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Five ways to build the future

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    In a rapidly urbanizing world, Singapore is blazing a trail by showing how a city can square sustainability and economic growth, without recourse to costly state subsidies.

  • Facts


    • Singapore has been rated Asia’s most eco-friendly city.
    • With the help of foreign partners, the city-state has set out to become a test bed for green technology.
    • Singapore has commissioned a 3D digital map of the entire state.
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81904425_singapore_ddp imagesCAMERA PRESS
Singapore is developing radical new concepts for urban living, such as these stacked residential buildings. Source: ddp images/CAMERA PRESS

The walls at Cleantech One, a $62-million (€55-million) research and office center in Singapore, are alive. In foyers and along hallways, they’re covered with ferns and tropical vines whose foliage keeps the air cool and pleasant, cutting the need for power-guzzling air conditioners. Energy-efficient lighting is installed throughout the building. A bio-digester eliminates waste.

But for the real innovation, study the outer walls of this 37,500-square-meter building on the campus of Nanyang Technological University. There, the German start-up Heliatek has covered the façade with a new type of photovoltaic cell made not from silicone, but from organic molecules. The next-generation cells, developed at universities in Dresden and Ulm, not only convert sunlight into electricity more efficiently than any other technology, they are also cheaper to produce than conventional solar panels. Wafer-thin and flexible, Heliatek cells can be attached literally anywhere, including onto any building façade. Expensive solar arrays, taking up vast tracts of land, could soon be a thing of the past.

This is just one of many projects that have turned Singapore – already ranked as Asia’s most eco-friendly city – into a global laboratory for building the 21st-century metropolis. The goal: a clean environment and efficient use of resources married with high economic growth. And to serve as a model that can be exported to any of the world’s megacities from Guangdong and Chengdu to Manila and Mexico City.

And as Heliatek’s presence shows, Singapore isn’t doing it alone. The city-state has emerged as a magnet for the world’s companies specializing in clean technology and sustainable urban planning. For them, Singapore is a testing ground for new technologies that could grab a slice of the vast global market for clean tech, now valued at around $1 trillion worldwide. Take Heliatek’s Singapore pilot project. The Dresden-based start-up subsequently raised €82 million ($92 million) in venture financing from BNP Paribas, Innogy and other investors. “The fact that we had been in Singapore gave us solid customer credibility,” says CEO Thibaud Le Séguillon. “We could present data that showed our technology really worked on a large scale under hot, humid conditions.”


The Western ideal of sustainability and conservation – saving water, turning off the lights, leaving the car in the garage – was rejected as deeply unfair by a developing world where many citizens still had no clean water to save, no lights to turn off and no car to leave in the garage.

There’s a reason this is happening in Singapore and not in Stuttgart or in Silicon Valley. With their breakneck pace of development and relentless hunger for energy, it is the emerging markets in Asia and elsewhere that will decide the future of resource use and of the global environment. The Western ideal of sustainability and conservation – saving water, turning off the lights, leaving the car in the garage – was rejected as deeply unfair by a developing world where many citizens still had no clean water to save, no lights to turn off and no car to leave in the garage. Cutting back would stifle development. Other Western models, such as Germany’s €25-billion-a-year subsidies to promote a transition to renewable energy – a policy that has largely failed to cut emissions or ensure energy security – are seen as wasteful and ineffective in much of the world.

Singapore is a testing ground for doing it differently. Its leaders want to show the world how to achieve more with less, how to craft smarter policies that don’t impede growth and how to green an economy with technology that’s not dependent on subsidies. Only a model that’s financially – as well as ecologically – sustainable has any chance of convincing the burgeoning megacities of the developing world.

It’s the same hard-headed, technocratic approach that transformed the unpromising, rundown Singapore of 1965, when it won independence, into the thriving mini-state of today. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s minister for foreign affairs, puts the matter plainly when he says that Singapore is, above all, relentlessly pragmatic. “We focus on outcomes, not ideology,” he says. “Our policies are based on what works.”

