Closing address by Minister Desmond Lee at World Cities Summit Mayors 2022 Forum

Jul 31, 2022

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

It has been a long day, but a very fruitful discussion. I hope on the sidelines of the World Cities Summit, you have had many opportunities to interact with each other, share experiences, exchange contacts and do things together, learn together.

Indeed, that is how Singapore has come to be. We have always learnt from the best around the world and adapted it for our use. If it works, we expand it; if it does not, we understand why and we try to do better. I hope that this spirit is something all of us, as city leaders, embrace and that is raison d’etre for the World Cities Summit.

It has indeed been a very engaging and fruitful discussion at this year’s World Cities Summit Mayors Forum.

We had discussed two very important issues today – digitalisation and decarbonisation.

Digitalisation is a very significant and powerful trend that enables cities and countries to progress, but as mayors have discussed, there are downsides, risks and blindsides that we need to take care of.

On the other hand, decarbonisation is probably the single most important thing that all of us, all countries on this planet, have to focus on in the decades ahead. It is an existential threat to countries big and small, and future generations unborn will depend on the work of this generation and the next to ensure they have a liveable future.

But linking the two, digitalisation can enable our efforts at decarbonisation. For example, mayors shared how digital tools enable you to measure your energy and water usage, so that you can decarbonise, to be more resource-intensive in terms of reduction of usage. Digitalisation plays a part in our decarbonisation journey.

Indeed, mayors have shared many useful ideas and given us many interesting perspectives, which we look forward to diving deeper into, and the white spaces during the Summit allowed us to do so.

So let me say a big thank you to all of you, for your contributions. We have learnt a lot from you, and we hope you have found the session insightful as well.

I would like to thank our moderators, Mr Greg Clark and Mr Aaron Maniam, for smoothly steering a dynamic session, and for extracting the key learning points for all of us.

As we round up today’s Mayors Forum, allow me to share a few brief reflections on our discussion.

While I was inspired by the diversity of views that were shared, views from cities in almost every continent, what struck me the most was that despite our differences, there are some important common threads that run through our experiences. We are from cities, and we represent urban centres big and small.

Role of Built Environment

One of these important common threads is the role of our Built Environment – the “hardware” of our cities – in our decarbonisation and digitalisation efforts.

The World Green Building Council has estimated that buildings and construction account for close to 40% of global emissions. In my opening address, I shared that cities are the main sources of carbon emissions. Upon our shoulders, as city leaders around the world, rests the responsibility of a large part of decarbonisation for our Earth’s future. So decarbonising our Built Environment – the way we build our cities, construct and maintain our buildings – is critically important.

But one challenge that the Built Environment and urban sector faces is that it involves many players along the value chain. Sometimes as city leaders, as mayors, as national leaders, we feel that we do not have everything under our control and we have to rely not just on levers but also on many stakeholders in this space. From developers and consultants, to builders, to people who manage and facilitate buildings, and eventually the building users themselves, whether corporate or residential. We therefore need a holistic approach, that aligns efforts all along this value chain, to achieve the greatest impact in decarbonising our cities. This also means looking at the whole life-cycle of buildings, from planning and design to development and maintenance, and accounting, as Dr Cheong Koon Hean said earlier, for both embodied as well as operational carbon emissions.

Another challenge that I think we all collectively face, is the decarbonisation of older buildings in our cities, which were often not designed with sustainability in mind. They were built in a different era. It can be more difficult and costly to retrofit existing buildings than to design a new green building from scratch, or to design and build a whole new green city, for that matter. Here in Singapore, by 2025, more than half of our buildings will be above 30 years old – so this will be a big challenge for us. I am sure many of you face similar, if not bigger, challenges, as many of your cities are much older.

We have therefore worked closely with industry partners here in Singapore to refresh our Green Building Masterplan. We have three targets, which we call “80-80-80 in 2030”. The first “80” is to green 80% of all our buildings by the end of this decade, by 2030. The second “80” is for 80% of our new buildings, regardless of private or public sector, to be Super Low Energy Buildings from 2030. And the third “80” is for our best-in-class buildings to achieve 80% improvement in energy efficiency by 2030, compared to when we first started our green building journey in 2005. Three targets, and as a city, we want to actively work towards them.

To achieve these ambitious goals, we will need a mix of strategies: From increasing minimum environmental standards for buildings, to incentivising further improvements at the top end, such as through our Green Mark accreditation scheme, so that we bring in innovation, technology and research to push the boundaries.

Beyond decarbonisation, which is critically important for all of us, digitalising our Built Environment will also be important for our cities.

Digital technologies can help us to build and maintain our city, and ensure that there is accountability when we seek to decarbonise. Sensor networks and data analytics, for instance, can help us to do predictive maintenance and intervene before problems occur.

