Which sustainability solutions are most needed to save Southeast Asia’s cities?

As this year's edition of The Liveability Challenge throws down the gauntlet to entrepreneurs to solve Southeast Asia's urban sustainability challenges, Eco-Business asks which problems are most in need of solving.

Sunrise in Bangkok, one of Southeast Asia's most climate-vulnerable cities.
Sunrise in Bangkok, one of Southeast Asia's most climate-vulnerable cities. The Liveability Challenge seeks to find solutions to the region's toughest urban sustainability problems. Image: Eco-Business

By 2030, 100 million more people in Southeast Asia will move from the countryside to cities.

What solutions are needed to ensure these urban centres can take the strain, and provide liveable, sustainable environments for their inhabitants?

On Tuesday, Temasek Foundation Ecosperity, the philanthropic arm of Singapore’s state investor Temasek, and sustainability publication Eco-Business, launched the third edition of The Liveability Challenge, a global search for sustainable solutions for Asia’s cities.

So what are the biggest problems that Asian urban planners are facing?

We need to rethink what is grown in vertical farms. Do we really need strawberries all year round?

Adam Lyle, executive director and co-founder, Padang & Co

Speaking to Eco-Business on the sidelines of The Liveability Challenge launch at the Temasek Shophouse building in Singapore, Malavika Bambawale, managing director of sustainability solutions for French energy giant Engie, and a former resident of India’s capital New Delhi, singled out air pollution as an often overlooked environmental challenge.

“Air pollution is an environmental crisis. So how we find solutions?” she said. “First, we need to tackle the problem at source, whether it’s fossil fuel plants, deforestation from palm oil expansion, or agricultural crop burning. It’s all linked to human population growth and carbon emissions.”

Karen Sim, senior sustainability strategist at the non-profit Forum for the Future, pointed to waste management as a key problem that Southeast Asia’s sprawling cities need to tackle.

Five of the top six biggest plastic polluting nations are in Southeast Asia, and the regional bloc has a responsibility to find ways to reduce its impact on the world’s oceans, said Sim, who was among the speakers at last year’s SG Climate Rally, a public event that called for Singapore’s government to take a more ambitious approach to environmental action.

“Southeast Asian cities face an acute waste problem, which will be exacerbated by the rise in affluence of the region’s middle classes,” noted Sim, who added that better management and disposal of waste was essential for the region’s cities to prosper.

Edwin Seah, head of sustainability and communications at Singapore-based industry organisation Food Industry Asia, noted that many of Southeast Asia’s cities are in need of infrastructure investment, an issue highlighted by plastic pollution. 

“If your country can provide clean water, then there’s less need for single-use plastic water bottles,” he said.

Adam Lyle, executive director and co-founder of sustainability innovation firm Padang & Co, said that finding alternatives to meat is key.

“We’ve got to reduce our dependence on livestock,” he said, citing the emissions, land and resources footprint of eating meat. He highlighted vertical farming as a way that cities could tackle the nutrition crunch. 

“We also need to rethink what is grown in vertical farms. Do we really need strawberries all year round? We say we can’t live without coffee, but maybe we have to. Look at how much water is involved in its production,” he said.

What is The Liveability Challenge 2020 looking for?

Urban food production is one of three focus areas for this year’s Liveability Challenge, which will give entrepreneurs the chance to win up to S$1 million in funding for ideas that tackle the region’s urban sustainability challenges.

“We are looking for novel solutions that have high nutrition value and do not use too much land or water,” explained Lim Hock Chuan, chief executive of Temasek Foundation Ecosperity, citing as an example the winner of last year’s Challenge, Sophie’s Kitchen, a California-based plant-based seafood firm that produces protein from fermented microalgae.

Circular packaging is another focus area this year. “Packaging makes a significant contribution to the waste problem [in Asia’s cities]. We are looking for solutions that reduce or replace plastic, paper, aluminium or glass [packaging],” said Lim, who pointed to the 2018 winner of The Liveability Challenge, which makes packaging material from fermented vegetable oil.

The third theme of The Liveability Challenge 2020 is decarbonisation. The competition is looking for solutions that can capture and use carbon, as cleantech firm CarbonCure does with concrete, Lim explained.

Besides funding, Challenge contenders stand to win a place in an accelerator programme and a mentorship opportunity with a circular economy investment firm.

Shortlisted teams will pitch their projects to a panel of investors at an event held during Ecosperity Week in July. The Challenge is accepting submissions until April 17.

Ideas for The Liveability Challenge can be submitted here.

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