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“A city in a garden”: Singapore’s journey to becoming a biodiversity model

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This is the Marina Barrage, a space created by a landfill that overlooks a reservoir and the iconic skyline. Photo by VisualHunt

Biodiversity transformation: Preserving quality of life and urban spaces, Singapore style

You wouldn’t know it today, but in 1965 Singapore was a polluter’s paradise: mucky rivers, polluted canals and raw sewage running rampant. It was a developing country, newly split from neighbouring Malaysia, an island surrounded by waters that now they had to govern on their own.

The incredible journey of Singapore, from a struggling polluted backwater into a global green powerhouse, was not automatic or easy. How it aimed to maintain its environmental momentum, was to take the lessons of history and create a new generation of eco-warriors in its students. The engine behind this is Singapore’s national park service.

The energetic Group Director for National Biodiversity Centre at National Parks Board, Lim Liang Jim, recently shared his vision for Singapore’s future – a future dependent on its students becoming eco-activists and preserving the gains made since the city-state’s gritty early days.

“From 1965 we merely wanted to rise above the region we found ourselves in. Lee Kuan Yew had a plan. Keep us clean. Keep us green.” The city’s pioneer generation, he said, understood that if you make a city “a nice place to live, then people will come and invest. Then we moved up.” Lee Kuan Yew was often called ‘Chief Gardener’ for his belief in the power of plants and biodiversity to transform people’s overall mental well-being, as well as physical spaces.

As a city-state, Singapore had the luxury of a centralized government solely concerned with looking after its citizens’ well-being and future. Biodiversity was not just a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘must-have’ for Singaporeans who wanted to stay in their land and build their new country from the ground up.

The National Biodiversity Centre, for instance, recently developed a high-tech app, the SGBioAtlas. This allows all members of the public (including students) to take a photo of a plant, bird or animal. The app geotags it and uploads it into their central database. Through their smartphones, students as well as ordinary citizens become instant citizen scientists.

Walk around Singapore today, and you will not see smelly, polluted rivers, but plants that literally crawl up skyscrapers, a garden or park in virtually every corner of the city, and teams of eco-volunteers who scour the island nation looking after its wildlife of all stripes.

As Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, stated in his recent Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO6) opening address, “in the 1960s, Singapore was like any other developing country – dirty and polluted, lacking proper sanitation and facing high unemployment. These challenges were particularly acute, given our constraints as a small island state with limited resources; we did not even have enough drinking water.”

Singapore, since its break-off from Malaysia in 1965, had no choice but to become one big urban space where its citizens would pack into its urban centre. Less well known, is the difficult and long journey towards sustainable conservation and biodiversity.

With independence came the push to industrialize as fast as possible. According to Minister Zulkifli, “one of Singapore’s transformations involved the cleaning of the Singapore River, which was literally an open sewer in the 1960s and 1970s. The clean-up took ten years and involved thousands of Singaporeans relocating from farms, factories and street-food stalls that were polluting the river catchment. The successful clean-up also set in motion a process to create a reservoir in the heart of the city.”

So how did they manage to become an advanced economy and preserve their environment at the same time? As is the case in many countries, short-term thinking was always going to prioritize economic development over the environment. A mindset shift was needed, said Minister Zulkifli. “Our approach has been to build a liveable and sustainable city, through pragmatic policymaking based on sound economic principles and science; a focus on long-term planning and effective implementation; and the ability to mobilise popular support for the common good.” The message was clear: if Singapore could transform itself from a polluted backwater into a global green powerhouse, so can any city.

For thirty years, the city-state painstakingly cleaned up its polluted areas, created agencies like the National Parks Board, and determined that everywhere one looked, one could find greenery. A concrete jungle was never what the pioneers had in mind. From urban planning to policy inducements to zoning to public awareness campaigns, the successive governments of Singapore have followed this central vision for their nation. They now call it the ‘biophilic City in a Garden,’ and the government calls upon every Singaporean to do their part to keep their city green and clean.

Youth are the key

The current evolution of this vision, says Lim, includes a key component of the Nature Conservation Master Plan (NCMP): outreach. In this vision, they are targeting Singapore’s youth.

