Threats to Urban Sustainability: Adopting a Futures Lens
Cities everywhere are grappling with an array of global, regional and local shifts, and risks that threaten the future of urban sustainability. The outcomes of these complex, accelerating changes are difficult to foresee. What shocks and discontinuities may impact resource flows in and out of our cities, for instance? What are the deep transitions that may change the way we live, work, play and move about the city? How might new technologies impinge on resources or the environment, or perhaps unlock new opportunities for better resource and environmental stewardship? How these issues play out will have an impact on our cities’ ability to improve their sustainability. Furthermore, many sustainability-related issues are ‘wicked problems’ which are highly complex, difficult to define, with multiple stakeholders and no immediate or obvious solutions.
While we cannot fully predict the future, cities can better anticipate and prepare for alternative scenarios in advance, and therefore afford themselves more flexibility to respond and adapt to change in good time. The Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC)’s Foresight team has identified and developed a set of discontinuities and trends as a starting point for developing plausible scenarios for Singapore as a city in 2040. Below, we discuss several key discontinuities we believe will have a more direct impact on our ability to improve urban sustainability.
What is Sustainability?
Global Resource Shifts and Cliffs
Globally, climate change is one of the biggest threats to urban sustainability. It is predicted to profoundly impact cities directly through extreme weather patterns (e.g., more frequent and intense droughts and storms; heatwaves; blizzards), sea-level rise, ocean acidification, habitat and biodiversity loss.
Climate change also makes the world’s already fragile food system even more vulnerable. Our food habits and systems have resulted in 75% of the world’s food coming from just 12 plant and five animal species, despite the more than 300,000 known edible plants.1 This reduction in genetic variety leaves food supply more prone to disease, pests, unrest, and a changing climate. For example, the cost of pasta has recently been pushed to a 13-year high after extreme heat and drought hit Canada (where two-thirds of the world’s traded durum wheat comes from), even as other countries produced lower harvests than expected in 2021.2
While food species have become less genetically diverse, invasive species pose a growing threat to cities. Invasive species do particularly well in urban areas as they are more adaptable to high levels of disturbance than native counterparts. Since 1980, records of invasive species have increased by 40%.3 Newcomers can push endemic species into extinction, upsetting the equilibrium of ecosystems.4
Geopolitical and civil unrest add further to food supply chain risks. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused wheat and corn prices to rise by 12% and 14.5% within the first two months of 2022, given that Russia is the world’s top wheat exporter and Ukraine is “the breadbasket of Europe” due to its production of wheat, barley, and rye.5 Between January 2022 to March 2022, a World Bank study estimated 53 new policy interventions affecting food trade had been imposed—of which 31 restricted exports, and nine involved curbs on wheat exports.6
Winners and Losers in the Shift to Decarbonisation
As the global urgency around climate action increases, industries in many cities have announced decarbonisation goals and roadmaps. The acceleration of decarbonisation efforts however, may themselves alter resource flows between countries. Certain countries dominate clean energy value chains or access to critical minerals such as rare earths, lithium, and cobalt. Within an overall environment of great power competition, smaller countries face geopolitical or supply hurdles in getting access to needed technologies and materials, hampering their speed of decarbonisation.
As the world pivots away from fossil fuels, cleaner energy supplies may become a ‘new oil’ upon which geopolitics will be premised, with attendant political and business risks. Cities around the world have begun regional sourcing for clean energy. For example, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Tokyo are engaging neighbouring regions and partners for renewable power generation. Singapore plans to adopt similar regional sourcing of renewable energy, but this brings its own challenges, since every other country is also pushing for clean energy. Malaysia, for instance, banned renewable electricity sales in late 2021. Extreme weather events may also render renewable energy sources unreliable. For example, droughts in Taiwan in 2021 disrupted the generation of hydropower and led to a steep rise in energy costs.
The acceleration of decarbonisation efforts may alter resource flows between countries.
One way to mitigate supply-side risk and manage demand could be the development of wider regional energy infrastructure. For instance, cross-boundary energy grids such as the Greater Mekong Sub-region grid or the Laos-Thailand- Malaysia-Singapore Power Integration Project are currently being pursued. For a city-state such as Singapore, however, uncertainties remain. How will we manage increased price and supply volatility amid rising local and regional demand for renewable energy? What are the land and infrastructure implications of continuing to source energy from multiple renewable and low-carbon sources (e.g., hydrogen facilities, carbon sequestration, PV panels)?
