The Business Times

Using the scorching sun to cool us is the wave of the future, as Singapore showcases

Formed into a multi-ethnic milieu through migration with little resource but its people, the city-state has adapted to challenges and is taking on the next: air-conditioning.

Published Thu, Oct 7, 2021 · 05:50 AM

MANY believe that protectionism, populism, and the pandemic mean we have reached peak migration, but let us look at the economics. Over the past half century, governments have borrowed to the tune of US$250 trillion (more than triple the global gross domestic product) to finance everything from roads to retirement plans. While this has paid for modern civilisation as we know it, ageing countries are now staring down the barrel of economic stagnation unless they attract migrants and investors, and the tax-paying activities they bring.

Without younger generations to make use of homes, schools, hospitals, offices, restaurants, hotels, malls, museums, stadiums, and other facilities, many countries risk permanent deflation - both demographic and economic.

In a world of demographic deflation, countries are competing to attract talented and wealthy people to settle within their borders. Countries do not dictate to them but bend over backwards to lure them. The rise of a citizenship marketplace represents an important turning of the tables in the relationship between individuals and states. American legal scholar David Franck speaks of individuals becoming more "autonomous, empowered actors". Passports are becoming like mileage programmes, flags of convenience, not the embodiment of one's identity. The French Revolution's ideals were "liberty, equality, fraternity". Today's opportunistic jet set live by the motto "mobility, liquidity, optionality".

Throughout history, great cities have been open to trade and talent, knowing that their survival depends on it. Singapore evolved over several centuries into a multi-ethnic milieu as the Chinese migrated southward and Indians were circulated across the British empire. But since independence in 1965, it has become a melting pot by design, as founding father Lee Kuan Yew insisted on ethnically mixed public housing to prevent ghettos. Mandatory national service in which all races share bunks and basic training also gave rise to lifelong friendships across ethnic lines.

The result: Singapore has by far the world's highest rate of interracial marriages (about one-third), especially Indo-Chinese couples who become parents of "Chindian" children. As mixed-race families become the social norm, pleas for ethnically based politics become weaker and having multiple identities becomes a genetic norm.


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The tension Singapore must manage is between granting every ethnic group its licence - official language, national holidays, right to practise their various customs - while also relentlessly promoting a national identity that is pan-ethnic and non-denominational. Even though it is a majority Chinese country, this civic identity appeals to common experiences such as postcolonial state-building and points to a future of shared prosperity. But the task of nurturing communal stability is never complete. A new wave of mainland Chinese (and to a lesser degree Indian) migrants have set up shop without absorbing the principal features of Singapore's civic identity such as actively embracing diversity and learning English. Belatedly, the government has stepped up assimilation programmes to avoid foreign enclaves from taking root.

It is revealing that the countries ranking high in both competitiveness and resilience to disruptions are all small countries. With little land or margin for error, they treat people as their most precious resource, regularly retraining workers for higher-skilled jobs. Singapore is relentless in preparing youth for careers as fintech investors, digital healthcare specialists, data scientists, and cybersecurity experts.

Reflecting on his success in turning Singapore into an iconic first world city-state, Singapore's founding father, Mr Lee, listed a number of the young nation's well-known virtues, such as corruption-free politics and multi-ethnic harmony. But then he got really philosophical: "Air-conditioning was a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilisation by making development possible in the tropics."

There is an irony to some of the hottest countries in the world attracting more residents amid global warming, but it also reveals which places have the capacity and willpower to invest in adaptation. Another irony, of course, is maintaining livability through installing millions more air-conditioning units whose emissions exacerbate greenhouse effects.

Even though we share a global climate, regional and even local microclimates matter a great deal, especially as urban industrial activities elevate temperatures. Singapore and other dense cities have such a "heat island effect", in which transport congestion traps heat and raises the temperature as much as 7 degrees Celsius above what it would naturally be. Furthermore, pumping imported oil and gas into power stations generates massive amounts of heat (more than half of it wasted in production) that wafts into the city itself. All of this leads to people cranking up their air-conditioners even further. This is how air-conditioning, our solution to heat, makes the heat even worse.

But the future of air-conditioning may be much more sustainable than its present. The National University of Singapore has developed an air-conditioner that uses solar thermal energy both to generate power and to wick water from the air, using the former to chill the latter, meaning less than half the electricity and none of the chemical CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons). Each district of the island is getting integrated centres that enclose in a single solar panel-covered and air-conditioned area with amenities like shopping, libraries, swimming pools, childcare, restaurants, and medical clinics. Using the scorching sun to cool us is the wave of the future.

Singapore is also a leading example of how natural canopies of tree-covered walkways and spacious parks remain the best strategy for preserving urban biodiversity. The new Oasis Terraces is a breezy indoor-outdoor mixed-use complex of tree-covered slanted walkways with rooftop gardens, and public fountains for cooling.


Even cities dependent on food and water imports can become more circular. Singapore already has extensive rainwater collection and a sophisticated water treatment system that produces "Newater" piped across the island. It could, and perhaps should, ban private bottled water imports. The Swiss university ETH Zurich's "Cooling Singapore" project brings together climate specialists from MIT, Berkeley, Princeton, and other universities to identify these and other ways to reduce the urban heat island effect.

Capturing heat from power plants and directing it towards industry is one obvious step. Thanks to high taxes on car ownership and dense public transport, Singapore has only 460,000 cars for 5.8 million people. Converting all those vehicles as well as public buses into electric vehicles (EVs) would lower the temperature by at least one degree, which would reduce the air-conditioning load by 20 per cent and reduce natural gas imports as well. The same electricity saved in less air-con usage could power the whole EV fleet.

For decades, Singapore has been dependent on importing water from Malaysia to its north. But today, Singapore's reservoir network feeds Newater treatment plants that pipe potable water across the country. As part of its "30 by 30" initiative to generate 30 per cent of nutritional needs from domestic sources by 2030, it has also started large-scale hydroponic food production and is ramping up fish farming and plant-based proteins. After Covid-19, Singapore decided to bring the timeline forward to 2023. If an urban city-state that's almost 100 per cent dependent on imported food can generate more of its domestic food supply, then so can almost any place.

At the lotus flower-shaped ArtScience Museum, artist Alvin Pang's arresting exhibit titled 2219: Futures Imagined depicts urban life in coastal cities such as Singapore under the deluge scenario: Streets have been replaced with broad Venetian-style canals, cars have given way to boats, and buildings are connected by sky bridges and hanging gardens with dripping vines. Every home is stuffed with hydroponic units growing vegetables, and boxes of worms for composting. It is a dystopian picture from today's standpoint, but an adaptive one.

  • The writer is founder and managing partner of FutureMap. This is adapted from his new book Move: How Mass Migration Will Reshape the World - and What it Means for You.


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