Seeking urban solutions that work

The invitation to global entrepreneurs and researchers to use Singapore as a test bed for solutions to urban challenges is a happily ironic commentary on how far the city-state has come in half a century. On independence, it survived by importing ideas on eking out a living without natural resources. It accepted the reality of plugging into global grids of supply and demand to keep the domestic economy humming. To do so, it measured itself against the best economic standards then available. So unexpected was its success in turning national necessity into international virtue that many have sought to draw insights from Singapore, although the country has no pretensions to being a model for others.

The nation's experiences in areas such as transport, healthcare and the needs of an ageing population could offer other cities ideas to chew on. Of course, these are not exclusively city issues. But the problems tackled by Singapore tend to be acute in urban concentrations. These often lack the spatial depth of rural areas that absorbs the growth of vehicular traffic relatively painlessly, or the extended family networks that make ageing less of a lonely process. By accelerating the pace of human history, cities reveal some of the keenest challenges of social discipline, harmony and cohesion.

Singapore's advantage here lies in its rapid transition to sustainable urban existence. It offers entrepreneurs the opportunity to test prototypes quickly and scale up projects. They can extrapolate the economic validity and social viability of their ideas to larger locales once they have tested them in the compact and predictable environs of a city that is also a state.

For example, the electronic road pricing formula is a way to balance the allure of private transport against the reality of scarce land resources. The goal is to reduce traffic congestion below the point where it threatens the economic and social quality of a nation's life.

Rapidly urbanising places might find value in Singapore's integration of full-fledged hospitals with step-down care as a way of optimising scarce medical and nursing resources, particularly for an ageing population. Water-purification technology would be another area of interest to countries. All but those with abundant water would wish to avoid scarcity that could lead to war in an ecologically-challenged world.

Countries must keep their own circumstances in mind while adapting Singaporean solutions to their local needs. What Singapore has to offer is the importance of embarking on and sticking to pragmatic policies that enable states to create realistic conditions for national development in an imperfect world.