Innovations to Accelerate Carbon Abatement
At the city-level, Singapore continues to ramp up domestic renewable energy production to reduce carbon emissions. In addition, to achieve net-zero carbon targets, industries will need to adopt a host of abatement technologies and approaches, including scrubbers, carbon capture, blue or green hydrogen technologies, some of which will necessitate additional land-take. Creative use of rooftops, reservoirs, vacant land, and sea space can help, though there are competing needs and technical limitations.
The price and accessibility of renewable energy generation and storage has the potential to turn today's model of energy supply and demand on its head. ‘Buildings as a grid’ and other decentralised energy initiatives are already taking off in other cities. For example, UPS has developed its own smart grid and made its entire fleet of London-based delivery vehicles electric; and Marks & Spencer is the owner of one of the largest solar rooftop plants in the UK.7 Battery improvements will also make it easier for building owners, residents, and even EV motorists to store and resell unused energy back to the grid. While this increases the costs and complexity of balancing supply and demand in the main grid, the adoption of smart grids and artificial intelligence (AI) may aid in local optimisation.9
Data-heavy activities such as blockchain, cloud computing, and AI are transforming our economy and our way of life. However, the physical infrastructure for data storage and processing consumes enormous amounts of energy, which imposes costs on the planet. Even autonomous cars, for instance, require up to 20% more energy than regular EVs. Globally, energy use by ICT is projected to increase and exceed 20% of the global total by 2030.
In Singapore, e-commerce sales was estimated to have hit S$8 billion in 2021 and has been projected to grow to S$13.4 billion by 2026.10 E-commerce deliveries could result in 36% more delivery vehicles in cities based on current models.11 Big-box retailers’ and food delivery service providers’ promises of extreme ease, speed and savings have conditioned consumers to expect everything we buy online to show up on their doorsteps in a matter of days or even hours. Optimising for speed, however, means fewer opportunities for logistics companies to consolidate orders, and leads to even more delivery vehicles on the road.12 In 2020, goods vehicles numbered 140,000, far exceeding the 15,700 taxis and 71,000 private vehicles.14 Packaging accounts for about a third of the domestic waste in Singapore, and more than half is typically made of plastic. Yet domestic waste recycling and plastic waste recycling rates continue to remain dismal, at 17% and 4% respectively.15
As a live-work-play-shop lifestyle in the metaverse becomes prevalent, city dwellers may spend even more of their time in the digital realm—leaving brick-and-mortar facilities, from retail outlets to community amenities and public spaces—sitting idle. On the bright side, land freed up from the transition to digital modes can become available to other social, economic and environmental needs.
The Regenerative Paradigm—A New Panacea?
Urban sustainability efforts today are premised on ‘minimising impact’ or ‘doing less bad’. Regenerative approaches move beyond these ideas, and focus on achieving net-positive impacts by working in alignment with living systems. For instance, nature-based solutions to infrastructure development consider ecosystem-scale approaches that protect, manage or restore ecosystems to simultaneously benefit human wellbeing and enhance biodiversity.
While regenerative approaches are not new, and Singapore itself has adopted nature-based solutions (one type of regenerative design), there is a newfound urgency in adopting more of such methods, in light of climate and resource pressures.
Green technologies show promise for the decarbonisation effort, but they may also place unintended burdens on the environment if their end-of-life phase is not managed well. For instance, solar panels have a lifespan of about 30 years, and the problem of their proper disposal looms large. There is currently little incentive to recycle them, given the cost of recovering the materials and toxic chemicals inside the panels,16 but improper disposal of these solar panels becomes an environmental concern and a waste of increasingly in-demand resources. Disposing of spent lithium-ion batteries that power most electric vehicles (lifespan of 10 to 20 years) will pose similar challenges.
Another way to meet resource requirements while supporting decarbonisation is to scale up ‘urban mining’: the recovery and reuse of a city’s materials from buildings, infrastructure, or products. With 99% of its construction waste recycled, and more recent efforts to push for the recycling of electronic waste, Singapore is no stranger to the potential of ‘urban mining’ as a regenerative city approach.17
Green technologies may also place unintended burdens on the environment if their end-of-life phase is not managed well.
