The science of sustainability: NUS Cities Symposium delves into the art of liveable cities

With its tall pillars and smooth concrete walls, SDE 4 looks more like an industrial-chic hotel than a school. Perched on a hill in the College of Design and Engineering (CDE), the building overlooks lush greenery and features landscaped balconies, a tropical portico, and refreshingly open spaces. 

Beyond being beautiful, it is also Singapore’s first net-zero energy building. Launched in 2019, it has more than 1,200 solar photovoltaic panels on its rooftops, as well as a mixed-ventilation design that allows it to cool air while reducing energy consumption.

“Our campus is a living lab to test-bed technologies to create innovative learning experiences and environments, which in turn empowers our students to engage in sustainable solution-making,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye at the inaugural annual NUS Cities Symposium on 31 Aug 2023.

Over time, he added, such innovation translates into tangible effects on cities.

With challenges rearing their heads – from the urban heat island effect to rising sea levels – there is no time to waste in making cities more sustainable and liveable. The question of how to do so was front and centre at the symposium, a key event in the five week-long NUS Sustainability CONNECT festival.

Themed “The Science of Cities”, the symposium brought together public and private sector leaders, academics, and students over two days to discuss how to advance a science-based approach to the future of city living.

Bringing solutions from lab to life

Taking a science-based approach to challenges is especially important in Singapore, which faces perennial issues like land scarcity, limited resources, and a rapidly ageing society.

Such solutions are already being implemented to make the city state more sustainable and liveable, said Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Finance and National Development, who was Guest-of-Honour at the symposium. In her speech, she cited the Singapore Land Authority’s Virtual Singapore, a digital model of the island that can simulate urban planning solutions.

“Given Singapore’s constraints, we need to adopt a long-term perspective, integrate knowledge and expertise from across sectors, and have good urban governance,” she stressed.

Similar attitudes must be adopted at sea. As a maritime nation, Singapore is already helping to turn the tide on climate change by supporting the decarbonisation of the shipping industry.  

In July 2023, the world’s first ship-to-containership methanol bunkering operation was successfully conducted in the island’s waters. In his address, Mr Teo Eng Dih, Chief Executive of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), noted that institutes of higher learning contributed predictive modelling technology to the effort, working with government agencies such as A*STAR to determine the exclusion zone around the operation. This helped maintain safety amid the handling of a highly flammable substance like methanol.

More opportunities are on the horizon. “We are looking forward to expanding the PIER71 programme through our green and digital shipping corridors to Asia, Europe, and the United States,” said Mr Teo. PIER71 is a collaboration between MPA and NUS that gathers tech entrepreneurs to create solutions to maritime challenges.

Universities as incubators

Beyond government agencies, universities can drive sustainable and science-based innovation in the private sector, as discussed during the panel discussion on “Universities as Sustainability Incubators”.

“There is an atmosphere of exploration and innovation in universities – they are much more holistic in their view of things,” said Mr Leonard Ng, Country Market Director Asia Pacific of architecture firm Henning Larsen. In contrast, private companies need to watch their bottom line.

Universities are ideal partners for businesses looking to incubate ideas and bring them into the commercial space.

Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, for instance, was the product of collaboration between public, private, and academic circles. Launched in 2012, it features innovations such as replacing a storm drain with a winding river. 

Universities also have the advantage of size. “NUS is a mini-city of 40,000 people,” said Professor Khoo Teng Chye, Director of NUS Cities, who moderated the discussion. “It gives us a tremendous opportunity to do a lot more experimentation.”

Boundaries can be pushed further, even if it is just to think of more places to put solar panels. “We can be short of resources, but we cannot be short of ideas,” quipped panellist Mr Koh Yan Leng, Vice President of Campus Infrastructure.

Converting academic knowledge into ideas that can gain traction in the public and commercial sectors will be critical, noted Mr Teo of MPA. Equally vital is encouraging discourse among the younger generation, as well as building their resilience to failure.

“If you want to be innovative, there is no track record (of success),” said Mr Ng. “Some ideas fail. But those companies that succeed get first-mover advantage.”

Younger generation speaks up

Building liveable cities is also a long-term project to be carried on by the next generation, as exemplified by students sharing their work in the “Sustainability: Next Generation’s Views” student panel.

While the five student panellists acknowledged that there was plenty to be pessimistic about, this has not stopped them from taking meaningful action. Undergraduate Chloe Ng from CDE, who is taking a Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering, shared how she used software engineering to propose solutions to tackle flooding in the Orchard area.

Jefferson, who is pursuing a Master’s in Sustainable and Green Finance, talked about his work studying green buildings and biofuels.

The panellists, whose fields of study ranged from civil engineering to urban planning to cultural studies, shared one thing in common: a passion for advancing sustainability in cities. Conceptually, some are going even further.

“Sustainability is about protection and restoration,” said Ruchi Bhatia, who is pursuing a part-time Master’s in Integrated Sustainable Design. “Regeneration goes beyond sustainability – it’s about trying to enhance the ecosystem.”

Even as they discussed tomorrow’s solutions, they agreed that attitudes need to change today. At the heart of sustainable living is learning to lead simpler lives and consume less – as suggested during the next day’s panels on climate resilience and the circular economy.

Building a city where living things thrive can be a tall order. But if there was one thing the symposium made clear, it was that there is still plenty to be hopeful about.