“It is not just the hardware aspects of engineering and
architecture but the software as well. It goes beyond the application of
technology, economics and sociology. It needs a deep understanding of human
beings, their emotions and psychology – how individuals behave, how society
Speaking at the Singapore University of Technology and
Design (SUTD)'s Ministerial Forum, PM Lee Hsien Loong talked
about the importance of design thinking in the development of Singapore.
As an institution, SUTD is focused on identifying and
analysing real-world problems, and coming up with comprehensive, systematic and
analytical solutions, practical solutions. At the national level, design is
similarly a core element of Singapore’s nation-building.
Talking on the topic of a “A Better Nation by Design” PM
Lee said that nothing in Singapore is natural or happened by itself or by chance.
Singapore’s economic growth, international standing, multiracial standing, and
even its nationhood were all achieved by design.
“We didn’t call it design thinking then, but with each of
these major policies, our founding fathers had to understand the issues, define
the problem, come up with creative ideas and solutions, prototype the idea,
test out the innovations, and constantly review the thinking and solutions. And
that is the essence of design thinking,” he said, referring to the building of
the Singapore Armed Forces, the creation of the Economic Development Board and
setting up the Housing Development Board.
The past – Public
housing and water supply
When the PAP (People’s Action Party) took office, housing
was one of its top priorities. Many people in Singapore lived in slums or
squatter settlements. HDB was set up in 1960 and an ambitious building
programme was launched to house Singaporeans.
The idea was to build not just flats, but homes. HDB had to
consider many factors in their plans: Configuration and size of each flat, to
serve big and small families and different income levels; local amenities like
wet markets, hawker centres, schools, neighbourhood centres, places of worship;
common spaces like void decks, common corridors and parks, to promote social
The Government also came up with policies that gave
Singaporeans a substantial stake in the country, such as the Home
Ownership for the People Scheme and the use of CPF (Central Provident Fund)
savings for the down-payment and mortgage instalments on HDB flats.
Thus, public housing was treated as much more than an urban
planning exercise, or an engineering and construction project. It was a social,
economic and political endeavour.
Today more than 80% of Singaporeans live in high quality HDB
flats and Singapore has no slums or ghettos.
Similarly, Singapore started off with limited domestic
sources of water and was heavily reliant on water from Johor (Malaysia). This
was a vulnerability. To tackle the problem, the Government implemented multiple solutions
simultaneously. Reservoirs and catchment areas were enlarged to retain “every
single drop of rain.” River mouths were dammed up to create new reservoirs –
Lower Seletar, Kranji, Murai, Poyan, and others.
The Government launched Save Water” campaigns to raise
public consciousness of the preciousness of water. And water was priced to
reflect its scarcity, and to give a financial incentive to never waste water.
Later on, Singapore developed new technology to reclaim and
reuse water from waste water treatment plants. NEWater
effectively doubled the water supply. (Of every drop of water, half is
reclaimed, and of that half drop, another half is reclaimed. The geometric
series of one plus half plus one quarter plus one eighth converges, and the sum
PUB, which was in charge of drinking water, was also placed
in charge of waste water treatment, to make one organisation responsible for
the whole water cycle: from supplying clean water, to collecting back the used
water, cleaning it up, processing it further, reusing it as NEWater.
Now Singapore has what PUB calls “four taps” – Johor water,
Singapore reservoirs, NEWater, and desalination.
The future – Land planning,
PM Lee said, “It is time for us to reimagine and rebuild
Singapore. You may find this comment odd because nearly every inch of our land
is developed or planned for, and there does not seem to be anymore empty space
for development. So how can we reimagine and rebuild further? But we can, and
the answer is by freeing up new parcels of land, and enabling already developed
parts of Singapore to be redeveloped, modernised and improved.”
One example is to move Paya Lebar Airbase to Changi, beyond
the airport. It is expected to take 15 years, but once the move is completed,
around 800 ha of land in Paya Lebar will be available for redevelopment. This
will remove height constraints over the eastern part of Singapore and the whole
region can be redeveloped and progressively rebuilt over 50 years.
Another crucial area is public transport. PM Lee described public
transport as another ‘multi-level design problem’. At one level it is an
engineering problem, involving mapping out the network to have the right
connections and coverage, using the right technologies and engineering methods,
and building in sufficient capacity for the present and the future, along with
redundancy, reliability and flexibility.
At another level it is an economic problem about structuring
the industry so that the different players – the operators who operate the
trains, the asset owners who own the trains, the Government and the commuters –
will have the right incentives to do the right things. Questions such as who
should own the trains or the buses, who should be responsible for maintenance,
for replacing trains when they get old, for buying new trains when ridership
increases new capacity is required.
Should involved parties be incentivized by profits, so that
they watch the bottom line and save every dollar or reimbursed for costs so
that they do not hold back when they need to spend and when costs really go up?
How much should commuters pay? How much should the Government subsidise fares?
Then there is the most complicated socio-political aspect to
public transport. Public transport is an economic mobiliser and a social
“All Singaporeans, regardless of where we live, and how much
we earn, we need to move around and interact with one another in the city with
ease, for work, school and recreation. It is part of the shared experience of
living in Singapore, and being Singaporean. We all want a high quality,
efficient, reliable and cost-effective public transport system. None of us like
it when fares go up. So how do we give the public the assurance that the system
is fair, that it is well run, and that when fares have to go up, they have to
go up for a good reason, and the increases are necessary and justified?,” PM
These problems cannot be solved through calculations and
audits or by consulting managers. The Government has to talk to Singaporeans and
persuade people the system is working well, working for them, and they have to
Many other areas, such as healthcare, education, CPF,
national service and the political system can benefit from design thinking.
PM Lee said. That good design does not happen in a vacuum. There
is a need to amalgamate experiences and views across many disciplines.
He called for the development of a visionary plan which would
take Singapore from SG50 to SG100 and beyond. It should build on past
experience, accumulated resources, the imagination and skills of people and the
opportunities of the region.
“We should create an outstanding living environment, a
well-planned, technologically advanced, green and sustainable city. Not just
well-designed buildings, structures and infrastructure but also good
fine-grained urban design – adaptable public spaces, immersive greenery,
people-friendly walkways – all well integrated into the neighbourhoods. It will
be a new city built on a human scale with distinctive local identities, and a
place where the human spirit can flourish,” the PM said, presenting his vision
Read the transcript of the speech here.
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