Opening Address by Minister Lawrence Wong at the 5th Urban Sustainability R&D Congress

Jul 23, 2019

I am very happy to join you this morning for the 5th Urban Sustainability R&D Congress.

As all of you will be aware, we are taking active steps now to plan for Singapore’s next phase of development. URA just exhibited the Draft Masterplan 2019. It puts together all of our urban plans for the next 10-15 years, and we do have many exciting plans to take our city to the next level in that timeframe. Singapore may be very built up, but we also have new greenfield sites to build, for example, in Punggol Digital District. So there are new districts, new greenfield sites and over the longer term, even the Greater Southern Waterfront for us to develop and think about what new solutions can be put in place.   

New public and private sector investments are needed to realise these plans. We are very mindful that in putting these plans together, we should not continue with a business as usual approach. It should not just be building more of the same. Each time we do a new project, it has to be better than what we have before. For example, whenever we have a new public housing estate, we are always looking to push the frontiers of sustainable living. Punggol was our first eco precinct where we prototyped and test bedded new ideas. Now, we’re developing a new town in Tengah and we’re taking it even further. So that must always be the mind-set in Singapore because this is a small little island and the only place that we have. The mind-set of continuous improvement must be there to keep Singapore moving forward. 

And that’s why R&D is so important. It is necessary to enable us to develop new and more effective ways to build a better city for the future. To use a military phrase, investing in R&D for our city is a “force multiplier”. It amplifies and enhances whatever assets we have and makes it better and more impactful.  

Some of the research we do will not make headlines. Some of the research we do deal with very pedestrian, day-to-day issues. They are not the big tech topics of the day. They are not the things that investors are looking at to create the next big unicorn. But they can lead to outcomes which benefit Singaporeans, and enhance our daily lives. 

For example, one project we are working on is the Cool Singapore project. It’s a big issue with rising temperatures not just at the global level but also urban heat island effects. So we are looking to develop cool coatings and building materials, so that our buildings and roads absorb less heat, and we can find ways to lower the ambient temperature and improve thermal comfort. 

Another example is the research we are doing on trees. We do research on many things including on trees in Singapore. We have more than 2 million trees planted all over Singapore on state land, and we will plant many more. It’s wonderful to have trees in our little city, we are a City in a Garden, but each time a tree falls or gets uprooted, potential accidents can happen. And so we want our trees to be healthy, we want them to be safe. So we’re studying the impact of environmental conditions like strong winds on a tree’s stability. We’re modelling that so that we can estimate how much force will break or uproot a tree, and then appropriate protective measures can be taken.

These are just two examples of many research projects that we have been doing over the past years and we will need to take even more innovative ideas to tackle future challenges. Some of these longer term challenges are existential in nature, for example, threats like climate change and rising sea levels. How do we deal with that, understand the nature of the threat and take protective action? Some are shorter- to medium-term concerns, like meeting the needs of our ageing population, keeping our infrastructure up to date and meeting the growing demands from our people for a better quality of life at a sustainable cost. So we are doing all these to improve the quality of life and create a better city for our people. But there is also an economic imperative to upgrade, innovate and transform our city.

We want to ensure that our urban infrastructure is first-class and up-to-date, and our city is competitive and relevant. That has always been Singapore’s competitive advantage and we must continue to keep it that way because the competition is intense. There are many cities around the world, all looking to upgrade themselves and success is never preordained. Whatever we can do, others can do too. We’re building our Changi airport, we have T3, we have built T4, we have built Jewel, now we are building T5. Each time we do one, it’s getting better, but others can easily follow the same thing. We’re building a new terminal in Tuas. We’re trying to make it better. Others are following suit too. So the competition among cities is real and we have to continue to keep pace and ensure that whatever we have continues to push the boundaries and provides first class, best in class infrastructure for investments. This is how we can continue to attract new investments, new economic activities, anchor them here in Singapore, because it is an attractive place to do business, and we can create more good jobs for Singaporeans. So that’s the economic imperative to do R&D.

Besides addressing national issues, R&D can also be a source of competitive advantage for our companies. Compared to the past, we now have a stronger eco-system in the built environment industry, in the private sector. Many of our companies in the built environment, be it developers, utilities providers, consultants or builders, many of you, besides doing projects within Singapore, have also been venturing abroad, building your own external wings. When you compete overseas for projects, you know that the competition is intense and you are often fighting against large international, global players. So you need to differentiate yourselves with deep capabilities in several niche areas where you can play a useful role and provide a good value proposition.

