Opening Address by Minister Desmond Lee at the Urban Sustainability R&D e-Symposia 2021

Mar 26, 2021

Good afternoon. Welcome to the inaugural Urban Sustainability R&D e-Symposia! I’m glad that so many of our friends from government agencies, industry, and the research community can join us today.

Emerging Stronger from COVID-19

Instead of a physical, two-day R&D Congress held in the previous years, our e-Symposia will comprise a series of webinars over the course of a year. This is a different way of organising, but I am confident that it will continue to be very meaningful.

One of the many lessons of the ongoing pandemic is that Singapore, and other cities in the world, need to be resilient, sustainable and liveable. As we make our way towards recovery, we must not lose sight of the looming threat of climate change, and the importance of resource sustainability.

And that is why we launched the Singapore Green Plan 2030.

This is a Whole-of-Nation movement to strengthen our climate resilience and improve our living environment. 

Now, an important part of this effort is to continue making critical investments in research and innovation, so that we build new capabilities to pursue sustainable development.

We are doing this through the Urban Solutions and Sustainability or USS domain, which is a key part of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise or RIE 2025 plan.

The RIE 2025 plan charts Singapore’s research direction over the next five years. To support this, we have set aside $25 billion. Under the Urban Solutions and Sustainability domain, we are investing in R&D to find new ways of making our city more sustainable and resilient. This will also support the growth and transformation of our Built Environment sector and create attractive jobs for Singaporeans.

In other words, if done well, our R&D efforts will not only make our city more resilient but will also help to strengthen our economy.

To do this, we will build on the strong foundation laid by investments in earlier RIE tranches. We strive to push the research boundaries in three main areas of priority.

First, transforming the Built Environment sector, by developing more productive ways to design, build, and maintain our city.

Second, driving efforts to mitigate or adapt to the impacts of climate change.

And third, deepening the social-emotional connection that Singaporeans have with our city.

Harnessing Innovation to Build a Resilient, Sustainable and Liveable City 

First, we will press on with our efforts to transform the Built Environment sector. 

The construction sector was one of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. This painful experience has strengthened our resolve to change the way we do construction, once and for all. We must decisively shift the Built Environment sector away from its heavy reliance on manual labour. 

Technological breakthroughs from around the world can help us to build faster, safer, and more efficiently – for example, through greater use of robotics, automation, and digitalisation. 

One way to do this could be to incorporate robot-oriented design in construction. We can also explore using collaborative robots, so that we can automate more tasks in a coordinated way. 

To kickstart this effort, HDB and A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research, or “I-squared R”, will work together to develop a '5G-enabled Smart Construction' concept. I understand they will sign a Research Collaboration Agreement on this, right after my speech.

5G technology enables multiple devices to connect with each other at a faster speed, with ultra-low latency, and this opens up new possibilities. For example, we may be able to deploy more robots that can communicate and coordinate with each other in real time. This would improve construction productivity.

Now, our second priority area is to continue charting a sustainable and climate-resilient future for Singapore. This supports the Green Plan. 

Under RIE 2025, we will do more to tap on our green and blue assets to mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

In Parliament earlier this month, I spoke about stepping up research, to support our national aspiration of becoming a City in Nature. In particular, we will expand the Cities of Tomorrow R&D programme to include a new research pillar, which will focus on the scientific foundation needed for a City in Nature. 

Some research areas could include: Finding even better ways to integrate greenery into our urban environment; Enhancing biodiversity in our ecosystems, on land and at sea; Managing human-nature relationships for better health and well-being; And using nature-based solutions to mitigate or adapt to climate change. 

Indeed, there is growing interest worldwide in using sustainable methods to manage the impacts of climate change. And we also recognise the great potential for our blue spaces to contribute on this front. 

Under RIE 2025, NParks will lead a $25 million multi-stakeholder research programme to advance the core sciences of marine climate change. This aims to develop solutions that can help manage impacts like rising sea levels, increasing sea surface temperatures, and extreme storm events. 

This Marine Climate Change Science (MCCS) programme will comprise different research areas.

