By Dr Lim Wee Kiat and Dr Kim Hyungkyoo
The Business Times
September 8, 2015
IF technology and cities are celebrities, their affection for each other won’t make front page in tabloids. This is because their union as smart city technology is old news. What is novel is that the world has yet to see the scale and speed of change their union might bring owing to the growing size of cities. According to the Asian Development Bank, the number of mega cities-cities with 10 million people or more – will grow from 21 in 2012 to 37 in Asia within the next ten years.
However, for smart city technology to deliver its promise, it has to be sustainable. This means people today have to be prudent with the resources they use to build smart technology in cities, so that they don’t consume what is supposed to be passed on to their children. Without designing with sustainability in mind, no matter how affordable smart technology is, cities will still be consuming more resources and yet be hungry for more.
Therefore people have to think deeper on how to deploy smart city technology in sustainable ways. Let us go local: Consider how to better harness Singapore’s abundant sunshine, dense population, and thick transport networks. Some technologies that leverage such properties are already commercially available or in advanced stages of development.
For example, the Netherlands Smart Highway Project uses luminous paint to mark roads. The paint absorbs daylight and glows up to eight hours at night. Besides being novel and pleasing with its soft glowing light, the luminous lines on the roads reduce public spending on street lighting.
Singapore’s human and vehicular traffic can be powerful, literally. For example, the many marathons and walk-a-thons that we organise can be used for energy harvesting – and participants won’t be striding in vain. At the 2013 Paris marathon, many ran across energy harvesting tiles on a 25-metre stretch that converted their pounding to electricity enough to power a laptop for more than two days. That might seem insignificant, but it may be enough to run low-voltage equipment such as vending machines.
Once commercially viable, energy harvesting tiles will accumulate energy from human traffic as they go about their daily lives. This design could power public lighting, EZ-Link machines, and ERP gantries especially during peak hours. The tiles could be laid in MRT stations, bus interchanges and roads, and located near train doors, around ERP gantries, escalator areas, as well as bus alighting and boarding points. Its potential can be even greater when technology is mature enough to tile entire strips of pavements and roads. While there are still technical challenges, energy harvesting technology today is already closer to fact than fiction.
Singapore also needs to think about how the island- city-state consumes energy. Let us start with how much an air-conditioned nation it has become as the majority of the buildings are now cooled by air-conditioners.
The proportion of Singapore households with air-conditioners has more than doubled in 20 years, from 35 per cent in 1993 to 76 per cent in 2013. Air-conditioning accounted for the highest proportion of household energy consumption at 37 per cent.
To capture a sense of how cool Singapore has become, we conducted an informal temperature survey of popular publicly accessible locations, like shopping malls and the Changi Airport terminals.
Along the way, we also revisited some venues highlighted in The Straits Times several years ago.
We took temperature on a week day between 10 am and 3 pm, replicating what the reporters did then. Similarly, we took several readings at different spots within the same venue to calculate an average temperature.
The results? All locations were colder than 25 degrees Celsius, the recommended air-conditioning ambient temperature. Suntec City and Bugis+ reigned as the chilliest shopping malls, both at about 23 degrees Celsius.
Given the colonisation of public and private spaces by air-conditioning, it isn’t surprising that people are becoming less tolerant of heat and humidity, and more receptive to cooler and dryer environments.
For a little red dot only one degree shy of the Equator, this acquired taste for temperate climate is unsustainable in the face of climate change.
Technological advances may help Singapore to stay cool in a more sustainable manner. For example, Stanford University researchers created new building materials that can reflect sunlight back into the largest heat sink in the universe: the outer space. The new composite may help Singapore to reduce the extent of air-conditioning we need.
Here, Ngee Ann Polytechnic students recently built a prototype that can channel waste heat from air-conditioning compressors to complement daily routines like taking showers. This may help shrink utility bills, an everyday concern that everyone identifies with.
While neither method is close to being launched in markets here and afar, emerging technology deployed intelligently in cities can help urban dwellers stay cooler – with sustainability in mind.
However, technology is only part of the cooling equation. Our appetite for a cooler environment is not only physiological, but also psychological and cultural. For example, research and our own experience tell us that people feel more comfortable when there is a light breeze, somewhat independent of surrounding temperatures.