“We are going back to history, to ensure that we build from the ground up and ensure that the youth of Singapore don’t take our 50 years of history for granted,” Lim says. With a new generation of Singaporeans who only know clean air and green parks, the lessons of history can easily be forgotten.

“We don’t want that to happen. We want a ground up effort, to appreciate nature more, contribute to the science behind the conservation of nature so it becomes a movement.” A youth movement and a generation which has grown up educated in conservation is insurance, Lim says. “In future if someone says, ‘let’s not think about green, let’s build’, there will be a significant percentage of population” who can act as informed advocates for nature’s conservation and green spaces instead of a modern, first-world city.

The next generation will hopefully buy-in to the vision, he says, that “‘we treasure Singapore’s unique status as a green and biodiverse city and we should work to keep it this way.’” To him, this is the legacy of Singapore’s founding generation he and his team are working to retain and enhance. “We want to ensure the sustainability of our green vision.”

Environmental conservation “has to be something that is driven by the grassroots movement, it has to become in a sense political. You can’t easily turn a nature reserve into buildings, it would require some reasoned discussion with the public. We have to make sure that the younger generation appreciate our nature and biodiversity and not take them for granted.”

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Urban Development

UN and civil society team up to make cities more sustainable and inclusive

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Salt Lake City in the US state of Utah, is hosting the United Nations Civil Society Conference. Image: Visit Salt Lake

How can we make sure that cities become more inclusive, with a smaller environmental footprint, and leave no-one behind? These questions will be tackled at the UN Civil Society Conference, which is due to take place in the capital of Utah, Salt Lake City, at the end of August.

Representatives of civil society will have the opportunity to meet with senior UN officials, and discuss a wide range of solutions to the challenges of urban life.

The theme of this year’s conference, “building sustainale and inclusive cities and communities”, reflects the fact that over half of the world’s population, some 55 per cent, now live in urban areas, with that figure expected to rise to 68 per cent by 2050.

Conference sessions will discuss topics connected to the main theme, including climate change; opportunities for youth; and emerging technologies and innovation.

Leaders of large urban centres, such as Salt Lake City in the state of Utah, the communities that live in them, as well as the private sector, are at the forefront of finding sustainable solutions to poverty; climate change; clean water and energy; and many of the other challenges connected to urban living.

Salt Lake City’s sustainability credentials include the development of a Climate Positive Plan, laying out a path for a transition to 100 per cent clean energy by 2032, and an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2024. In addition, the nearby Utah Valley University, works to educate the campus and larger community on the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and has been an affiliate member of the UN’s Department of Global Communications (DGC) since 2017.

“As a city committed to being inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, it is an honor to be the first US host city of the UN Civil Society Conference outside of New York,” said Mayor Jackie Biskupski in a statement. “I can think of no better time and no better place than Salt Lake City, for the UN and the world’s NGOs to expand awareness in this country of sustainable development goals and the value of global unity.”

Highlights include interactive thematic sessions, NGO-sponsored workshops, exhibits and a youth hub. Speakers and attendees will include leaders and other representatives from NGOs, UN agencies, academia, faith traditions, the public and private sectors and youth from around the world.

The UN Civil Society Conference is described by the UN as the Organization’s “premier event in the civil society calendar”, focusing on UN topics of interest to civil society and NGOs, where issues of global concern can be discussed.

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WEF to Lead G20 Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance

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The World Economic Forum, the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation, has been selected to act as the secretariat for a new G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance.

The alliance unites municipal, regional and national governments, private-sector partners and cities’ residents around a shared set of core guiding principles for the implementation of smart city technologies. Currently, there is no global framework or set of rules in place for how sensor data collected in public spaces, such as by traffic cameras, is used. The effort aims to foster greater openness and trust as well as create standards for how this data is collected and used. This marks the first time that smart city technologies and global technology governance have been elevated to the main agenda.

The Forum will coordinate with members from the G20, Urban 20 and Business 20 communities to develop new global governance guidelines for the responsible use of data and digital technologies in urban environments. The Internet of Things, Robotics and Smart Cities team in the Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network will take the lead and ensure accountability throughout the alliance’s members.

