The masterplan for the 50ha Punggol Digital District, a centre for digital and cyber-security industries generating up to 28,000 digital economy jobs, is nothing if not ambitious. But that is how it should be. Hardware alone cannot create a mini Silicon Valley here, of course, as many factors come into play. But such investment signals commitment. The plans for Punggol are a part of the infrastructural legacy of Dr Goh Keng Swee, whose dangerously bold vision created Jurong Industrial Estate as a launchpad for Singapore's economic journey. Jurong had been termed "Dr Goh's folly" because its reach had appeared to exceed its grasp. But it succeeded by constantly staying ahead of the pack and by plugging the city-state into the opportunities offered by the physical globalisation of the exchange of goods and services. Since then, other areas have grown too. The financial district, for example, has expanded way beyond colonial Shenton Way, complementing the success of Jurong.
Today, the expansion of the digital universe is recreating more opportunities for Singapore, on a grander scale than before. The physical infrastructure will count in exploiting those opportunities.
To facilitate development, practices must be attuned to the new needs of the economy, like applying zoning rules - which affect land use and density - on a district level instead of on individual land parcels, giving developers more flexibility. Also important is the need to create seamless spaces in which people can live, work and play. Unlike the old economy's strictly structured work patterns, the digital economy is a 24-hour-long enterprise, seven days a week and 52 weeks a year. It privileges creativity, which cannot function without leisure and freedom being available in the midst of work routines.
To that end, Punggol's physical infrastructure is being designed to facilitate a sense of a place that unites the fields of home, office and leisure. As a part of efforts to build that ecosystem, the Singapore Institute of Technology's new campus will be in the district, giving students and faculty opportunities to exchange ideas with industry practitioners working there.
However, the supply-side amenities provided by planned proximity alone do not translate into digital creativity. That depends on the ability of Singaporeans to reinvent themselves as global citizens. Using Jurong as a template, they should view Punggol as a necessary step into an uncertain future. If anything, they have it easier than their forebears. Those Singaporeans were forced to take a bet on a hostile world. Today, the educational progress and accumulated national confidence of Singaporeans should propel them, particularly the young, into embracing the possibilities of the digital future by learning new skills, upgrading them, and staying relevant to the world.