Speech by 2M Indranee Rajah at the IBEW 2022: Frontiers and Trends Conference

Sep 9, 2022

Good morning to all of you. It’s a great pleasure to be joining you, including those of you who are joining us via the live stream, a very warm welcome to everyone.

I am very happy to join all of you here today at the Frontiers and Trends Conference. This is also the first conference collaboration between SUTD and the International Built Environment Week, or IBEW, organised by the Building and Construction Authority.

The Infinity Loop

Many of you will be familiar with the symbol – the infinity loop. Designers and mathematicians alike will be familiar with this symbol. Also known as the lemniscate, it shows a line that never ends, or a circle looping in on itself. It is centuries old in terms of design and was first used as mathematical symbol by the 17th century mathematician John Wallis to signify infinity.

The built environment is like the infinity loop. Building design is very much a product of the environment and human need. At the same time, how we design and build in turn influences how human societies live, work and play. These two dynamics are constantly interacting with and influencing one another, generating new ideas, concepts and environments in the process and always evolving with the forward flow of time.

Buildings are functions of the environment. In medieval Europe, the huge castles were built with long thin windows, to keep out the winter cold and keep the occupants warm. Of course, that changed when glass and heating systems came buildings were then designed differently. In colonial Singapore, the old kampong houses and bungalows were built on stilts or raised legs because of the heat – to allow air flow to keep the occupants cool. When air-conditioning came along, the kind of buildings we had also changed. In another words, once we could start to control the environment, the way we build changed.

There is a close nexus between building design and human interaction. The old office design of individual offices and designated rooms for specific functions reflected and reinforced a much more hierarchal employer-employee structure and a compartmentalised approach to work. Today, many offices have moved to open plan and flexible spaces and modular furniture, in turn engendering a very different sort of office culture, one which is more fluid, interactive, and allowing for more sparking of ideas and socialising.

These are two simple examples but they illustrate the complex dynamic between design, the built environment and social engagement. Thus, the impact and influence of the built environment goes well beyond the physical infrastructure. That is the reason why we must design well and build well.

Forward Singapore and Building Our City of the Future

As we emerge from the pandemic, this is a very exciting time for the built environment. With the relaxation of border controls and resumption of construction activity, we are not only building to catch up with pent up demand, but we also have, at this point in time, an unique opportunity to build differently, learning from the lessons of the pandemic, to build sustainably, bearing in mind the imperatives of climate change and to build for the future, taking into account the aspirations of our people and the needs of the nation.

DPM Lawrence Wong recently launched Forward Singapore, a national movement that seeks to bring everyone together to build consensus and refresh our social compact based on our values and aspirations. Forward Singapore has six pillars. Of greatest relevance to you in the Built Environment sector is the Build Pillar. We will be engaging broadly with stakeholders, the industry and Singaporeans as we review this area. We have already got off to a flying start with the Long Term Plan Review, which engaged over 15,000 citizens to understand their hopes and dreams as we plan ahead for our city for the next 50 years.

Given that the theme for today’s conference is ‘Frontiers and Trends’, let me highlight the trends that came out of the conversations in the Long Term Plan Review, as well as touch on how innovation and technology can help break through new frontiers.

Future Trends Identified from LTPR

Based on what Singaporeans told us of what they want to see for the future of our city, URA distilled six key trends can be summarised as follows:

Live – people want an environment in which Singaporeans of all ages and from all walks of life can live well and have a strong sense of community or togetherness.
Work – they want to be able to work from anywhere and everywhere. Work is no longer restricted to the office or single workplace.
Play – they want active spaces for their mental and physical health and to promote happiness.
Move – they want efficiency of transport, good mobility and connectedness.
Cherish – Singaporeans love places with heritage. Perhaps this comes out of being a young country. But also because such places speak to our sense of identity, memories and shared experience. Hence, we want to see places with distinctive and lovable heritage value preserved.
Steward – our citizens treasure our green spaces and blue waters. They understand these are precious resources and must be approached from the perspective of stewardship.
Sustain – given our small size, scarce resources, and the grim spectre of climate change, we must move towards building in a way that is low carbon, resilient and sustainable.

