Covid-19 pandemic presents rare opportunity to reinvent cities, says Heng Swee Keat

A key takeaway from the pandemic is the need to develop cities that are resilient, sustainable and liveable, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.
A key takeaway from the pandemic is the need to develop cities that are resilient, sustainable and liveable, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Cities may have taken a hit because of Covid-19, but they will continue to remain relevant and attract people, and the pandemic presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine the cities of tomorrow, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Monday (June 21).

He added that the pandemic has reinforced the value of building liveable cities, which are also resilient and not just efficient.

"I believe cities will remain powerful magnets, bringing people together to explore, learn, create, and interact with one another. Urbanisation will remain a powerful force driving growth post-Covid-19," Mr Heng said at the World Cities Summit.

Around the world, cities emptied out and became quieter during the pandemic, with people leaving for the countryside to escape the high population densities and concentration of activities that increased the risk of coronavirus infection.

But Mr Heng, in his keynote speech at the summit, said the reality is far more complex and nuanced, and different cities were affected to different degrees.

"Population densities matter, but other factors such as access to quality healthcare, trust in government, and compliance with safe management measures matter just as much, if not more," he added.

A key takeaway from the pandemic is the need to develop cities that are resilient, sustainable and also liveable, he said.

The pandemic is a sharp reminder that countries must work together to better respond to complex global challenges like climate change. Cities will play a critical part in any solution, as they account for more than half the world's population and 70 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

More broadly, he said, Covid-19 has reinforced the value of building liveable cities, which go beyond resilience and sustainability.

"Liveability is fundamentally about people - enabling people to flourish, and improving their quality of life," he added.

"This includes fair and inclusive access to basic necessities, such as clean water, sanitation and affordable housing. And the good redesign of spaces, including indoor and common spaces, to enhance the health and well-being of residents."

He offered three suggestions on how to build such cities of tomorrow.

First, to push the bounds of urban liveability and sustainability, people will need to innovate, he said.

Governments will need to explore new possibilities in how to plan and run cities, for instance bringing work and amenities closer to homes, to reduce the need for people to commute, and integrating green spaces within urban landscapes, he said.

Singapore has already started to build polycentric cities and is on track to making sure that every household will be within a 10-minute walk to a park by 2030, and the pandemic has given fresh impetus to these efforts, he added.


Singapore is on track to making sure that every household will be within a 10-minute walk to a park by 2030. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Apart from shifts in urban planning, innovative solutions will also be needed to make cities more sustainable and resilient, he said, and this will require investing in research and development.

He added that Singapore has a US$19 billion (S$25 billion) Research, Innovation, and Enterprise plan for its R&D efforts over the next five years, and one major focus is on urban solutions and sustainability, to ensure that Singapore's highly built-up environment remains climate-resilient and liveable.

One example of this effort is a project called "Cooling Singapore", to explore the use of cool paints and reflective glass coatings, among other things, to cool down the country, which is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world because of global warming and the urban heat island effect.

"The solutions developed will be useful not only for reducing urban heat in Singapore, but also for cities around the world," he added.

Second, to build liveable and sustainable cities post-Covid-19, countries will need to invest in transport, telecommunications, social and digital infrastructure, and the flow of capital across borders will need to be improved to meet the financing needs, said Mr Heng.

Even prior to Covid-19, there was recognition of the infrastructure financing gap in many cities, and in Asia alone, the Asian Development Bank had estimated an infrastructure gap of US$1.7 trillion per year till 2030, he noted.

To help bridge this gap, Singapore has set up Infrastructure Asia - to facilitate the flow of funds and expertise into Asia, said Mr Heng.


In Asia alone, the Asian Development Bank had estimated an infrastructure gap of US$1.7 trillion per year till 2030. PHOTO: REUTERS

Another important aspect to this is to catalyse green financing, he added, and Singapore accounts for over one-third of the sustainability-linked loan market in the Asia Pacific today.

He also suggested nature-based solutions for carbon abatement, to complement efforts to introduce cleaner and more efficient use of energy in cities, noting that South-east Asia is home to the largest blue carbon stock in the world, with the largest areas of mangrove swamps and seagrass meadows in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Mr Heng said the region would need to attract investments to realise the potential of the carbon stock, and one way is to develop vibrant exchanges for the trading of carbon credits.

Singapore will do its part by launching a global carbon exchange - "Climate Impact X" - later this year, he added.

Third, countries will need to better integrate their efforts using one another's strengths to build more sustainable and liveable cities, said Mr Heng.

He urged countries to build on the unprecedented level of information sharing and cooperation in science and technology sparked by the pandemic.

For instance, he said countries should work to harmonise data standards to facilitate the growth of the digital economy, and cities can also build networks of collaboration to prototype ideas across different contexts, such as in the Smart City partnership between Singapore and Shenzhen to pilot paperless cross-border trade.

Concluding his speech, Mr Heng said: "Covid-19 has disrupted our way of life, especially in cities. But I believe cities are here to stay. Cities will remain the best venues for humans to explore, learn and interact, to flourish as individuals and to collaborate and achieve more, together."

Knowledge, trust to aid recovery

Later, in a dialogue moderated by Ambassador-at-large Ong Keng Yong, Mr Heng was asked to comment on the result of a straw poll of event attendees, which asked which factor was most critical for cities to emerge more resilient and sustainable.

Nearly half of respondents selected “public support and a whole-of-society” approach, while “political will” drew the next highest number of votes, followed by financial and technological resources, and lastly, regional and international collaboration.

Mr Heng agreed with the number one pick but noted that all the factors were correlated. The importance of technology, for example, can be seen in the Covid-19 response, he added.

“If not for the amount of R&D work that had been done over the last many, many years, where we understand what a genome is about… there’s no way we could have vaccines in their current form,” said Mr Heng, referring to the mRNA technology used to make the body produce a protein as a shield against the disease.

He was also asked how cities could speed up their recovery from a disruptive event like the pandemic.

Mr Heng said it was key to expect and prepare for more frequent disruptions - and to learn from past crises. “To assume that the future is just like the good old days will be totally unrealistic and I will say irresponsible,” he noted.

The Deputy Prime Minister then highlighted two major areas to work on: Advancing society’s knowledge overall, and deepening the people’s trust in authoritative sources of information.

Citing the online spread of pandemic falsehoods on the virus’ origins and vaccines, Mr Heng said: “I’m all for good scientific debate… but it is dangerous when people exploit social media to purvey their own misguided views and hope to turn it to some political advantage.

“Social media companies must take responsibility for their business,” he added. 

“In a pandemic like this… good, accurate information is quite critical to the response - not just of you and I, but really of everyone in the world.”