Cities present a sustainability conundrum: though they are the most efficient way to provide infrastructure and services for large populations, they are, in absolute terms, incredibly inefficient.
Cities cover just 2% of the Earth’s surface yet consume about 75% of the world’s resources, and given that more of the world’s population now live in cities than in rural areas, it’s clear they are key to tackling climate change and reducing resource use.
Urban administrators face huge challenges to make cities more sustainable. From traffic jams and inefficient buildings to social inequality and housing, the problems are complex and hard to tackle — but not insurmountable.
Some cities are forging ahead with the use of innovative urban planning, technological and governance models, showing that with the right focus and resources, cities can become “smart” or more sustainable.
According to the latest Siemens’ Green City Index for Asia, Singapore is the best-performing city in the region when measured against a range of sustainability criteria.
“Singapore is at the leading edge of sustainability,” says Nicholas You, chairman of the World Urban Campaign Steering Committee at UN-Habitat. “It’s an island state with limited resources so it had no choice but to go green if it wanted to survive economically.”
Singapore’s experiences have important lessons for other urban centres. Take its water treatment. In 1963, water functionality was shared between multiple ministries and agencies, which made it difficult to formulate a coordinated, long-term strategy.
With a rising population and finite freshwater resources, action was needed, so ministers set up a national water agency, PUB, which became the sole body responsible for the collection, production, distribution and reclamation of water in the city.
Today, its water operation has been transformed. Two thirds of Singapore’s land surface is now a water catchment area with water stored in 17 reservoirs, including the Marina Basin, right in the heart of the city.
Called NEWater, wastewater is collected and treated to produce water that’s good enough to drink. This meets 30% of the city’s water needs, a target that will be increased to 50% of future needs by 2060.
Earlier this year, Siemens was contracted to identify CO2 reduction opportunities in transport, residential and non-industrial buildings, and IT/communications in the Tampines district.
As part of the city’s plan to reduce CO2 emissions by 30% by 2030, Siemens will report back in 2013 with implementation costs, a plan to implement the changes and the design of pilots to trail three technological solutions.
“This will be a good test-bed for new technologies to prove what we can do,” says Dr Roland Busch, Siemens’ CEO of infrastructure and cities sector. “It’s a way to demonstrate in the highly competitive environment that is Singapore, that we can bring energy efficiency to the next level in addressing all the basic needs of cities.”
EDF and Veolia recently signed an agreement with Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HDB), the city-state’s largest developer, to develop software that will help it develop sustainable, urban planning solutions in HDB towns.
ForCity will simulate the built environment of a city and its impact on resources, the environment, people and intervention costs to help the HDB make its towns function more efficiently and become more pleasant to live in. The tool will be trialed in the Jurong East district of Singapore.
Transport is another sector that has seen investment recently. On an island of 4.8 million people with limited space, moving people around as efficiently as possible is key to its economic viability. A decade ago, city administrators warned that congestion could cost Singapore’s economy $2-3bn a year if transport infrastructure was not improved.
Then, there were two separate transport-charging systems in the city: road tolls and public transport, including the metro and buses. But since 2009, after a series of smart card innovations, people have been able to use e-Symphony, an IBM-designed payment card that can be used to pay for road tolls, bus travel, taxis, the metro, and even shopping.
The card can process 20 million fare transactions a day and collects extensive traffic data, allowing city administrators to constantly tweak routes to ensure the most efficient journeys and minimise congestion.
All these measures combine to make Singapore a smarter city. “What we have done is to research and try to distill the principles for Singapore’s success in sustainable urban development – we call it a liveability framework,” says Khoo Teng Chye, executive director at the Centre for Liveable Cities based in Singapore.
“Quality of life, environmental sustainability and competitive economics. These are the components that make cities liveable.”
As the competition for resources increases and cities expand to accommodate rising populations, even those without the geographic constraints of Singapore will have to embrace smart city principles. If they don’t, they will lose out financially, unable to attract businesses and talent from cities that do. The planet simply can’t sustain current levels of resource use and environmental degradation. It’s not a choice; cities have to change.