Building cities with tips from nature ScienceTalk

Cities of Tomorrow can gain hugely from studying how natural ecosystems work

In some butterfly species, the vibrant colours that set them apart are produced not just by pigments, but also by light-interacting structures on the scales of their wings. Scientists are studying these nanostructures for ways to create optic effects
In some butterfly species, the vibrant colours that set them apart are produced not just by pigments, but also by light-interacting structures on the scales of their wings. Scientists are studying these nanostructures for ways to create optic effects for industrial use in, say, paints and coatings. PHOTO: COURTESY OF TEA YI KAI

Singapore is pumping in $150 million for a Cities of Tomorrow research and development (R&D) initiative that could serve as a blueprint for the nation's sustainable growth for the future.

Singapore is especially suited to be a role-model city, given its world-class research infrastructure, acclaimed city-in-a-garden setting and head start in urban sustainability R&D, with top facilities such as the Centre for Liveable Cities, Future Cities Laboratory and Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology.

The city-state has already exported its urban development expertise to the world, notably in countries such as China (Tianjin Eco-city) and India (Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh's new capital). Singapore is also a leader in water and greening technologies, such as NEWater, bioswales and skyrise gardening. The planned Cities of Tomorrow R&D scheme could spur even greater advances.


It is an exceptional opportunity to integrate our existing sustainable expertise, identify gaps and strategically invest in areas that need the most research impetus.

Boosting our urban development R&D capabilities to a completely different level could significantly fuel the domestic economy in new and diverse ways, and create marketable solutions for the rest of the world.

Parked under the larger $19 billion Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 vision, three broad areas of focus have been identified for the initiative: advanced construction and resilient infrastructure, new spaces that promote greater sustainability and, finally, urban environment analytics and complexity science for urban solutions.

What will be our ultimate benchmark for the City of Tomorrow, and how will R&D in the focus areas translate into this vision? Is a City of Tomorrow also a smart city?

The definition of a smart future city has vastly different interpretations around the world. New research suggests consensus that a man-made system can be called smart and futuristic when it approaches the performance standards of a living system that is dynamic and adaptable. The real challenge lies in how to make Singapore function like a living system.


One tool that can help think-tanks understand the genius of living systems and innovate systemically is called biomimicry - the practice of learning from and emulating nature's time-tested strategies.


  • Dr Anuj Jain is a tropical ecologist and engineer. He is the co-founder of the Biomimicry Singapore Network, specialising in biomimicry research, education and consulting. He has expertise in the ecology and conservation of butterflies and birds. He coordinates work on fighting the illegal wildlife trade via the BirdLife International partnership in Asia.

    He is the recipient of Joan Mosenthal DeWind Award, USA for Lepidoptera Conservation (2014) .

    Mrs Kirtida Mekani is an environmentalist, businesswoman and artist. She was the founding executive director of the Singapore Environment Council from 1993 to 1997 and serves on the board of the Garden City Fund Singapore.

    She has been involved in the Plant-a-Tree programme since its inception.

    She was awarded the President's Award for the Environment in 2015. She is an ardent advocate of biomimicry, promoting its awareness and adoption in Singapore and strongly believes that biomimicry is the path forward for science and engineering.

It is about learning from kingfisher's beaks to design better trains, studying scales on butterfly wings to create structural colours in paints and coatings, adopting design principles gleaned from rainforests in tropical architecture, and looking at the ecosystem functioning of natural habitats for ways to create a circular economy and zero waste.

Revisiting the focus areas through nature's lens can offer new insights and huge gains in innovation.

Perhaps jungle spiders can teach us about advanced construction techniques. Spider silk is elastic and strong, with five times the tensile strength of steel and triple that of the best synthetic fibres. A fibre inspired by spider silk would make excellent construction material.

Under the "new spaces" theme in the initiative, researchers are expected to develop tools to reduce the cost of underground developments, and to move warehouses and storage facilities underground.

