Short-term thinking the ‘enemy’ of liveable cities

Governments worldwide are under pressure to effectively manage challenges like climate change and urbanisation. Long-term planning is a key ingredient for success, says Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the opening of the World Cities Summit.

WCS In Conversation 2016
Tharman Shanmugaratnam, deputy prime minister and minister in charge of social and economic policies, in conversation with Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore, at the World Cities Summit. Image: Eco-Business

Rising urbanisation poses many environmental and social challenges, and to manage these issues effectively, policymakers must adopt long-term thinking instead of focusing only on immediate concerns, said Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Monday. 

Speaking at an opening plenary to kick off the World Cities Summit, Singapore International Water Week and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore, DPM Tharman noted that cities must address three key challenges as they grow. 

These are: minimising greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption while pursuing economic growth; making sure cities are socially inclusive and equitable; and taking care of the elderly, a growing demographic group in many cities worldwide. 

But the solutions to these challenges—such as an industry-wide energy-efficiency upgrade, successful research and development of new clean technologies, helping economically marginalised people acquire new vocational skills, or planning cities to be more accessible and inclusive—“cannot be achieved in one electoral term, or even two”, said Tharman.

An approach which prioritises short-term results over these hard-won gains is “the enemy of social mobility and efforts to create the most liveable cities,” he told the 700-strong audience at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre. “We must have long-term approaches in politics and governance”.  

One example of future-centric planning at work in Singapore is the city-state’s national Master Plan, an effort by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which sets out a 10 to 15-year outlook for the island nation and is revised every five years. 

The country’s policymakers have long attributed its ability to balance economic, social, and environmental interests despite space and natural resource constraints to this planning effort.

Singapore’s recently launched Climate Action Plan also outlines the measures it will take between now and 2030 to fulfil its international climate commitments and prepare for rising sea-levels and other impacts of climate change.

Proposed measures include improving industrial energy efficiency, developing a heat-stress information system to help residents cope with warmer temperatures, and making sure an upcoming port terminal is significantly higher than the maximum sea-level ever recorded in Singapore. 

From challenges to opportunities

While addressing urbanisation and climate challenges is a major task for public and private sector leaders, it also offers new opportunities for businesses to profit and for policymakers to engage with citizens, noted Tharman.  

For instance, cities worldwide will need to invest in new infrastructure to meet the needs of growing populations, but there is also a strong push to make more efficient use of existing infrastructure, he said. This has spurred new business models and policy measures to enable people to share transport, real estate, and other resources.  

Tharman cited the South Korean capital Seoul as a prime example of a ‘sharing city’, highlighting policies such as allowing citizens to conduct activities in government buildings when they are not in use and a programme for residents to share vacant parking lots with one another.  

“This is an example of an effort to have the best and broadest possible utilisation of existing assets and investments,” noted Tharman. In the future, “everything that promotes sharing is going to gain importance,” he added.  

Climate change is absolutely an important issue. But if you see the whole world only through one lens, you make many political decisions which may damage what you are trying to repair.

Peter Brabeck-Lethmathe, chairman, Nestle

The rapid rise of information and communications technologies such as smartphones, sensors, and big data analytics is another major trend taking place in cities, and governments can use this to identify and solve urban problems more quickly, said Tharman. 

For example, the city of Bandung in Indonesia has implemented a system which allows citizens to report municipal problems such as potholes via Twitter and Facebook, he shared. Singapore, too, has a similar ‘e-government’ mobile application called One Service which allows citizens to tell the government about issues such as faulty infrastructure, litter, or pest-related issues.

Since its launch last January, the government has dealt with more than 46,000 cases and acheived an average response time of less than six days per complaint, shared Tharman.

“This shows how technology can drive innovation for better government accountability,” he added.

Breaking down silos

Even as governments and companies grapple with the social and environmental challenges of urbanisation, they must be careful not to address each issue in isolation, as this could undermine broader sustainable development objectives, said other experts at the conference. 

Speaking at a separate plenary session on leadership and governance, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Swiss food and beverage multinational Nestlé, argued that some climate mitigation measures such as biofuels are doing more harm than good.  

This is because the cultivation of biofuel crops such as maize is a highly water-intensive process which contributes to “water overuse”, he noted. That is, when water from sources such as groundwater aquifers is depleted faster than it can be replenished. 

“Climate change is absolutely an important issue,” said Brabeck-Letmathe. “But if you see the whole world only through one lens, you make many political decisions which may damage what you are trying to repair.” 

Nestle has adopted various technology measures to reduce water use in its own supply chain and has instituted a “shadow price” on water for the past decade, he shared. In all decision-making processes, the company values water at US$1 per cubic metre water-rich areas, and US$5 per cubic metre in more arid locations.

Through its internal water price and investments in water saving technologies, the company—which has in recent months faced severe criticism for continuing its bottled water operations in the drought-stricken US state of Californiahas reduced its water withdrawals per tonne of product manufactured by 41 per cent compared with 2005 levels, shared Brabeck-Letmathe.   

There is much that companies can do to reduce their own use of resources such as water or help tackle climate change, he noted. But it is also important for corporations to be part of the global dialogue on sustainable development and show strong support for policies which promote resource conservation and climate action.  

“The private sector was invited by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to help shape the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), he noted. This is a set of 17 global goals adopted by the international communities last September, which will set the priorities for development efforts from now till 2030.  

The goals include a mission to eradicate poverty and hunger, take strong climate action, and build sustainable and resilient cities, among other things. The UN consulted business sector leaders as well as policymakers when finalising the 17 SDGs.   

This opportunity to help draft the SDGs “is not just a privilege for companies to be part of the establishment,” said Brabeck-Letmathe. “We also have a responsibility to be part of the solution”. 

The World Cities Summit, Singapore International Water Week and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore are co-located, biennial events which bring together more than 20,000 delegates from around the world to discuss urban development, water, and waste and cleaning management solutions.

This year’s event is held from 10 - 14 July and also features an integrated expo which allows businesses to showcase their cleantech and waste management technologies.  

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