Singapore’s big plans for the future as growth slows

As its economy lags and its people age, Singapore plans to upgrade its digital workforce and prepare for climate change.

BB Singapore skyline offices
Singapore is pouring money into ideas that could define the way cities are built and run in future, making it a test bed for urban innovation [Brent Lewin/Bloomberg]

Singapore rose to be one of the world’s most advanced cities by using its position as a trading hub to attract technology and investment. Now, caught in the squalls of a shift in global trade and technological change, the nation is pouring money into ideas that could define the way cities are built and run in future, making it a test bed for urban innovation.

The island has few natural resources, hardly any land and faces many of the challenges that beset bigger developed nations such as Germany and Japan — an aging society, resistance to immigration, reliance on global trade. More than a third of the nation’s exports go to Greater China or the U.S., putting it on the front line in the trade war and battering its latest export figures.

Economists now see Singapore growth in 2019 around 1.4%, down from 2.2% in June, according to a Bloomberg survey.

On the other hand, Singapore offers political stability — one party has ruled since independence — world-class transportation and infrastructure, a strong financial system, low crime rates, and a location in the center of some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Here are some of the ways the “little red dot” is trying to get ahead in the race to create the city of the future and reinvigorate its economy.

1. Green Skies

With 5.6 million people on an island half the size of Houston, Singapore’s urban plan has long been to build up. Most citizens live in high-rise public housing developments that are up to 50 stories tall. As space runs out, the city is also putting more unusual amenities in the air.

As well as the world’s highest infinity pool at its iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel, Singapore has rooftop football pitches, parks, vegetable gardens and even a farm with chickens and ducks. The city’s prized pangolins and other animals can scamper across a 62-meter (203-foot) “ecological bridge” connecting two nature reserves without being flatted by the traffic on the six-lane highway below.

But the greening of Singapore’s buildings goes beyond a space constraint. The 160-foot high Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay, or the plant-swathed Parkroyal Hotel in the central business district are part of a plan by the city state to create a “vertical green city.”

The National Parks Board pledged in 2009 to foot the bill for half of installation costs of rooftop and vertical greenery. The aim is to help cut carbon emissions by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030 and by the same time to produce 30% of the city’s nutritional needs locally.

2. Silver Surfers

Step aside, millennials. “It’s not a matter of age — it’s a matter of attitude.”

So says Tan Su Shan, group head of institutional banking at DBS Group Holdings Ltd. Southeast Asia’s largest bank wants its senior employees to be at the forefront of training in new digital initiatives.

The bank has hired and trained 80 iPad-toting seniors to assist elderly clients navigate digital banking, said Yeo Wenxian, head of DBS & POSB branch banking. Last year, DBS launched a health and payment program for seniors, complete with a “Smart Sleeve” device that can track daily steps and make everyday payments.

Singapore’s median age is set to rise to 46.8 by 2030 from 39.7 in 2015, making the populace more than a decade older than the global median, according to United Nations projections. The government has responded with an array of programs for older citizens, from fitness groups in local parks, to “digital clinics” at community centers for those who want to master smartphone skills.

It won’t all be fun though. A longer life will soon mean a longer working life after the government announced it will raise the minimum retirement age from 62.

3. Automation Nation

A limited population with higher wages and fewer young people entering the workforce equals robots. Singapore has its very own micro-city to test autonomous vehicles and a new program for delivering baggage at the city’s award-winning international airport — two symbols of just how much it’s betting big on robotics.

The nation’s first robot masseuse, Emma, from AiTreat Robotics started work almost two years ago now and Changi airport’s autonomous cleaners, developed by local manufacturer LionsBot International with the Singapore University of Technology and Design, will fan out across the island by year’s end.

The airport’s automated baggage handlers, developed by ground-handling firm SATS Ltd., are being tested and aim to deliver cargo to and from planes in as little as 10 minutes.

4. Weather or Not

One solution to climate change is to make your own climate.

The city state’s late founding leader, Lee Kuan Yew, liked to keep things cool in the equatorial nation and today the city’s air-conditioned skyscrapers are increasingly connected via mazes of underground passages that keep pedestrians clear of the blistering heat and sudden downpours.

Climate control isn’t just for humans. The Cloud Forest biome pampers venus flytraps and eerie epiphytes in a misty world enclosed by 12,000 square meters of glass, including its own Lost World at the top of the dome. Changi’s vast Jewel shopping mall has a similar science-fiction feel, with airport trains zipping along raised tracks around the world’s tallest indoor waterfall.

The nation’s ambitions to control nature go beyond chilling out, though. The city has constructed barrages across the mouths of its main rivers to keep out the sea and create reservoirs of fresh water. And 15 minutes’ drive from the bustling business district, it has built a massive detention tank that can divert 15 Olympic pools’ worth of water to prevent flooding from the nation’s frequent dowpours, operated by automated sensors.

5. Long Vision

In a smartphone-addicted world it’s no surprise that Singapore is spending billions on fostering digital technology startups and research.

The government plans to build a digital district in the northern suburb of Punggol, where technology companies, startups and the Singapore Institute of Technology can share work spaces to try to foster innovation. It would have a central delivery point for goods to reduce traffic, centralized building management and a district-wide underground vacuum-pipe network to collect waste without trucks.

As a major financial center, one of the focuses of innovation is fintech, and the Monetary Authority of Singapore is doing its part. Officials have created “regulatory sandboxes” that allow selected fintech firms to test out innovations alongside their regulators. Every November it throws a sort of industry party: the FinTech Festival, which attracted 45,000 attendees in 2018, about 50% more than the previous year.
The approach of trying to incubate technology firms from government organizations has even spawned one that’s trying to get people to use technology less.

Plano came from a project led by founder Mo Dirani at the Singapore Eye Research Institute. With 5 billion people predicted to suffer from myopia by 2050, Dirani’s app is designed to warn parents and modify the behavior of children to stop them from being glued to their phones. That would be a breakthrough indeed.

Source: Bloomberg