For instance, it will strive to better understand the impact of climate change on marine species, habitats, ecosystems and connectivity. It will also study how we can better protect our coasts from rising sea levels, using nature-based solutions and ecological engineering. And it will explore the science of what is called “blue carbon” – the carbon that is captured and stored by coastal and marine ecosystems. This can help us to find ways to further reduce Singapore’s carbon footprint, by conserving our coastal and marine ecosystems. 

So we achieve two objectives at the same time: reducing our carbon emissions, and conserving our natural environment. 

In addition to making good use of our natural assets in this way, we will also continue to invest in new technologies to drive sustainable development. 

For instance, some technologies have the potential to reduce our carbon emissions significantly, particularly in emissions-intensive areas like the power and industrial sectors. 

Certain energy technologies, like hydrogen energy, produce very little carbon, and could thus be a big improvement from fossil fuels. Other technologies may enable us to capture, use, or store carbon, which would lower our overall carbon footprint. But many of these technologies are not yet viable, either technically or economically. So we are working to overcome these difficulties, and accelerating the development of viable options. 

We are also exploring new technologies to reduce the energy consumed and the waste produced by desalination. These will not only reduce our carbon emissions but will also help us to achieve water sustainability. PUB recently awarded close to $11 million to six projects researching such technologies.

Our third area of priority is to build capabilities in urban social sciences and use these to better inform our urban plans and designs. 

We aspire to build a city that not only meets our physical needs, but that also enables us to forge strong relationships and deep emotional connections with each other.

We will therefore develop new ways to understand how well our city is doing, in terms of the well-being of our residents and how this is affected by the built environment in Singapore. We will do this by combining social science knowledge with big data analytics.

This project is the first of its kind.

It was conceptualised as a result of many consultations with social scientists across the various universities. Prof Lily Kong, President of the Singapore Management University (SMU), and Dr Cheong Koon Hean, Chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), will spearhead this effort. 

We will conduct this research in partnership with a multi-disciplinary and multi-institute consortium, led by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). If this effort is successful, our findings will inform our planning strategies and interventions, to build a socially more resilient and sustainable city. 

So we are integrating social sciences with hard engineering know-how, to develop new strategies for urban and community development. This is a nascent but increasingly important area of work, and we welcome the research community and industry partners to work with us on this.

Forging Closer Partnerships Between the Government Agencies, Research Community and Industry to Jointly Develop Solutions 

Now to achieve our goals in our three priority areas and beyond, we need all our USS partners to work together. To this end, we will strive to create even more opportunity for collaboration between researchers, the private sector, and the public sector. By working together, we can develop more impactful solutions for Singapore and potentially for cities around the world. 

There are many initiatives to support such collaboration. 

For example, BCA has set up the Built Environment Technology Alliance (BETA), which brings industry members together to lead and catalyse research and innovation. 

We have also opened up avenues for companies to test their new ideas in practice, to facilitate translational research that turns scientific concepts into practical applications. One example is the Built Environment Living Laboratory Framework (BE LLF), and we are committed to doing more.

To support greater collaboration, HDB and A*STAR will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) – with the aim of taking the research findings of MND agencies, translating these into useful commercial applications, and then scaling them up to make our Built Environment industry more competitive.

And there are many ways this might be done. 

For example, we can mine our Intellectual Property (IP) to develop products that are useful for cities, communities and corporations. Or we can promote better business matching between government agencies and industry partners, so that they can work together on solutions that are relevant for both parties. 

I encourage all our industry and research partners to tap on these platforms for collaboration, and turn your ideas into deployable solutions and bring them to market.


Now let me conclude by saying again that there are many exciting opportunities for our research community to work together to advance our urban sustainability. We want to ride on our current momentum, foster more partnerships with our industry and create a more vibrant ecosystem. 

Now we have much to discuss and many creative urban solutions to explore. So it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise that our traditional two-day R&D Congress has been stretched to a year-long e-Symposia. 

This will enable more of us to dial in, share more insights and further contribute to our Urban Sustainability R&D efforts. We hope that these conversations will spark many new ideas and partnerships.

So let us build a better, more vibrant City of Tomorrow together.