by Tay Kheng Soon
Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that Singapore has to be constantly building and rebuilding itself. This is especially so now that Covid-19 is pressed upon us. All current governance ideologies and urban planning methodologies are challenged. This essay addresses this challenge in a multi-dimensional manner.
There are three key propositions this essay addresses. Firstly, the urban planning implications of social distancing. Secondly, the effect on the work culture and the impact on life and livelihood and finally the long-term economic implications on Singapore’s future.
Spatial and Planning Implications: Radicality becomes necessary
The biggest challenge to urban planning, economy and society is social-distancing to prevent cross-infection. This has multiple implications because most virologists think that the world has to learn to live with Covid-19, business, as usual, has to change. Liveability through planning we pride ourselves from now on cannot be just tweaking there has to be long-term thinking. Small incremental moves are just not good enough. This means that the current conservative administrative philosophy has to be radical and dynamic to make social distancing viable. This will take urban design and policy planning on many fronts.
Working at home will be more prevalent. This means a reduction in office occupancy in many downtown buildings. Building owners and their mortgager-bankers will have to make major adjustments to remain viable. In general, the rentier economy will take a hit. Their financial resources will have to be put to more productive use. Office buildings will have to retrofitted to become more residential and the CBD itself will change to become more of a livable place with all the amenities of life, shops, schools, community centres etc. The character of the CBD changes radically.
Seating in coffee shops and food courts will have to be spaced further apart. This means fewer customers. There will also have to be more coffee shops, food courts and more deliveries to match demand. Operating costs will go up as will food prices.
Classrooms will have to have fewer students so as to space them apart. This will mean more classrooms which in turn means more teachers which means more schools need to be built which means more land to be built on which in turn means less neighbourhood open spaces.
Tele-learning will be increasing too if fewer schools are to be built to economise. Independent learning at home will work well only if students are motivated. Un-motivated learners will need more supervision at home. Motivation will be a big challenge. Education itself will have to be more interesting once students are freed from the school regime. The work-study actualized learning model has to replace the standard book-based system for students and teachers alike. Active learning will have to displace passive learning, not a bad thing! The high-stress marks-based system of meritocratic accreditation becomes less compelling.
All of these will impact family life. Since most families have two working parents, one will have to stay at home to supervise the tele-learning kids. The total available workforce will be reduced.
It will affect employers. Employers will have to adjust just as families will too. More automation will thus have to be introduced into the workplace as well as in homes.
Supermarkets will need to thin down the crowd and therefore there will have to be more of them. Neighbourhood grocery shops will become more important. Home delivery services will increase a lot. Density and compact urban form are an advantage because it facilitates the viability and efficiency of deliveries.
Mass meeting places will thin down too. More tele-groupings will increase. The internet becomes much more used as the main interaction and mass communication means. As human face to face contact decreases, socializing will decrease, human stress will increase. This manifests in families. Family solidarity will be shaken.
Psychological distancing within families will have to evolve to cope with home stress. Interior space planning will have to change. More cosy small personal space will be required to cope with too much closeness. Conversely, more conducive family spaces will be needed but this will clash with work-space at home. For smaller flats, this will be problematic. A new concept of personalised outdoor space design will be needed as an alternative to providing respite. This might mean the creation of small sheltered outdoor spaces equipped with wi-fi.
What do all these mean in societal and spatial terms? Outdoor jobs will become more desired because it is a respite from indoor stress. The demand for such jobs will increase. This drives a shift in employment structure. The demand will be for well-paying and machine-assisted jobs to make light of such jobs. The economy will have to accommodate by evolving new viable job designs. Greater productivity through smart work with fewer people.
The requirement for foreign workers will thus decline as the local workforce productivity increases with technology and skills. A business will have to be incentivised by the State to make outdoor work viable and attractive for Singaporeans or face political backlash. Foreign Worker Dormitories meanwhile will be upgraded and congestion reduced so they do not remain disease incubators even as their numbers decline over the next number of years.
Responding to the above, what would it all look like?
The Implications of living and livelihood:
Imagine living in high rise residential towers on top of an interconnected multi-function podium that houses schools, offices, robotic factories, social and commercial and recreational facilities in the lower floors with a continuous landscaped roof deck for recreation, communal activities yet with many small privatized open spaces. Playgrounds and kindergartens bond adults with kids. Vertical travel is much more efficient than horizontal travel. Affordable autonomous cars are readily available on call nearby.
The need for distance travel is thus greatly reduced as working from home becomes normal. This will impact long-distance public transport companies and they will be less congested. Conversely, local travel will increase. The use of personal mobility devises on separate pathways will have to harmonize with foot traffic through regulation and design. Existing urban density is an added advantage to be built upon but with social distancing maintained through design and regulation.
Figure: live and work upstairs, shop, study, farm, play, eat and heal downstairs and have things delivered all made possible through new planning using stacking morphologies…
Advanced technology integrates work and learning for everyone. Large extended solar panels overhead keep the place cool yet generate energy for the large in-door farms located in the podium. Cross ventilation is a required new norm even for workplaces. Air conditioning is reduced. Where needed, the air conditioning system will have to be fitted with microfilters with built-in UV and electrostatic precipitators to trap dust and kill airborne viruses.
Urban farming for food security and be a source of gratifying work for the oldies helped along by enabling technology. They live upstairs and work downstairs. Fresh vegetables free of insecticides and super fresh fish will be available.
The interconnected podium linking neighbourhoods eventually connect the entire island turning it into a campus-like city for living, working, learning, farming, playing and healing. Linked together the podium is the Central Nervous System of the society. Everyone as they go about the routines of everyday life gains knowledge and develops interests. This is the basis for the oft-touted “Smart City” made real in human terms not just in technological terms.