Unfortunately, our surveys indicate that the built environment industry in Singapore currently invests only a small fraction of its revenue in research and innovation. I hope to be proven wrong but this is from survey results. We are doing far less in the built environment, in the private sector, compared to other industries within Singapore, and certainly compared to international benchmarks. So there is scope for the private sector, for our companies to do more R&D and innovation, and commercialise your research into solutions that can be deployed within Singapore, and in markets overseas. The Government will do our part to help you in this journey. 

That is why two years ago, I announced a new Cities of Tomorrow (CoT) R&D programme. It focused on the built environment and we had four verticals - advanced construction, resilient infrastructure, creating of new spaces and, sustainability and liveability. This is not the entirety of the Government’s R&D in urban solutions. For example, we also have research and development in agri-tech, in urban mobility, in energy and in water. But within the MND Family particularly, and within the built environment space, the CoT programme was something we started to help push R&D efforts in this area. 

I am happy to announce that two years since we launched this programme, we have made good progress. We launched Grant Calls for 30 R&D projects. We received many applications and I am very happy to see that notwithstanding the point I made just now that surveys indicate low spending on R&D, 75% of the applications we received involved the private sector. So we are seeing more responses from companies. We want to continue to develop and grow this Cities of Tomorrow programme.  In the next two years, we will be adding more areas of research. 

One, under advanced construction, we are exploring additive manufacturing or 3D printing for buildings. This enables industry players to speed up construction and improve construction quality, while reducing manpower, cost and wastage. Under resilient infrastructure, we are looking to explore technologies like automation, predictive analytics and robotics for smart facilities management (FM). The aim is to reduce our reliance on manpower for infrastructure and building maintenance, but also lower the cost and raise productivity, particularly in managing our ageing infrastructure and estates. This is a topic not only useful for Singapore, but for cities all over the world. It is very easy to think about building something new, but not a lot of people have applied their minds to looking at more effective maintenance, particularly in the areas I talked about, and in using data and technology to do this. So we hope to also grow a new research area in this space. 

Third, in the area of sustainability and liveability, we would like to explore how buildings and spaces affect human beings. This is research that is interesting, it is multi-disciplinary, and we can bring together different fields, including architecture and design, psychology, as well as social and behavioural science to better understand how building forms and spaces can shape human behaviours. The intent is to rigorously assess what really makes for good human-centric design. Too much of this work today is done by intuition. It is very subjective. While it may be a subjective process, scientific methods can enable us to do this work more rigourously, more effectively. 

So with this expanded scope of the Cities of Tomorrow programme, we expect to invest close to $70m on CoT projects over the next two years. I will encourage all researchers, be it from our research institutions, our Institutes of Higher Learning or companies, to look out for our Grant Calls and to submit proposals. We will be putting out Grant Calls in this areas, so look out for them.

I am very mindful that the journey from R&D to commercial solutions is not easy. That’s why we have been looking at ways to strengthen partnerships with the private sector to support all of you in your R&D journey. There are several ways we can do so. I will share three broad ideas. First, government agencies have been and will continue to work with the industry as co-investors and co-developers of research and innovation. We do have a healthy pipeline of public sector projects coming on stream. For many of this projects, it is not the government doing all of it by ourselves. We want to engage the private sector, not just as vendors, not only as people to build, but also to co-develop new, promising, bold ideas. Certainly within the MND Family, I would encourage all my agencies like HDB, URA, NParks and BCA to adopt this mind-set and approach. 

I am happy that this morning, we have two agreements that are being signed. HDB has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Evonik for the development and deployment of advanced materials, and also a research Collaboration Agreement (RCA) with V-Key, which makes it easier and more secure to use smart home appliances in HDB flats. That’s one approach where government agencies proactively work with the private sector in order to do joint research and co-develop new ideas with you. 

Second, for the bigger companies, some of you probably already have some R&D programme in place, and some idea of technology road mapping for the future.  One way for you to take this further is to set up a Corporate Lab in collaboration with one of our universities. The Government through the National Research Foundation will support the effort with a scheme to provide funding support for companies that are interested in doing such a Corporate Laboratory. The idea is to encourage public-private R&D collaboration between universities and companies. So universities in Singapore can work on cutting-edge solutions to industry problems. This will not apply to all companies. But the bigger companies with scale, who already have some intent to do R&D would be in a position to set up a Corporate Laboratory. 

