Can creativity unravel Singapore's population squeeze?
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Can creativity unravel Singapore's population squeeze?

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Imagine waterfront living inside a huge windmill. An architectural firm in Rotterdam has designed a huge structure that is essentially a wind turbine, but also doubles up as an apartment block and hotel for the city’s residents. The wind turbine is located at the centre of the structure, and works noiselessly to create electricity through wind and water. 

Closer to ground, a shopping mall is powered by human traffic, through floor tiles that convert every step into electricity. This may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but the tiles have actually been tested out in shopping malls, schools and even music festivals in Europe and the UK.

Ideas like these best articulate the future of urban planning and growth, and are fast becoming a reality.  Across the globe, urban planners, researchers and governments are pushing the boundaries to create innovative solutions that optimise space and resources in cities, and revolutionise city living.

Singapore is no exception. We too need innovative solutions that tackle the problem of limited space and resources, and improve the quality of life by creating beauty in constraint.

People are the key to growth and innovation

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Human capital, the skills and knowledge of people, translates into economic growth.  In Singapore, we have always invested in people, and have reaped the benefits. Our population was 5.6 million in 2015, up from 2.1 million in 1970. In tandem, GDP per capita, a measure of a country’s prosperity, grew from S$690 per person in 1965  – the same level as Mexico and South Africa to S$77,380 in 2015 – comparable to Germany and the United States. From the back of the pack, Singapore has progressed to become one of the leading economies in the region.

Singapore’s economic growth has also benefitted individuals and households. Incomes have grown consistently over the past decade – real growth in median monthly household income was 15.3% from 2005-2010, and 20.4% from 2010-2015 – allowing Singaporeans today to enjoy one of the best standards of living in the world, comparable to developed countries such as Finland and the US.

Densely populated cities may create challenges … but there are many positive externalities of densely populated areas.

Having the right people and in sufficient numbers is one part of the equation, but something special happens when these people are in proximity to each other. While some may think of cities as simply unpleasantly dense places, Harvard Economist Edward Gaesler argues that cities are mankind’s greatest invention, because close proximity between people can make cities hotbeds of ideas fuelled by myriad opportunities for face-to-face interaction and collaboration.

Densely populated cities may create challenges for urban planners but there are many advantages of densely populated areas: lower density and suburban living may mean people need to travel far for any activity such as buying groceries or eating out at a restaurant. Research has indicated that this likely has an impact on carbon emissions. For businesses such as supermarkets, restaurants, and movie halls to thrive and reach a point of critical mass, a certain level of urban density is crucial. Such factors add to the vibrancy of lifestyle options for residents as well.

Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that innovation thrives in cities, and that total productivity and per capita productivity could go up simply by having people close to each other.

The twin dilemmas of population growth and urban density

Given Singapore’s ageing society and  low fertility rates, our  immigration policies need to balance between providing the economy with much-needed manpower and managing the pressures of congestion and growing diversity on the island.

In and of itself, increasing population density has a ripple effect on public spaces, including hospitals, schools, houses and even green spaces that families can enjoy. If not managed well, it could place more pressure on infrastructure and impact the provision of essential services such as hospital beds, public transport and housing.

When we also consider that a large part of population growth comes from immigration and foreign workforce, an additional set of issues emerges. Perceptions of increased competition for jobs and disregard for social norms by newcomers. This has led to concerns and criticism of Singapore’s population policies.

While tightening immigration might appease some, this comes at a cost. The current immigration policy means that Immigrants tend to be in prime working age or younger, and no immigration also means that our existing workforce will age and start shrinking in the next decade..

Singapore is certainly not the only country facing the need to take in migrants to keep the workforce and population from declining, while grappling with the potential downsides of this approach. The United Nations Population Division (UNPD) has projected that Japan and virtually all countries in Europe will see a decrease in their population size over the next 50 years, and will have to implement solutions for population replacement.

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In addition, Singapore faces unique constraints as a city-state, which heightens our experience of the population bind. In countries such as the US or Canada, residents unhappy with living in dense cities can opt to move to less crowded suburbs, or live in neighbourhoods where everyone is of the same ethnic background. This is not possible in Singapore. There will not be much difference in density moving from Bishan to Paya Lebar, or even to Sengkang. In Singapore, intermixing and living alongside people from diverse backgrounds is a fact of life.

Thus the challenge for Singapore is manifold: to maintain a quality living environment as population density intensifies, and to ensure that Singapore society and identity is resilient and retains its unique character, yet adaptable enough to accommodate rich cultural diversity.

It is also not solely about whether or not to limit population growth. There are other questions to consider – how do we keep an ageing Singapore a vibrant one and a place where we can chase our dreams and are proud to call home? If population growth is a necessity, how can its negative impact be minimised? Could other countries show the way?

In this context, people are beginning to ask and act: how can we balance our need for a sufficiently large workforce and the skill sets to support the economy, while continually maintaining a high quality of life?

Smart Solutions for Cities

Some of the best urban planners, architects and even astrophysicists from around the world are trying to create sustainable solutions for our cities.  ‘Smart cities’ is very much the buzzword – it encapsulates a range of solutions for cities, with the single goal of creating an enhanced quality of life for residents.

Megacities such as New York, Moscow and Tokyo are piloting innovative solutions in the way they design their buildings, using space creatively and efficiently to offer a sense of openness. New York is particularly at the cutting edge of using digital technologies to monitor urban life, air and water quality in the emerging science of cities. Glasgow's Future Cities initiative includes projects such as using big data to manage crime, and experimenting with self-regulating city lights.

Another initiative that is getting some traction is the concept of shared or multi-use spaces. A parking lot at Miami Beach doubles up as a venue for yoga classes and parties; and New Yorkers have a genuine affection for the High Line (pictured), an old elevated railway track that has been repurposed into an oasis in the heart of Manhattan.


Urban water management – getting clean water to all residents – is an important quality life indicator with public health implications. Smart water management models use sensors in sewage pipes to improve water management. A private company in Queensland, Australia managed to reduce water losses by 1 billion litres in a year. Singapore itself is at the forefront of water management in terms of recycling and harvesting rain water.

In North America, the use of urban management tools such as density bonuses has also been documented. This fosters better neighbourhoods by allowing developers to build beyond the current acceptable limits provided that the project yields public benefits, such as better housing mix, or supplying the area with community-wide facilities.

There is no quick-fix

The story on Singapore’s people is still unfolding and evolving.

Managing population growth is a balancing act between driving economic growth and ensuring a high quality of life for all people. Continued labour productivity enhancements could change this relationship. Government bodies such as the National Productivity Council are pushing the envelope on productivity measures to achieve a 2 to 3 percent growth rate in labour productivity from 2009 to 2019. This can be an ambitious target for some sectors, and would require extensive changes and innovations in how businesses function. But higher productivity would help reduce the demand from businesses for more manpower growth (and hence population growth) to keep our economy going strong.

Singapore is already considered one of the most innovative cities in the world in how we manage our HDB towns, traffic flows and manage our water. If we keep the horizon of possibilities open and stay creative, Singapore can find ways to maintain a healthy level of growth, while still remaining a good island home.

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