Article

Encouraging Innovation for A More Sustainable Built Environment

Successful sustainable development demands not just technical innovation but also new models of collaboration between the private and public sectors.

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Date Posted

24 Nov 2022

Issue

Digital Issue 9, 24 Nov 2022

In light of climate concerns, there has been a move towards more sustainable development, and growing interest in innovative technologies to help achieve this in the built environment. However, a number of challenges hinder these innovations from being implemented more broadly on a commercial scale.

First, innovative technologies are often seen as riskier or more costly to adopt, requiring higher upfront capital expenditure (CapEx). This can deter risk-averse investors or developers who are not sure if they can realise benefits over the lifecycle of longer-term sustainability projects.

Second, many residential projects are undertaken on a develop-and-sell system. This means that developers are often not the eventual building owners, and do not benefit from the lifecycle cost savings from improved sustainability performance. At the same time, buyers of such projects are seen as less willing to pay more for greener buildings.1

Despite these challenges, a number of projects in Singapore have applied novel approaches to successfully incorporate or scale up sustainable urban solutions.


Innovative technologies are often seen as riskier or more costly to adopt.

Building an Effective Public-Private Partnership for Innovation

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) can play an important role in mitigating risks and upfront investment costs when adopting sustainable technologies.

In Singapore, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) has been a pioneer in providing eco-friendly and innovative features for smart and sustainable living, and plays a critical role in leading innovation as part of its core sustainability strategy.

To mitigate technical risks, the HDB set up the Centre of Building Research (CBR) to spearhead research and development (R&D) efforts in building and environmental sustainability. New innovative technologies are then piloted in its public housing projects, which then offer insights towards effectively scaling up such innovations across Singapore. Successful pilots also help to assuage concerns from the private sector on the viability of sustainability technologies at scale. In some cases, the HDB also offers private sector partners the opportunity and space to test innovation projects.

Financially, the HDB shares business risks with the private sector partners by co-investing in sustainable infrastructures, such as Centralised Cooling Systems (CCSs) and solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. At the same time, partnering with the HDB helps to build market demand and economies of scale for such innovations, which drives down costs for potential technology adopters. Innovations in business models can help to encourage the uptake of sustainability technologies by transferring the risks of innovation from the building owner and consumer to the solution provider, while ensuring financial viability.


Successful pilots help to assuage concerns from the private sector on the viability of sustainability technologies at scale.

Implementing a Centralised Cooling System (CCS)

The HDB partnered with SP Group to implement a CCS for Tengah Town to provide energy-efficient cooling to homes.

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Such approaches support the industry in developing its capabilities. They were key to the scaling up of HDB’s solar PV system implementation efforts in a financially sustainable manner. The success of the solar leasing model led to the creation of the SolarNova programme in 2014.

Encouraging Greater Innovation_Sunseap

Under the SolarNova Programme, Sunseap installs solar panels across Singapore.
Source: Sunseap

Scaling Up Deployment of Solar PV Systems through a Solar Leasing Model

Although Singapore had strategically pushed for solar PV systems since 2007, the cost of installing and maintaining solar PV systems remained a significant barrier to scaling up their adoption.

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Innovative Operations and Behavioural Change

Innovative approaches in building operations can stimulate the uptake of sustainability technologies and encouraging behavioural change.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) School of Design and Environment 4 Building (SDE4) is Singapore’s first new-build net-zero energy building. It began operating in January 2019. As a developer-owner-operator, NUS oversaw the conceptualisation, development and operation of its new campus infrastructure. This encouraged it to adopt a holistic lifecycle approach, translating ambitious goals into an optimised design, facilitating sustainable downstream operations and performance.


Innovative approaches in building operations can stimulate the uptake of sustainability technologies and encouraging behavioural change.

Singapore’s First New-Build Net-Zero Energy Building

The NUS took the unconventional path of procuring the design for SDE4 through an international competition in 2013.

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Conclusion: Key Lessons

In seeking to commercialise sustainability solutions, the built environment sector is critical. The examples above highlight the potential for adopting sustainability innovations in Singapore. They also suggest insights on how they might be scaled up further or deployed elsewhere.

1. An effective partnership framework among government agencies, developers and solution providers can create enabling conditions for innovations to take place. First, it allows the sharing of risks among the various players in the urban solutions space. Second, it provides a platform and opportunity to experiment with innovative business models and novel sustainability solutions—from pilots to limit technological risks, to deployment at scale with the necessary adjustments or further investments. Third, it can make use of regulatory sandboxing for proof-of-concept trials, and to gain user buy-in that can go a long way in building market demand for such technologies.

2. Business model innovation lowers the barriers to deploy sustainability technologies by balancing the risks between the building owner and the solution provider. It can allow for a palatable level of risk-sharing between public sector developers and urban solution providers, as seen with the deployment of the CCS in Tengah and solar PV systems for the SolarNova programme.

3. Taking a long-term view to account of longer-term returns for investments for large-scale sustainability solutions, with an appropriate contingency plan, is vital. In some cases, long service contracts may provide sufficient time for solution providers to recoup high CapEx costs and become profitable. At the same time, there is a need for a contingency plan for different stages of the contract, and some degree of flexibility for termination, if critical conditions are not fulfilled.

4. Designing for optionality can allow for upgrades over the lifetime of use. Business models and contracts should be designed to incentivise solution providers to upgrade their infrastructures as technology advances. This helps to push solution providers to continue innovating to remain competitive and achieve better sustainability performance to increase their profits.

5. Innovative operations that integrate lifecycle considerations help encourage the implementation of sustainability technologies to obtain downstream benefits. NUS SDE4 adopted an innovative approach that integrated its front-end (design and procurement) and back-end (operations) processes. This encouraged NUS to set ambitious targets and integrate sustainability technologies from the design stage which allowed SDE4 to achieve high sustainability performance in its operations.

6. Adopting an urban systems approach will better integrate the planning and design of the built environment with sustainability innovations. For example, the Tengah CCS evolved through HDB’s and SP’s collaboration to implement an integrated energy system that integrates district cooling, renewable energy, waste-to-energy and EV charging systems, with digital dashboards to encourage sustainable behaviour in energy use.


Business models and contracts should be designed to incentivise solution providers to upgrade their infrastructures as technology advances.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Livia Tan has served as Researcher at the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), where she focused on topics related to urban planning and design, and sustainability. She also has experience as an urban designer, working on the development of guidelines and comprehensive city masterplans. She graduated from the National University of Singapore with degrees in Architecture and Urban Planning.

 


NOTE

  1. Richard Wong, Abhineet Kaul and Xiu Wei, “Perception towards Green Buildings in Singapore”, accessed July 1, 2022, https://www1.bca.gov.sg/docs/default-source/docs-corp-buildsg/sustainability/summary_report_survey_on_bca_green_mark.pdf.

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