Supporting regenerative approaches for urban sustainability, frameworks such as the Living Building Challenge recognise that buildings and infrastructure can be made ‘regenerative’ and ‘net positive’ in terms of water, energy, and materials through its lifecycle. Developers can choose to build with rapidly renewable materials, like fast-growing wood, hemp, bark, cork, straw, bamboo, materials from biochar;18 as well as new bio-materials such as self-repairing concrete, windows that ‘breathe’ without the need to open them, or the use of microalgae.19 For example, Hamburg’s BIQ Building is the first to supply part of its energy consumption through panels containing microalgae.20 Infrastructure could also be designed for ‘multiple generations’ with standardised, modularised designs that can be easily reused and adapted during retrofitting or rebuilding.
Other regenerative approaches that cities are currently exploring include shifting from the conventional model of constant growth, as measured by GDP, to one that is regenerative and distributive by design. Some thinkers even advocate for ‘de-growth’, with “societies that prioritise social and ecological wellbeing instead of corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption”;21 or ‘a-growth’, which “effectively ignores GDP as an overall measure of progress”.22
As an example of such thinking in practice, Amsterdam has become the world’s first city to adopt the ‘doughnut’ economics model—where policies must meet essential social goals, while operating within environmental thresholds. The city needed to increase its housing stock (as 20% of tenants cannot even cover their basic needs after paying rentals). However, Amsterdam’s CO2 emissions were 31% higher than in 1990, with imports of building materials contributing to this. To resolve these two problems, policymakers mandated the use of recycled and natural materials in the construction sector.23 Under the ‘doughnut’ economics model, Amsterdam also factors in impacts beyond its borders, e.g., air pollution created in other countries where factories make goods imported by the Netherlands, or the social impact of cocoa grown elsewhere but imported via Amsterdam.
In considering regenerative design approaches, Singapore may need to address several factors. How might ‘regenerative design’ ideas inform our natural and built ecosystems, and urban governance? How might we build domestic capabilities in regenerative design? To what extent can Singapore become a regenerative city that considers environmental thresholds and social goals?
Managing the Carbon Footprint of Building Construction and Operation
What are the opportunities offered by new technologies?
Implications for Urban Governance
As environmental pressures grow and the urgency of sustainable development increases, urban governance will need to consider how it responds to society’s expectations, particularly if we see the rise of a more ‘hardline’ sustainability culture. Singaporeans have become increasingly aware of sustainability issues, scoring 83% in the OCBC Climate Index.24 Citizens are starting to speak up—for example, about 2,000 people attended Singapore’s first ever climate rally in 2019, to push for bolder climate actions.25 However, these demands tend to skew towards preserving the status quo; whereas urban governance will need to balance these demands for preservation, with the need for development and rejuvenation.
Cities should consider how to develop relevant and sufficient green skills to support progressively challenging decarbonisation and sustainability efforts.
Urban governance should also consider the importance of human capital to support sustainability, especially as green skills become increasingly complex. In the years to come, the low-hanging fruit of ‘easy’, low-cost solutions will have been adopted, leaving increasingly difficult, expensive, and time-consuming issues to resolve.26 This means that more experienced green skillsets and expertise will be needed to design and implement ever more sophisticated solutions. Cities should consider how to develop relevant and sufficient green skills to support progressively challenging decarbonisation and sustainability efforts.
Communities and self-organising groups also play a role. Citizens everywhere have been proactively responding to climate change and resource insecurity by increasing self-sufficiency, community resilience and action. An example of this is the Transition Network, a growing movement of community-led projects that emerged in the UK.
A Network for Change
Another initiative, the Local Futures movement, encourages local place-based networks of production and consumption of energy and food by scaling action steps for various stakeholders, from institutions to individuals.27 Other contextualised models include Seoul’s community planning groups and Pittsburgh’s public-private-civic coalition building.
Urban sustainability cannot be achieved through the separate pursuit of economic development, social inclusion or environmental preservation. With sustainability culture on the rise as a popular movement, we may start to see more conflict between environmental protection, carbon abatement, and economic development priorities. True progress towards urban sustainability is only feasible when the government, industries and communities work in tandem to strike the right balance between economic, social and environmental needs.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Elly Chiu leads the Centre for Liveable Cities’ Foresight team, which identifies drivers of change and develops city scenarios to inspire thinking on how policy and strategy can respond or prepare. She is also part of a research team at the Centre which conducts forward-looking studies on planning for a Healthy City.