Such technologies are even more powerful when we can integrate different digital systems together. In Singapore, we are developing an entire district, known as the Punggol Digital District, as a “living laboratory” for smart urban systems. It features an Open Digital Platform, which will connect different district management systems, and allow them to communicate with and complement one another. For example, by collating data about the weather, power consumption, and human footfall from across the whole district, we can adjust our lighting and district cooling systems accordingly, to optimise energy use and reduce our carbon footprint.

Community Engagement

But beyond the infrastructure and “hardware”, digitalisation and decarbonisation are just as much about the “heartware” of our city – our people.

Throughout our discussions earlier, many city leaders shared inspiring examples of how they partnered citizens, businesses, and NGOs, to jointly develop plans and solutions that can meet real needs on the ground. City leaders are grounded in experiences and the needs of your people.

Indeed, decarbonising our city is not just about designing greener buildings or using more sustainable construction materials. It is also about encouraging our people to reduce our carbon footprints, by using less energy and choosing more sustainable lifestyles. It is one thing to bill or dictate by policy, but ultimately it is about human behaviour. That is something we have to actively worked on - persuasion, moral suasion, incentivisation and internalisation of this conviction to decarbonise.

And so, here in our city, to complement our Green Buildings Masterplan, we also launched the Sustainability in Singapore programme. Under this programme, we reach out to building users, recruit them as Green Ambassadors and empower them to work from within their organisations, run effective campaigns to spur the rest of their organisations to reduce their energy use at both individual and organisational levels.

Similarly, when it comes to digitalisation, digital tools are only effective if designed with the users in mind – the social perspective of digitalisation, ensuring that users find the user interface intuitive and helpful. Because platforms, while they are a means to an end, they can sometimes drive outcomes that are intended or unintended.

For instance, in Singapore, we find that when you construct a building, because of the many requirements imposed by the specialist agencies, building consultants, designers and professionals have to consult many government departments. I am sure this is the case in many cities too. This can be cumbersome and inefficient, and can sometimes lead to wastage.

And so, we are working across the agencies and with industry partners, to consolidate and streamline the different approval processes into a single online portal, called CORENET X and it should come operational next year.

With this system, building professionals can better coordinate their design to meet different regulatory requirements of our city-state, and work a lot more productively. What will happen is that the plans will be sent through one portal instead of through five or 10 organisations, and the organisations will work backend and respond in one voice through three important gateways rather than a plethora of different engagements. This regulatory efficiency – driven by the fact that we are a city and a state – enables us to use digitalisation to drive efficiency and decarbonisation.

Many city leaders earlier, in the first session, shared with us about how digitalisation can inevitable leave certain vulnerable communities behind, such as people with special needs and the elderly. I would posit that digital tools enable cities, not just city governments, but also the stakeholders in the city, to better support and enable the vulnerable. For example, in Singapore, again because of the fact that we have many organisations that are trying to help the vulnerable in specialised fields, we find that families who are vulnerable, low-income and facing a lot of difficulties, often have to navigate the social sector and many agencies. I am sure in your cities too, you may find that the marginalised or vulnerable communities have to find help from the city, agencies, NGOs, religious and secular groups and so on, and that bandwidth tax can be burdensome on the vulnerable. Then you fear imposing a digitalisation burden on them too.

What we are trying to do is to use digitalisation as a spine to enable the “heartware” to work better, for the “heart” to beat as one. Through digital tools that we have unified across government agencies, and with the consent of vulnerable families, we now seek to aggregate the information in secured portals, enabling social services and government agencies to have a 360-degree view of the people that we are serving together - through an associated system, enabling us to coordinate our support for these families, allowing us to journey with these families on a single unified progress roadmap.

In fact, as we digitalise our city, we must strive to keep our digital transformation inclusive, and avoid “digital divides” in our society. That resonated strongly in the first half of today’s session. This means taking the effort to equip our people with the right skills, so that they can make the most of these digital tools, instead of seeing this as a wall in front of them. Some groups, like our elderly, may need a bit more help to do so, and we should support them in their transition, in a way that they are comfortable with.


To conclude, I think it is clear from our discussions this year, that in trying to build more liveable and sustainable cities – whether through digitalisation, decarbonisation, or other efforts – both the “hardware” and the “heartware” of our cities are very important.

The city leaders here today have shared many useful ideas on how we can work on both aspects of our cities. Thank you all, once again, for your insights.

While this marks the end of this year’s Mayors Forum, I hope that this session, along with the rest of the World Cities Summit, will spark further conversations, learning and collaboration among all of us.

Let us also look forward to the 2023 Mayors Forum, our 12th Edition, which will be held in the beautiful city of Seoul, the 2018 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize Laureate. Mayor Oh Se-hoon has given us a sneak peek of what we can expect, and we hope all of us can collectively learn from Korea as well.

We hope to see you all again in Seoul next year. Thank you and enjoy the rest of the Summit.