SG+50: Future Trends 2065

Cities power the way into new epoch

Cities are efficient users of resources and are best placed to deal with environmental challenges. For Singapore, this brings opportunities

Humanity, through its massive impact on the planet, has led earth away from the Holocene into a whole new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

In this epoch, human activities are the principal driver of planetary changes. The exact beginning of the Anthropocene is still being debated by experts, but it is inextricably linked to humankind's growing footprint and impact on the world.

While we have made great advances since our Stone Age ancestors, we are also confronted by global challenges largely created by us. These include environmental degradation, climate change, depletion of resources, food and water security, chronic diseases, and pandemics.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Indeed, our impact on the environment is so great that scientists have warned that the world is entering its sixth mass extinction, with animals disappearing about 100 times faster than they used to. Our ability to respond to these challenges will determine humanity's sustainability on this earth, and their enormous scale will require the entire world's community to work together.

Cities constitute one of the most critical places for addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene. According to reports by the World Bank and International Energy Agency, cities currently house 50 per cent of the world's population but account for about 80 per cent of global energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, cities are expected to house 70 per cent of our population, and energy demand is expected to rise correspondingly. Coping with this growth will require innovative ways of managing cities efficiently.

At the same time, cities already represent the most efficient model of living. Their compactness and concentrations of industries and talent not only increase economic productivity and output, but also the efficiency of resource utilisation.

Carbon emissions and electricity usage per occupant are significantly reduced in cities, as urbanites drive less, use public transport, and reside in apartment buildings that are more energy-efficient than suburban houses.

Studies by the London School of Economics and The Atlantic's CityLab have shown that cities use about half as much electricity per square metre as suburban areas, and that carbon emissions increase at a declining rate as cities grow, where a 1 per cent increase in population generates only about 0.85 per cent increase in emissions.

TECHNOLOGY AND SMART CITIES

Science and technology can further improve these efficiencies inherent in urban living as a critical part of the solution to the challenges of the Anthropocene, alongside other tools such as policy changes, social adaptations and international frameworks.

Since the Industrial Revolution, technologies such as steam power and the internal combustion engine have been central to the development of modern urban systems.

Going forward, the technologies of the Digital Revolution, underpinned by the Internet, mobile computing and Moore's Law (the doubling of computing processing power every two years) provide the key to sustainable living in the Age of Anthropocene.

The core of the Smart City is the Internet of Things (IoT), an expanding network of Internet-enabled devices that talk to each other and to us. Affordable yet sophisticated and interconnected sensors in our urban infrastructure are enabling a whole range of physical objects - from buildings and roads to street lights and cars - to monitor their environment, receive instructions and respond based on the information received as part of an overall smart system.

By 2025, we will exceed 100 billion connected devices, most of which will consist of sensors within the IoT. In turn, all this sensor information is leading to a deluge of Big Data.

In today's world, the challenge is no longer about collecting information, but processing it to derive meaning and value. With decreased data storage costs, exponential increase in processing power afforded by Moore's Law, and more powerful data analytics capabilities enabled by Machine Learning, we can now process the Big Data of cities in real time to optimise the use of resources and uncover insights for better urban planning and provision of services.

These technologies are critical in helping mankind reduce the carbon footprint of our growing cities. According to a Schneider Electric study, Smart Cities can lead to a 30 per cent increase in energy savings and 50 per cent reduction in water consumption.

For example, light poles with networked motion-detection lights could decrease electricity costs; sensors in power grids and water systems could allow utility operators to better gauge real-time usage and to detect faults before a breakdown; and in-vehicle and road sensors could optimise traffic flow by adjusting traffic-light timings, varying congestion charges and changing bus routes.

The future may also see the trend of Shared Autonomous Vehicles (SAVs). The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology has predicted that SAVs could reduce the number of cars on the road by around 80 per cent, with significant implications for fuel consumption, not to mention carparks.

