With a commitment to sustainability and urban solutions that are transdisciplinary, transboundary and integrated, Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, which has set its sights on achieving the greenest university campus in the world, recently hosted the second S3 Singapore Sustainability Symposium. The symposium was attended by government leaders, academics and specialists from around the world to discuss sustainable city design.

The key themes that emerged over the two days will be presented to the global Mayor’s Forum in New York in June. Following is an informal summary of some of the major topics that were discussed.

Why Singapore?

Singapore is a state, city and island with a small land mass that will be dramatically affected by rising sea levels. Sustainability is part of Singapore’s identity since its founder, Lee Kwan Yew, insisted on a clean and green Singapore. Singapore invests heavily in green research and solutions to resolve its own challenges, creating an export business from its own successes.

Leone Lorrimer


Urbanisation is happening at an unprecedented rate. It is largely unplanned and lacking vital infrastructure. Jakarta has increased tenfold, from three million to 30m since 1970. India’s and China’s urbanisation is still in early phases. In China alone another 500m people are moving to cities.

Such massive urbanisation creates a tremendous demand for energy, food and water, further increased through high levels of waste. As the pressures come to bear the competition for resources will rise and the supply lines will come under pressure, resulting in a threat to food security and social stability.

The OECD is undertaking analysis of global value chains. How can cities secure their lines of supply? Where the supply lines are very local cities can work with their hinterlands to achieve security. When the supply lines are global then other factors come into play.

The inequity of climate change

Twenty-eight per cent of the world’s population uses 77 per cent of the energy. Climate change is already affecting cities; often the cities that are most affected are also poor, crowded and the least resilient.

The Stern Review demonstrated that doing nothing is a very expensive option.

The solution lies in decoupling economic growth from energy consumption. Actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change require a whole of government approach.

Changing demographics

There is an imbalance in population growth that may result in new migration patterns. Typically, developing countries have high birth rates, while developed countries have low birth rates. China’s paradigm of an economy based on cheap labour has shifted as a result of three generations of the one child policy.

The role of data

Real data is fundamental for decision-making and needs to be presented clearly. China has been setting up a common method of measurement, in order to quantify and compare and to form the basis for public consultation.

The public does not trust the statistics of paid consultants, so there is a role for independent information. Scientists present global trends, but they need to be translated so the local mayor can address local and regional climate change. You need the results from the scientists to establish your own vision, but then you develop specific local actions, step by step.

Statutory Planning

The Singapore Sustainable Blueprint provides an integrated framework for all agencies, includes water, food, energy, mobility and becoming a zero waste nation. Its aim is for every part of the economy to become progressively greener.

China is integrating Climate Change actions into the Statutory Planning System through the introduction of energy efficiency codes and green building assessment systems. The program also includes pilots for low carbon cities and provinces, a pilot city carbon trading scheme and city district demonstration projects.

India also recognises the importance of a regulatory framework in which input from all parts of community input is respected.

In Germany, the state of FrankfurtRheinMain has a target that all energy should be renewable from solar and wind sources by 2050; no oil or coal. Waste has already been reduced to five per cent.

Planning for sustainability requires a balanced approach encompassing mitigation and adaptation at a local planning level. It is important to have local champions, who are backed up by specific new regulations.

Engagement through collaboration

You have to have a bottom-up movement for green cities and green planning.

The Future Cities Collaborative, based at the University of Sydney, is engaging with mayors through study tours and workshops. A key success factor is establishing a neutral environment, informed by examples from outside their community, to create a fertile ground for discussion. Together they are creating green master plans that are very local (neighbourhood or a precinct). Through local engagement you can resolve the issues that lie behind a perceived problem to achieve quick change.

Financing CleanTech

Sustainable Development Technology Canada utilises over $1 billion of taxpayers’ money to fund clean technologies. A lot of the innovation comes from the small companies who are subjected to a very rigorous assessment process for funding, in turn attracting private sector investors. The growth rate of SDTC-seeded companies has proven to be twice the rate of non SDTC companies. Nearly 50 per cent of the capital for clean technologies now comes from outside Canada.

The volatility of the oil price has highlighted the risks of investment portfolios that are dependent on carbon intensive industries. From the business and risk management perspectives, the pension funds should be putting their investments into renewables.

Impact investing intentionally targets investment that has a positive social or environmental impact.

The Green Bonds Program in the US and internationally has been widely successful and is gaining traction. More recently in Australia Stockland’s release of Green Bonds has stirred the appetite for such schemes domestically.

Public transport and road infrastructure is a big part of the discussion in Australia, led by State and Federal Government. At the local level we are looking at value capture through transit oriented development and liveability. US funding models are being assessed.

Motivation for change: what are the incentives for behaviour change?

Vision: If you don’t have a vision for what you expect the future to be, people won’t understand.

Financial incentive: Humans are more sensitive to losses than gains. Their most sensitive organ is their wallet. The loss of something really triggers change – faster than a pleasant vision.

Penalties: The Dutch initiated change early by penalising people for wastage. Now The Netherlands has the greatest cleantech industries.

Solutions and actions

Changing the debate: The concept of planetary boundaries, with absolute hard limits to the earth’s capacity, raises equally hard questions. How does it divide up? How do we calculate our contribution?

Land use planning: Limiting the destruction of nature and the resumption of agricultural land for urban use requires land use planning with a 50-year horizon, a strong regulatory framework, enforcement and penalties. Informal penalties may include the use of social media to publicise companies that transgress.

Learning from nature: If you see nature as a means to be exploited not an end in itself you have a problem. Nature is a rich source of inspiration for the development of state of the art processing technologies: efficient, cost effective and resource effective. Engineers and ecologists are partnering to restore long-lived eco-systems, for example returning concrete canals to natural waterways, drawing on Australian examples.

Regenerative design: We can already achieve zero energy buildings; we are now targeting energy plus – buildings that generate energy for e-cars and e-bikes. The cost of sustainable initiatives in building is five per cent maximum. Sometimes it’s negative because the building generates revenue. The drivers for sustainability in buildings are legislation, incentives and technology.

City master planning: Overlaying circular transport networks onto historical radial networks allows our cities to become polycentric cities. The benefits include the alignment of employment and housing growth, reduction in commuter volumes and reduced need to build more transport infrastructure.

Reuse the cities we have: Build flexibility into buildings to allow for repurposing – car parks to offices, offices to hotels and residential.

Technology in cities: Three-dimensional urban planning enables better strategies for vertical separation of people and transit, value adding collocations and environmental modelling. Use smart things and big data to improve city operations and amenity.

Changing values: Millennials are more willing to share. The emergence of the shared economy has the potential to reduce the number of cars, hotels and household goods. People under 25 have a whole range of attitudes that are different.

Education: You have to solve sustainability with education. If the children understand you halve the future problems.

The next age – the Anthropocene: We have now entered the “Anthropocene” – the age when human activities will have a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.

Humans are good at responding to crises, but what happens when the crisis stops? The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.

Leone Lorrimer is chief executive of dwp|suters. She represented Australia at the S3 Singapore Sustainability Symposium along with Sandy Burgoyne, director, Future Cities Collaborative.