Recent reports remind us that women tend to feel colder compared to men at the same temperature.
The gender divide in thermal comfort is also cultural partly because of office attire. Men wearing long sleeve shirts, likely layered with sweaters or jackets, are better buffered in air-conditioned offices.
In fact, one needs air-conditioning as part of the preppy fashion package (read: shirts, suits, and sweaters) to look and feel cool.
Perhaps Singapore could turn to Hong Kong for sustainable ideas? Hong Kong civil servants are encouraged to dress lighter in summer when government offices set their air-conditioning at 25.5 degrees Celsius.
Apart from air-conditioning, another sustainability challenge for Singapore is waste management.
Thankfully, Singapore has improved its recycling rate. It was 60 per cent last year, comparable with world leaders in sustainability, such as Germany and Belgium. However, there is still room for improvement.
Singapore continues to generate more waste over the years. According to the National Environment Agency, Singapore produced 7.5 million tonnes of waste last year, 58 per cent higher than ten years ago. Waste per capita has also risen 19 per cent from 1.15 tonnes in 2004 to 1.37 tonnes in 2014.
Thus, not surprisingly, Singapore has one of the world’s most efficient waste collecting systems and disposal infrastructures. Its Semakau Landfill – also a world’s first offshore landfill in operation – has been managing waste disposal since 1999.
Although recent improvement has expanded Semakau Island by about 17 million cubic metres (about 6,700 Olympic-size swimming pools) to
serve Singapore beyond 2035, it is the only landfill left here.
To be sustainable means households need to feel the direct consequences of generating waste, which is not obvious in Singapore today. Installing recycling chutes in selected new HDB flats is an important first step, but more needs to be done. Singapore could look closer at other cities and countries.
For example, in densely populated Seoul, no one has been using rubbish chutes for more than 20 years. Citizens dispose at common bins, paying according to the weight of their waste. This encourages them to reduce, recycle, and reuse. Sorting rubbish at recycling bins is part of their daily routine.
While six per cent of waste is consigned to landfills here in Singapore, the figure is only one per cent in Germany. Also, as Singapore continues its appetite for the liberal use of plastic bags, US states such as California and Hawaii, and cities such as Chicago have banned the dispensing of free plastic bags in retail stores.
Technological advancements in the near future may benefit Singapore in waste management. For example, an MIT project called Trash Track seeks to tag and trace the entire life cycle of a product, trying to make 100 per cent recycling a reality. Latest engineering technologies, like plasma gasification, convert organic materials to synthetic gas more efficiently. They are becoming more affordable and environmentally friendly too.
Harvested energy and data coming from various stages of waste’s life cycle will also open markets, identify new business opportunities, and create jobs in what is known as a circular economy, where materials are designed to be biodegradable or recyclable.
This brings us to a similar point on energy harvesting: Technology is only part of the solution.
People’s behaviour and mind-sets need to be part of designing smart city solutions from the start. These solutions have to be comfortable with accommodating two somewhat opposing objectives.
Firstly, when solutions harness prevailing behaviour and mind-sets, they don’t inconvenience people. Before lamenting why people don’t use technology according to plans and manuals, we must observe keenly how they actually behave.
This means that people need to be more astute in identifying when and how technology can be applied unobtrusively and effectively.
Urban planners, technologists, and decision makers therefore could learn more from social scientists, especially ethnographers and anthropologists who conduct deep fieldwork of how people live, work, and play under different contexts.
Secondly, the opposing and more challenging objective is to cultivate a more sustainable behaviour and mind-set. This is especially critical because people have gotten used to reusing and recycling little waste and commuting from an air-conditioned bubble to another in their daily lives.
The first objective we might want to achieve is to rely upon existing science to nudge people towards more sustainable outcomes.
The second objective, however, requires a thorough understanding of how unique, local behaviour unfolds in daily lives. This will include foreigners and tourists as they form a sizeable proportion of our population. Their behaviour affects the sustainability
of this island-city, too. Solutions can then build on insights gathered to configure existing technology, business models and jobs – as well as to create new ones. This way, the love relationship between city and technology can be smart and sustainable.
Dr Lim and Dr Kim are Research Fellows at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKY CIC), SUTD.