As cities are also places where industries are concentrated, another important aspect of Smart Cities is the use of digital technologies to transform manufacturing processes for greater sustainability. Sensor-equipped machines and advanced robots will automate production according to environment and demand changes, leading to optimised use of resources.

3D printing will significantly reduce the environmental impact of traditional manufacturing processes while catering to the rising demands for high-quality, customised products. According to the BCG consulting group, machines will perform 25 per cent of all manufacturing tasks by 2025, greatly improving manufacturing efficiency and cutting energy use per production unit.

SINGAPORE'S CONTRIBUTIONS

The challenges of the Anthropocene are amplified for Singapore, given that we are a small, densely populated city-state with few natural resources. Fortunately, Singapore has long recognised and leveraged on the power of science and technology to meet our own national challenges.

A noteworthy example is Singapore's effort to ensure water security through harnessing research and technology as part of a comprehensive strategy.

One pillar of that is the development of Newater back in the 1990s. An innovative water-treatment technology based on recycled water, Newater is expected to meet 55 per cent of Singapore's water needs by 2060. This technology, alongside other water solutions, not only contributed to Singapore's water security, but is also an example of how Singapore's innovations can make a difference globally, especially as global water demand is projected to increase by 55 per cent between 2000 and 2050.

Last year, Singapore launched our Smart Nation initiative to bring in new levels of digitally enabled urban efficiency and sustainability. At the launch, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "our vision is for Singapore to be a Smart Nation - a nation where people live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all". In this regard, Smart Nation may be seen as Singapore's next water story, a concerted whole-of-government effort to harness technology to meet our needs.

Singapore is rolling out thousands of sensors across our urban infrastructure and building up data analytics capabilities to make sense of the information. Sensors in our transport system already provide real-time updates on areas of traffic congestion and carpark availability for better traffic flow.

In the future, we will achieve even greater mobility efficiency through Autonomous Vehicles, which we are piloting at Jurong Lake District and one-north.

We have introduced smart devices in new HDB flats to optimise lighting, irrigation and waste-removal systems, among others. For Smart Grids, we have test-bedded sensor analytics for real-time detection of faults and reduced energy waste.

And under our Green Building Programme, Singapore is developing technologies for energy-efficient buildings, including phase change materials which can cool buildings without electrical energy, and buildings that can convert waste heat to power air-conditioning.

In addition, we are also pioneering "More than Moore" world-leading technologies such as Advanced Wafer-level Packaging to drive better processing power. This is in recognition of the fact that even Gordon Moore has admitted that "Moore's Law will not continue forever".

Singapore is also investing in Future-of-Manufacturing technologies related to sustainability. Our Advanced Remanufacturing Technology Centre is a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership to develop capabilities that allow companies to extend the life of a product by restoring or improving its components. This is far less energy- and waste-intensive compared to traditional manufacturing processes.

Singapore thus has the opportunity to contribute to global solutions for sustainable urban growth in many areas. Indeed, Singapore was the highest ranked in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Asian Green City Index.

BEYOND SG@50

As Singapore celebrates SG@50, we are now in a much better position to realise our Smart Nation vision, compared to our water challenge earlier. Over the years, we have built up significant capabilities in our research to advance science and develop innovative technology to serve our needs.

In this effort, we join many other cities around the world to create solutions for better urban living and sustainability for our planet. Realising this vision will enhance the lives of Singaporeans and create many opportunities for Singapore. At the same time, it is also our way of making a difference to the wider global community of which we are very much a part of.

The writer is Chairman of A*STAR, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore's lead public sector agency that spearheads economic-oriented research to advance scientific discovery and develop innovative technology. He spent 23 years with the Singapore Armed Forces. He was Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Education from 2003 to 2007. He is a Council Member of the Science and Technology in Society forum and a Member of Japan's World Premier International Initiative Programme Assessment and Review Committee.

• This is the 20th and final essay in the SG+50: Future Trends 2065 series.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2015, with the headline 'Cities power the way into new epoch'. Print Edition | Subscribe