These are the trends that I want to share with you because as you design and build, and think of the future of our city, you need to bear in mind what our people want, what they are asking for, and what they are saying. If we can do all these well, in the next 50 years, Singapore will be transformed.

Built Environment Industry Transformation Map (BE ITM)

However, in order to transform our city, the Built Environment sector must also itself first transform. The refreshed BE Industry Transformation Map (ITM), launched by Minister Desmond Lee earlier this week at the IBEW, will guide this transformation.

The Built Environment ITM outlines how we will work together with industry stakeholders to achieve greater productivity, digitalisation, and sustainability outcomes in the medium term. In particular, we will drive transformation through a value chain approach. From design, to construction, operations and maintenance, stakeholders across each stage of the building lifecycle can achieve more by working together and integrating processes. The public sector will continue to take the lead, and we will continue to provide support for firms to transform.

Breaking New Frontiers with Technology and Innovation
Technology and innovation is a key enabler to support the Built Environment ITM’s objectives. Under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2025 plan, we have set aside close to $180 million to support our Cities of Tomorrow (CoT) ambition. One of the key focus areas of CoT is to create a sustainable and comfortable environment that meets the needs of our people through people-centric urban design. Since its launch in 2017, CoT has supported a number of interesting projects.

For example, a project by URA, SingHealth and other research partners including SUTD, aims to gain insights on the activity and travel patterns of seniors. These insights can inform urban planning and design recommendations, as well as possible built environment interventions to facilitate ageing-in-place. This project exemplifies how stakeholders across the different sectors can collaborate and promote healthy ageing through a well-designed environment. Another example is a project by BCA and NUS, that explores the use of weather sensors and smart watches to track how building occupants respond to indoor conditions, in order to optimise the use of cooling and ventilation systems with operable windows. This integrated system aims to enhance comfort for the occupants while reducing energy use. If successful, the solution can be incorporated in designing more sustainable buildings.

We also support our industry partners to embark on research and innovation. The Built Environment Technology Alliance (BETA) aims to do so through industry-led alliances with our Institutes of Higher Learning. This will enable leading Built Environment firms to build competitive capabilities and “pull” their partners along the value chain, while leveraging the capabilities of our institutes of higher learning and research institutions. Novel ideas or solutions will also have greater chance of deployment and value capture through collaboration with the firms.

Beyond R&D, these collaborations also create a vibrant environment for innovation, which will help attract a pipeline of local talent into the Built Environment sector.

Stronger Together

Collaborations and partnerships are key to achieving more. I note that SUTD is already working with many stakeholders to explore innovative and forward-looking ideas and capabilities to advance the BE sector.

Partnerships come in various forms. Mr Andrew Tan from TAK Products and Services is a strong supporter of the Architecture and Sustainable Design pillar at SUTD, and has donated over $1 million to support students with financial aid since 2013. I am very honoured to be presenting the Principal Donor Award to Mr Andrew Tan later.

Two Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) will also be signed later. The first MOU is a collaboration between SUTD and the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA). This collaboration seeks to promote architectural design excellence and to facilitate industry-academia partnerships to ensure stronger alignment between SUTD’s architecture curriculum and the industry’s needs. Beyond this, it will provide internships, career, and networking opportunities between SIA and SUTD students and graduates. The second MOU is a collaboration between SUTD and RSP Architects to jointly promote knowledge exchange and research partnership between the industry and academia. In addition to co-curating the architecture curriculum to align with industry’s needs, RSP will also offer scholarships and overseas internship opportunities for Masters students to enrich their learning experience.

I look forward to seeing more partnerships between our research and industry partners. In addition to the initiatives mentioned, upcoming grant calls will also be launched progressively this year. I encourage all of you to jointly participate in these calls, and help catalyse the transformation of the BE sector.

In conclusion, let me say that these are exciting times for the Built Environment sector. There is much to be done and many opportunities for individuals and organisations who have a growth mindset, and who are willing to invest in acquiring skills, leverage technology and embrace innovation.

Together, let us build a truly magnificent future Singapore.

I wish everyone a fruitful conference. Thank you.