“This is a commitment from the largest economies in the world to work together and set the norms and values for smart cities,” said Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum. “We will coordinate efforts so that we can all work in alignment to move this important work forward. It is important we maximize the benefit and minimize the risk of smart city technology so all of society can benefit, not the few.”

“The advancement of smart cities and communities is critical to realize Japan’s vision for Society 5.0. It is also essential to address the world’s most pressing challenges, including climate change and inclusive economic growth,” said Koichi Akaishi, Director General for Science, Technology and Innovation for the Cabinet Office of the Government of Japan. “The Government of Japan is proud to have championed this cause as part of our G20 presidency and was pleased to see the Business 20, Urban 20 and G20 Digital Ministers all pledge their support for the creation of a global smart cities coalition. To advance this work, we are pleased to welcome the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution as the global secretariat for this important initiative.”

Public-private cooperation is crucial to achieving global change. Efforts to form the Global Smart Cities Alliance have been supported by four partners of the World Economic Forum: Eisai, Hitachi, NEC and Salesforce.

“Open and Agile Smart Cities is thrilled to be part of this global effort led by the World Economic Forum to support cities and communities with a global framework,” said Martin Brynskov, Chair of Open and Agile Smart Cities, an international smart cities network. “Openness and interoperability are key to scaling up digital smart city solutions that help tackle the challenges that cities are facing in the 21st century – on the cities’ terms and conditions.”

“This alliance builds on the work already done by many cities around the globe – such as the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights – to empower citizens through digital technologies. A human-centric digital society shall reflect the openness, diversity and inclusion that are at the core of our societies and value systems,” said Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona. “Cities must spearhead efforts to put technology and data at the service of the citizens in order to tackle big social and environmental challenges, such as feminism, affordable housing, climate change and the energy transition. We are committed to being part of this global endeavour to build a digital society that puts citizens first and preserves their fundamental rights.”

“In today’s interconnected world, global collaboration is no longer merely an option, it is a necessity, said Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City. “New York City is proud to have championed a model for smart cities that puts our most vulnerable residents first. We also recognize that now more than ever urban issues have global implications. As mayors, we have a unique responsibility to lead by example and demonstrate a sustainable path towards a more inclusive and equitable future.”

“As the world continues to urbanise, it is indispensable to successfully manage urban growth,” said Ichiro Hara, Secretary General of the B20 Tokyo Summit, and Managing Director of Japan Business Federation, Keidanren. “The Business 20 have called to support the implementation of Society 5.0 by fostering cooperation among smart cities. We applaud the G20 for heeding our call for a smart cities alliance and look forward for a common guiding principles to be developed through this critical initiative.”

“The Cities for All Network is excited to partner with the World Economic Forum and the G20 to help realize our shared vision for a more inclusive urban future,” said Victor Pineda, President of World Enabled and Co-Founder of Smart Cities for All. “The last industrial revolution left out a lot of people. As we move into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we cannot risk repeating past mistakes. We need to work together to co-design robust policy frameworks to ensure that all members of society can contribute to and benefit from technological advancements.”

“Local governments and city leadership need to be at the core of decision-making when developing smart cities, said Emilia Saiz, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG). “It is the guarantee to ensure the human dimension and the protection of the commons. United Cities and Local Governments is delighted to contribute in every way possible to that process and to transform the conversation around digital rights.”

“In pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals and in line with the New Urban Agenda, UN-Habitat affirms the importance of coordinating efforts around protections and standards in deploying smart digital infrastructure to ensure that such smart technologies benefit all, particularly the vulnerable, including people with disabilities,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN Habitat. “We welcome this important new alliance led by the World Economic Forum, G20, mayors, national governments, multilateral organizations, and civil society groups.”

About the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network

The Network helped Rwanda write the world’s first agile drone regulation and is scaling this up throughout Africa and Asia. It also developed actionable governance toolkits for corporate executives on blockchain, co-designed the first-ever Industrial IoT (IIoT) Safety and Security Protocol and created a personal data policy framework with the UAE.

