programme for buildings.

The Singapore government has pledged to have 80 per cent of the city-state’s buildings green-certified by 2030 up from the current 30 per cent. “There’s a lot of collaboration needed [between the government and the private sector] and when the government commits to something, the work will pass down to the private sector as well,” said CDL’s chief sustainability officer, Esther An.

Esther An, chief sustainability officer, City Developments Limited

She added that building authorities in Singapore now take the sustainability of a building’s design into consideration when selling plots of land to developers, compared to when the tender process was purely price-based. In response, the private sector is compelled to look at sustainability as an edge over the competition while also helping the city to become more resilient. “That’s how the government and private sector can work together,” said An.

Such collaborations are more than just theoretical, and examples of how governments can engage the private sector to bring about more resilient cities have already begun taking place in Singapore. In the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint released last year, the city-state outlined its vision to become a car-lite nation – one with efficient public transportation networks, walking and cycling paths, and on-demand, point-to-point transport options.

Singapore has since engaged the services of BlueSG, a subsidiary of French electric car-sharing operator Bollore Group, to build a car-sharing programme featuring 1,000 electric vehicles by 2020. The Singapore government will be co-fund the programme.

This is expected to add some 2,000 charging points in parking spaces in 500 locations, the majority of which will be located within neighbourhoods. By mid this year, Singapore will see the first batch of 125 cars plying the roads. 

Singapore is also keen to ramp up solar power generation to 350 megawatt peak by 2020 under the SolarNova Programme by the Economic Development Board. It has benefitted local company Sunseap Leasing, which bagged SolarNova’s first and Singapore’s largest solar tender in December 2015 to build a 76 megawatt project on government sites and 831 housing blocks by end 2017.

The island nation consistently welcomes private companies to test bed their solutions in Singapore. Last year it unveiled the largest floating solar test bed in the world to investigate how different solar technologies would perform in conjunction with a host of private companies.

Inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities

Businesses need government input as much as governments need the private sector’s innovation and ability to scale solutions, in order to create sustainable cities.

At the Cities:Possibilities forum in Singapore last year, high-level business leaders and government leaders discussed how to bring change in cities, with panellists agreeing that there is a business case for sustainability and that it would open opportunities for collaboration with the public sector.

Speaking on the panel discussion at the forum, Lim Hwee Hua, executive director of private equity firm Tembusu Partners and former second minister for finance and transport of Singapore, said: “Whether it is regulating the pace of urbanisation, setting the national climate change agenda or formulating policies such as the appropriate use of scarce national resources - no single private sector entity can accomplish these without the heavy involvement of government.”

The creation of resilient and sustainable cities is therefore a business opportunity for the private sector, who can build a marketplace for resilience tools and services, commented 100 Resilience Cities’ Sorkin. 

“If it is profitable for the private sector to develop and sell resilience solutions, and valuable for governments to buy and implement them, then resilience thinking and planning can take hold and become self-perpetuating,” she said. “But in order for this to happen, there must be close collaboration between the public and private sector.”

This article was first published on Future Ready Singapore. Visit the website to sign up for its newsletter.

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