For example, in the built environment space, we already have corporate labs set up by companies.  Surbana-Jurong together with NTU has set up a corporate lab and they are doing research on Underground Storage, Sustainable Indoor Solutions, Digital Technologies for Building Productivity. Sembcorp in collaboration with NUS has a corporate lab looking at energy (optimisation of power generation), water treatment (enhancing industrial used water treatment) and waste management.

These are two examples and certainly there can be many more. We have many companies in the built-environment space. For those of you who think you can benefit from setting up a corporate lab, it comes with Government support, so you are not having to invest 100% of the cost for R&D. The Government through the NRF will support you in this joint endeavour and I hope some companies can consider the benefits of doing so and participate in this. That is the second way in which companies can do more in R&D. 

Third, we know that not all companies are ready to have their own corporate labs. Many smaller firms will face many barriers to invest in research. It is costly and risky to invest, and the investments you put in may or may not translate into useable solutions. Companies may also not find it easy to source for partners to perform R&I.

We have looked at this issue carefully, because the bigger companies can do something, but how do we support the broader grouping of companies in the built environment space. We have decided that the way to support all of you is to set up a platform called the Built Environment Technology Alliance (BETA) or BETA. What is BETA? It is a membership platform where we will bring together industry stakeholders and catalyse more industry R&D. 

To illustrate further, today, under most of the research done under the Government, the research tends to be driven from the top down. The Government will specify a problem or challenge statement, we will put out a call and we receive proposals from the industry or from research institutions. With BETA, we will not be specifying the problem statements from the top down. Instead we will let companies drive the process, and specify your needs and your requirements.  

If you join BETA as a company with a specific problem, BETA might link you up with the relevant research institutions to conduct the necessary R&D work. Or BETA could tell you that there is a start-up or a company here that has a solution there might meet your needs, so why don’t you consider this particular solution.  

Or alternatively, a firm may want to deploy a new R&D product. You think it is quite effective but it is still at the research stage and you can approach BETA. BETA will help you to find potential end-adopters. Some of these may be government agencies like HDB or JTC, or it could be a private company too. They will provide that matching service – government agencies and private companies may then be able to work with that particular company to research, test bed and eventually commercialise the product. So we envisage a platform like this where industry stakeholders can come together. You may be an innovator, you may be a developer, you may be a consultant, but regardless of where you are from, working together as one stakeholder group to catalyse more industry R&D. 

Besides such matching and bringing together of stakeholders, BETA will also provide physical space, equipment and facilities for members to work on their research innovations. For many small firms, this requires capital expenditure which they are not able to cough up. Hopefully by providing access to shared services, it will help to bring down the upfront cost of doing R&D work. There will also be funding support to help companies co-share the cost and risk of R&D.  

Finally, if it is a product you want to commercialise, we are prepared to look at the regulatory sandbox. Particularly if there are regulatory impediments, we will help you and facilitate the process of engaging the different regulators, to see how we can enable deployment of this new solution. 

I have provided a broad outline of how BETA works. We will be sharing more details in due course.  But I hope this can be something useful to companies in the built environment space. We have shared this with some of our companies and many of them have expressed interest to join BETA. They range from developers like Capitaland and City Developments Limited, to builders like Tiong Seng, Woh Hup as well as companies like Sembcorp and Surbana Jurong. We welcome more companies, more researchers, more research institutions to be part of BETA, and we look forward to your active participation when we roll this out eventually. 

This morning, we are also recognising some of the R&D projects that have been done in the public sector working in collaboration with the private sector. We are recognising some of the recipients of the MND R&D Awards this year. Many of the projects demonstrate good teamwork and partnerships between government agencies, research institutions and the industry. Through their hard work and commitment, we have seen how our investments in research have helped to improve the daily lives of Singaporeans. 

With all the various efforts that I have just announced, we hope that we can catalyse more R&D in the built environment space. We need this to happen. This is not just a good to have. This is something that is critical, to take us to our next stage of development. I know companies will have concerns about spending more on R&D. Particularly when you look at the overall economic environment – you see dark clouds over the horizon. But a period of difficult and challenging times is precisely the thing that should give us the impetus to build capabilities now so that eventually, we can emerge stronger after the downturn. 

It is challenging but we shouldn’t lose this opportunity to think about what ways we can build new capabilities through research and innovation. The government will be doing its part. As I said, with different programmes and initiatives, with funding support, and we look forward to strengthening this partnership with the private sector in order to build a better city in the future. Through this morning’s R&D congress, I hope we can strengthen our partnerships between the different stakeholders in the public and private sector and together embark on this exciting journey ahead to build a better Singapore for tomorrow. Thank you very much.