Based in San Francisco, the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings together governments, leading companies, civil society and experts from around the world to co-design and pilot innovative approaches to the policy and governance of new technologies. More than 100 governments, companies, civil society, international organizations and experts are working together to design and pilot innovative approaches to the policy and governance of technology. Teams are creating human-centred and agile policies to be piloted by policy-makers and legislators around the world, shaping the future of emerging technology in ways that maximize the benefits and minimize the risks.

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Global housing crisis: Urgent action needed on planning, policy and technology

MD Staff

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The world must act now to address the crisis in affordable housing. According to a new report by the World Economic Forum, Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities, about 90% of cities around the world do not provide affordable housing or of adequate quality. The report says that the cost of housing, as well as location, prohibits people from meeting other basic living costs, threatening their employment and fundamental human rights.

In Africa, more than half of the population live in sub-standard conditions, and in India and China, almost a quarter of the population live in informal settlements. Across the world, millennials spend more on housing than previous generations and have a lower quality of life. By 2050, more than 30% of the urban population around the world, about 2.5 billion people, will live in sub-standard housing or be financially stretched by housing costs.

“A world in which only a few can afford housing is not sustainable,” said Alice Charles, Lead, Cities, Urban Development and Urban Services, World Economic Forum. “If cities are to find solutions, it requires a broader understanding of what constitutes affordability and the factors that affect it. This report explores both supply-side and demand-side dynamics affecting affordability and guides decision-makers towards strategic interventions and long-term reforms that can reduce dependence on government support systems and incentivize more commercially viable affordable housing through policies and practices that address systemic gaps in the housing value chain.”

The key challenges to affordable housing include land acquisitions, zoning and regulations that affect land use, funding mechanisms, and design and construction costs. Examples of innovative approaches to support affordable housing include:

· The cities of Chengdu and Chongqing, China, are making land available through tradable land quotas, allowing agricultural land to be converted to urban use.

· The Communities Plus Programme in Sydney, Australia, is partnering with the private sector to develop 23,000 new and replacement social housing units, linking housing assistance with participation in education, training and local employment opportunities.

· Hamburg, Germany, and Copenhagen, Denmark, are pooling publicly owned assets into an Urban Wealth Fund that works with the private sector on affordable housing development projects.

· Employers such as Facebook and Google in the US, IKEA in Reykjavik, Iceland, Lego in Billund, Denmark, Samsung in Seoul and Suwon, Republic of Korea, and Alibaba in Hangzhou, China, are investing in housing developments for employees.

· London, UK, is offering construction training to address the skills shortage in the industry.

· Mexico is deploying bricklayer robots that increase construction productivity.

· Austin, US, Beijing and Shanghai, China, and Eindhoven, Netherlands, are exploring 3D printing to build homes.

· Denver, US, is mandating certain buildings to install green roofs or solar panels to save on energy costs for the occupants.

· Dupnitsa, Bulgaria, and Poznan, Poland, are changing eligibility criteria for social housing projects to support more citizens.

· Bristol, UK, is constructing homes with six types of housing tenure, including build-to-rent, shared ownership and rent-to-buy models.

· MIT’s Media Lab has developed an 18.5 square-metre prototype apartment that uses transformable furniture that can be flipped, moved and stowed by hand gestures and voice commands, increasing the functionality to an apartment three times its size.

The report also outlines recommendations for city governments, the private sector and non-profits, including:

· City governments must develop regulations that emphasize property rights, protect tenants, support mixed-income housing development and enable innovative financing models.

· The private sector should work with local communities to provide affordable housing for employees, support new financing mechanisms and help meet housing costs. Private developers must invest in sustainable, energy-efficient design and use new materials, equipment and technologies to increase productivity.

· The non-profit sector should work with cities and private developers to offer alternative tenure models, provide policy development and technical support, and educate and advocate for citizens.

Ensuring affordable housing is critical to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11, which aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. According to the 2016 New Urban Agenda, housing policies can affect health, employment, poverty, mobility and energy consumption.

Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities was created in collaboration with PwC.

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