Could we enhance strategies for underground living and development by learning from nature's deep-earth residents?

Nematodes (worms) can endure life deep beneath the earth's surface, having evolved to withstand heat, low oxygen levels and intense pressure.

Many underground animals such as earthworms have a hydrostatic skeleton with rings of muscles filled with fluid that provide resistance to pressure and flexibility in shape.

These organisms could give architects, engineers and designers clues about forms, patterns and structures likely to be the most efficient in underground systems.

The Housing Board plans to research predictive and proactive approaches to more efficiently maintain housing estates, using sensors, the Internet of Things and big data.

Perhaps we can include the mycelium network - the "Internet of the Earth" - among our research mentors and models for big data?

Also called the "Wood Wide Web", these networks are essentially fungus-like bacterial colonies that grow underground and connect plants through their roots.

They can reach massive proportions - one such network has been documented to be larger than 1,600 football fields and more than 2,200 years old.

These information highways transport carbon or nutrients from plants of high resource availability to ones facing less favourable conditions, benefiting the overall health of the ecosystem and increasing its resilience. Isn't that what we are seeking to achieve?

Answers for Singapore's sustainability innovation might, after all, lie in better understanding and learning from our rich natural heritage.

Learning from nature through biomimicry presents a win-win scenario for Singapore because it allows us to build on our urban greening strengths - going beyond preserving nature, beyond making urban spaces look green, to learning from nature's innovation for better, more sustainable ways to do business.

Such an approach could be adapted locally and be low-energy, just like nature, and prove itself in the long haul. After all, life has experimented and sustained itself on this planet for 3.8 billion years - man's industrial revolution is only 250 years old.


More than ever, biomimicry could be fitting and timely for Singapore.

Worldwide, innovation cycles have become shorter, and the global innovation space has become increasingly crowded.

The Natural Edge Project, a sustainability think-tank in Australia, sees the sixth wave of global innovation coming from the fields of renewable energy, industrial ecology, holistic system design, radical resource productivity, green chemistry and biomimicry, which will play a central role in integrating multidisciplinary innovation.

Other global cities are already embracing biomimicry. The Centre for Architecture in New York is developing zero-waste guidelines with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The guidelines are led by Ms Clare Miflin, a biomimicry practitioner and a collaborator in the Biomimicry Singapore Network.

Similarly, Lintott Architects in Victoria, Canada, is working to integrate the ecological performance standards of natural habitats in the built environment.

Exploration Architecture has designed several biomimicry projects, such as the Mountain Data Centre in Norway, with air-cooling distribution vents that mimic branching patterns in leaves based on the principles of Murray's law - the most efficient way to distribute fluids in nature.

Malaysian ecoarchitect Ken Yeang has designed bioclimatic buildings all over South-east Asia based on ecological principles.

Biomimicry is also happening in Singapore in miniature ways and organically. For example, researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design and Nanyang Technology University are studying biological desalination mechanisms in the roots of mangrove plants to create a biomimetic design for desalinating seawater.


To nurture young tech entrepreneurs, the Singapore Government is already investing in building start-up infrastructure by creating incubation spaces such as the JTC LaunchPad@one-north. Such spaces are ideal for the cross-pollination of ideas. Last year, technology start-ups brought US$3.5 billion (S$4.8 billion) in investments into the country.

The question is whether we can push this success to the next level by providing an infrastructure for "out of the box" sustainability thinking. Are we ready to systematically embrace this new way of thinking? Perhaps, we should ask, can we choose not to be ready?

Singapore has already championed tropical urban greenery.

We are now recognised as one of the world's most biodiverse cities. Can we also be champions in innovation from nature in the tropics, and spur a new generation of nature-inspired entrepreneurship? We will need to inculcate a practice of viewing nature as our classroom - a model, a measure and a mentor.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2017, with the headline Building cities with tips from nature ScienceTalk. Subscribe