Yuichi Kikuzawa works at the research team at the Centre for Liveable Cities, where he focuses on policies, strategies, and international collaborations for the future of city planning. His research is premised on deep understanding of urban systems and how to derive integrated solutions for cities.
- Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Current State & Trends Assessment”, accessed June 9, 2022. Also see ARUP, Designing for Planetary Boundary Cities”, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Hilary Osborne and Sarah Butler, “From Milk to Crisps: Why the Price of Basic Food Items Is Rising”, The Guardian, January 29, 2022, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Sandra Díaz, Josef Settele, Eduardo Brondízio et al., “Summary for Policymakers of the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”, May 6, 2019, accessed June 9, 2022.
- The outbreak of zoonotic diseases (spreading between animals and humans) has also become increasingly common in the era of globalisation, due to rapid urban development and expanding invasive species ranges. Recent modelling indicates an almost 40% probability of a person observing a pandemic similar to COVID-19 in his or her lifetime. See: Marco Marani, Gabriel G. Katul, William K. Pan, and Anthony J. Parolari, “Intensity and Frequency of Extreme Novel Epidemics”, PNAS 118, no. 35 (August 2021), accessed June 9, 2022.
- Weizhen Tan, “How A Russian Invasion of Ukraine, the ‘Breadbasket of Europe’, Could Hit Supply Chains”, CNBC, February 23, 2022, accessed June 9, 2022.
- David Malpass, “A New Global Food Crisis Is Building”, Barron’s, April 9, 2022, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Olivia Gagan, “Moving Towards a Decentralised Grid”, Raconteur, February 12, 2019, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Paul Ellis and Jo-Jo Hubbard, “Four Key Technologies that Will Make Energy More Democratic”, World Economic Forum, June 20, 2017, accessed June 9, 2022.
- GovTech Singapore, “Increased ICT spending in FY2021 to Accelerate Government Digitalisation”, June 23, 2021, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Prisca Ang, “E-commerce Sales in Singapore Forecast to Hit $13.4 billion by 2026: Report”, The Straits Times, August 31, 2021, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Stuart Todd, “E-commerce Growth Fuelling Urban Logistics Challenges”, Informa, January 27, 2020, accessed June 9, 2022.
- James Chin Moody, “Is It Sustainable to Expect Same-Day Delivery?” GreenBiz, August 2, 2021, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Cheryl Lin, “In Focus: How the E-Commerce Boom Could Shape Singapore’s Urban Landscape”, August 14, 2021, accessed June 9, 2022.
- National Environment Agency, “Waste Statistics and Overall Recycling”, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, “Packaging Waste”, accessed June 9, 2022.
- International Renewable Energy Agency, “Solar PV Recycling Offers Significant Untapped Business Opportunity, New Report Shows”, June 20, 2016, accessed June 9, 2022.
- H. Girardet, Creating Regenerative Cities (Routledge, 2014).
- Land Art Generator, “Regenerative Building Materials: Seven Questions to Ask while Designing”, September 12, 2020, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Martyn Dade-Robertson, “Five Ways Buildings of the Future Will Use Biotech to Become Living Things”, The Conversation, July 22, 2019, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Akamsteeg, “A Living Building: World’s First Algae-Powered Building”, (Scientific Scribbles blog), October 6, 2013, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Degrowth, https://degrowth.info/degrowth.
- Degrowth, “Agrowth—Should We Better Be Agnostic about Growth?”, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Daniel Boffey, “Amsterdam to Embrace 'Doughnut' Model to Mend Post-Coronavirus Economy”, The Guardian, April 8, 2020, accessed June 9, 2022.
- OCBC Bank, “Creating a Sustainable World. It’s All in Our Hands”, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Robin Hicks, “Singaporeans Push Government to Set Tougher Emissions Targets in First Ever Climate Rally”, Eco-Business, September 23, 2019, accessed June 9, 2022.
- The Economist, “What Is the Cheapest Way to Cut Carbon?” February 22, 2021, accessed June 9, 2022.
- Local Futures, “Action Resources”, accessed June 9, 2022.