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Opinion
 

Game-changers can make or break cities

This is an excerpt from a speech by Mr Peter Ho, chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, at the World Cities Summit 2014 on Tuesday, on cities in an uncertain world

Published on Jun 6, 2014 1:04 PM
 
Singapore’s skyline at Marina Bay Sands. The provision of good jobs, with opportunities for all, is crucial for social resilience. -- ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

All cities aspire to provide equitable, inclusive and liveable environments for their people. They aim to be resilient and adaptable, in the face of uncertainty and rapid change.

An increasingly volatile global economy has compounded the situation. Contagion effects can be felt from events that may at first seem distant and far away, as was seen during the 2008-2009 global financial and economic crisis.

In such an environment of rapid change, prudence dictates that cities should be on the lookout for game-changers - such as the opening up of the northern shipping routes, the shale gas revolution, and technological changes such as big data analytics and the digital economy - each of which could fundamentally change a city's destiny by creating either a big new challenge or an enormous opportunity.

One game-changer could very well be technology, as advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and so on could lead to the hollowing out of middle-skilled jobs, with machines replacing human labour.

For instance, leading global mining and metals company Rio Tinto bought 150 driverless trucks in 2011. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Online dispute resolution software provided by companies such as Cybersettle and SmartSettle are already used by eBay and Paypal to resolve 90 per cent of 60 million business-consumer disputes every year.

Technology is also changing the nature of work. For example, with the widespread use of smartphones and tablets, and more people working in "knowledge-based" industries, work is growing less desk-bound. As a result, live-work arrangements will change.

With increasing life expectancy around the world, as a result of better and more accessible medical care and improving diet, more people will need and will want to work longer.

Conflated with changes in industry itself because of technological change, in future, people will probably have more than one career in their lifetimes. This in turn will require a radical change in the education system so that instead of preparing the individual for one job in his (or her) lifetime, it is able to train and re-train him (or her) for perhaps several completely different jobs during his (or her) active working life.

How can cities continue to provide good jobs that cater for the wide spectrum of skills while meeting the aspirations of their people? In particular, how will cities provide new middle-skilled jobs to replace those that have vanished, or that will disappear as technology changes? What are the new growth sectors and new jobs that cities need to retrain their workforce for?

These are important questions because those cities that can successfully capitalise on emerging growth opportunities will be better able to provide good jobs for their people, compared to those that cannot.

Social resilience

THE provision of good jobs, with opportunities for all, is crucial for social resilience. This helps to ensure that cities remain equitable, inclusive and cohesive, and are able to attract talent to sustain competitiveness.

However, the task of enhancing social resilience in cities looks to be increasingly challenging.

In many industrialised cities, the rich are getting richer, but wages for the low-to-middle income groups stagnate and even decline. In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries today, the average income of the richest 10 per cent of the population is about nine times that of the poorest 10 per cent. The income gap between the high- and middle-earners is widening, in part due to the displacement of middle-class jobs by technology. Faced with shrinking job opportunities, flat wages and rising prices, the middle class is being squeezed on both sides.

The demographic profiles of cities and the social needs of their people are changing.

Declining fertility rates, coupled with rising life expectancies, are demographic phenomena that are most pronounced in the cities. This is leading to an ageing world population.

The number of people 60 years and above has, in fact, swelled by 178 million in the past decade - almost the entire population of Pakistan, the sixth most populous country in the world.

Having fewer children means fewer caregivers for the many more old people in future. Cities may thus have to revisit the ingrained policy assumption of families as core caregivers of the elderly in society.

As cities develop to meet the needs of a growing population, urban dwellers will see their familiar reference points - like traditional lanes, public spaces, landmarks - give way to new developments.

This loss of the familiar is, in particular, more abrupt for migrants to cities who also lose their languages, cultural norms and social support systems. As a result, cities could see their communities struggle with a sense of alienation and a loss of identity and belonging.

The city of Suzhou in China - which is conferred this year's Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize - can offer other cities some inspiring insights on how social challenges might be addressed.

Suzhou has adopted inclusionary social policies towards its migrant workers, who are given equal opportunities to access health and education benefits as local residents. Even with modernisation, Suzhou has maintained and preserved its old city - its historical and cultural core - by re-directing urban growth to a new Central Business District. As a result, it has been able to preserve historic sites like Pingjiang Historic District - a Unesco heritage site - which continue to be attractive neighbourhoods for their residents.

The challenges highlighted place huge demands on cities. At the same time, they also present big opportunities for those cities that are able to reorganise and reinvent themselves to thrive in new realities. The best cities will be those that manage to find solutions to these challenges.

Having fewer children means fewer caregivers for the many more old people in future. Cities may thus have to revisit the policy assumption of families as core caregivers of the elderly in society.


Background story

Having fewer children means fewer caregivers for the many more old people in future. Cities may thus have to revisit the policy assumption of families as core caregivers of the elderly in society.

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