Every developed society’s population stabilizes. People also live longer productive lives. The old assumption of the need for an enlarged population is obsoleted by higher productivity and with meaningful living. A more intelligent and skill-based population augmented by automation will increase productivity greatly. The raising of the regional economy offers new opportunities and markets. Prosper neighbours as smart. There are huge new untapped supply-chain opportunities.
This being the case, the physical transformation of the urban fabric is naturally needed for higher productivity and a higher quality of life. Older flats are thus progressively demolished and more public green spaces created within and around the new buildings. Compact stacked multifunction urbanisation means that land otherwise already built upon can be returned back to nature progressively through a deliberate policy to inter-link all existing pockets of nature to achieve zoonotic biodiversity. Eventually, this strategy will result in a nature web spread across the whole island. This is the new model for tropical urbanisation that Singapore can shine a light on the ‘normal’ kind of haphazard urban pattern we see everywhere.
To enhance this, all non-people related facilities such as data centres, power stations and desalination plants, airports, even some golf courses should be off-shored onto floating platforms linked to the main island by floating bridges. These free up more land for development and for nature. Imagine a web of interconnected human habitations in parallel with nature webs over the whole island.
The transformed economic role of Singapore:
At the macro level, the optimal configuration for commuting, logistics and transport between residential, industrial, commercial, research and education activities are all linked by state-of-the-art ICT. Singapore will actually be the foremost “Smart City” if it is capable of making a quantum leap in humanization and mechanisation.
Innovation and creativity will thus flourish, building on Singapore’s brand reputation and external networks. Singapore will then be the only country in which 80% of its labour force live in a new super productive yet beautiful and a state-of-the-art city with tremendous conviviality, buzz and vitality thanks to Covid-19’s catalytic effect on the State and its governing mindset.
The crisis only becomes opportunity with courage and imagination: change is not only necessary to cope with the challenges forced upon us by Covid-19 but it offers a challenge and opportunity to those who dare to make value-creation real thereby implementing
All these ideas need a new big strategic rethinking of the present Singapore model forced upon us by the Covid-19 crisis. Suddenly instead of tweaking, radical reform of everything is called for, from education to urban planning, to family life to the economy and to the restoration of the natural environment. All these suddenly become very urgent. They cannot be thought of in silos. They are all inter-related.
New visions are un-necessary when things are going well. In a crisis, suddenly we realise we cannot rely on just being a hub in the global supply chain, we have to be much more self–reliant and collaborative with local and regional energies, resources and how to globalize these. Regional friendships are most important. How to overcome negative legacy issues is key. I suggest through providing excellent education to the region thereby winning friends and influencing people.
Imagine having one million secondary school and higher education students from the best and brightest in ASEAN and the wider Asia living and learning here with our own students. Imagine what the life-long friendships formed between them and with their families can result in? Business and cultural ties throughout the region, ASEAN, Asia, eventually the World? This is Singapore’s key starting point to invest in the future. Coping with the effects of Covid-19 is necessary but it must also spur the mind to think bigger and long term.
Imagine the Greater Southern Waterfront turned into Asean University City!
At a ratio of 6 students to one tutor, there will be jobs for 170,000 tutors and professors, 17,000 administrative staff. Added to these another 50,000 scientists and researchers. This is at the upper levels of society. And “no one needs to be left behind.” There will be opportunities and jobs for everyone among our heart-landers.
The spin-offs from Education City will cascade down to support for an extensive local bed and breakfast economy, huge numbers of food outlets and restaurants, boost the provision of recreation, raise demand for laundry, housekeeping, logistics, and stimulate culture and the arts. In other words, jobs for everyone from top to bottom. Local talent blossoms in this new culture. Our young will be inspired by the new ethos of creativity and creative discourse. This is the start of a whole new local and regional economy and culture.
Singapore can take inspiration from Boston, USA, which has 35 universities and research institutions and is the most prominent centre of learning in the World. Imagine Singapore as the Boston of Asia leveraging off its clean, green and progressive branding image! It is do-able!
Such a vision has to be matched by viably transforming the physical urban structure made necessary because 80% of the population is locked into eroding HDB leases as values decline after the 50year mark. This is a reality that cannot be overlooked as Singapore transforms into a new stage. Addressing the eroding asset value of flats owned by older Singaporeans and creating a new class of cost-price BTO flats for young homeowners while protecting the value of the existing ones through a 50-year lease extension proposed in 2019 by Economist Yeoh Lam Keong, International Property Consultant Ku Swee Yong and myself and architect and planner is the residual issue that has to be addressed together with all the ideas earlier described. This is how complex and challenging the total transformation of Singapore Post Covid-19 is.
As Singapore proceeds with coping with Covid-19 the three-prong transformation proposed in this essay of:
- Urban planning for social distancing.
- Transformation of family and work culture.
- Becoming a new economy and becoming an Education City.
These are all aimed at transforming old legacy issues through innovations. Change is never easy. It takes a whole-of-nation effort through leadership, collective vision, solidarity and guts.
The lessons of the political turmoil in the US, UK and HK are because of the lack of vision, and the lack of social protection and lack of citizen stake in the economy. The 1% versus the 99% is untenable. Because of these, political legitimacy and stability have become fragile and easily the victim of racism, xenophobia, economic inequality which have all been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Discontent thus erupts. Social well-being and vitality of a fair social compact if not sufficiently safeguarded will be catastrophic. Singapore has thus far avoided this. Let it never happen…