And fortunately, Singapore is proving that a nation can turn green without stifling future growth and development. Here are five solutions that Singapore is developing with the help of global companies:

Smarter grids

Science has already shown the world how to harness energy from the sun, winds or tides to create electricity. But how can power from all such renewable sources be integrated into a single green-energy system, independent of the conventional electricity grid? That’s the puzzle now being addressed by a Nanyang Technological University team on the island of Semakau.

It’s a project of far more than theoretical interest. Renewable energy can often be dangerously unreliable, cloudy days mean little solar power and wind power depends on a constant breeze. The obvious solution is a microgrid using a range of renewable sources so that at least one is available at any time.

Beneficiaries might include many remote, isolated communities on the Indonesian archipelago with no access to standard sources of electricity. But the project also fits into a wider trend of decentralized power generation, away from the giant power stations that often provide energy across entire countries. Already, a clutch of leading international companies has been attracted to the experiment on Semakau to explore the microgrid’s potential. French multinational Alstom is designing a microgrid management system, German battery company Varta is experimenting with energy storage and Danish wind power giant Vestas is testing new turbine technology.

MG p56 Future – World’s Largest Cities-01

Efficient use of space

With a growing global population increasingly crammed into the world’s megacities, space is at a premium. Singapore is experimenting with ways to maximize urban food and energy production. With some 5.6 million people sharing barely 700 square kilometers – a land area smaller than Berlin – the city is a perfect field test for how to multi-purpose every precious plot of land.

Take the scheme to lay solar panels on the city’s Tengeh Reservoir. The six-month trial – the largest of its kind, covering one hectare of water surface – involves ten separate floating photovoltaic systems, provided by Norway’s REC Solar and other leading companies from the around the world. The goal is to study the panels’ efficiency as well as their effect on water quality and the reservoir’s ecosystem. It’s thought that the floating array might also prevent evaporation, a boon when the city is almost wholly dependent on neighboring Malaysia for its water. If the experiment succeeds, floating solar panels – just like those Heliatek cells slapped on buildings – could replace the solar arrays that now take up extensive tracts of land.

The same constraints on space – farmland is so scarce that Singapore imports 90 percent of its food – have also made the city a leader in “vertical farms,” using intensive high-tech methods to produce food in old warehouses or tower blocks. Beginning with a single such farm five years ago, there are now seven licensed in the city, providing not just vegetables but also aquaculture produce such as fish and crab. One of Singapore’s pioneers is the Japanese electronics firm Panasonic, which grows 80 tons of vegetables a year in a 248-square meter warehouse.

Sensors everywhere

The quest for ever greater efficiency demands a constant flow of data. That’s why Singapore has turned to a new generation of smart sensors to gather the information it needs. In time, sensors will monitor all areas of everyday life, from traffic conditions to air quality and crowd density. The information gathered will be transmitted directly to government agencies. Engineers have called the scheme “E3A” for “Everyone, Everything, Everywhere, All the Time.”

Already, water sensors provide a constant flow of pressure data that allows the authorities to spot likely blockages and weak spots in the pipes. Result: Singapore loses just 4 percent of its water supply, compared to 30 percent in France. More controversially, future sensors may be able to pick up illicit smoking in no-smoking areas. The authorities have also run trials of wireless sensor technology in private homes to monitor the movements of older people as part of a wider plan to improve healthcare for an ageing population.

New financing models

If Singapore is out to woo good green performers, it’s not afraid to penalize the eco-hostile. After smoke from forest fires in nearby Indonesia led to devastating smog in 2015, the Association of Banks in Singapore issued new rules aimed at restricting loans to the companies suspected of causing the fires. All financial institutions must now consider environmental and social criteria before lending money and similar regulations apply to companies listed on the Singapore stock exchange. There are no penalties yet for companies that fail to meet the criteria, but they risk being named and shamed. Since then, smog levels have fallen markedly.

A slew of financial incentives and tax breaks are on offer to companies with sustainable ventures in mind. Direct support is often capped at modest levels. But handy tax breaks are available, including those for companies that invest in energy-efficient manufacturing equipment. The government is also eager to stimulate a green bonds market, where issuers pledge that funds will be used on projects delivering environmental gains.

Building a virtual city 

It’s called “Virtual Singapore,” a €67-million digital model of the entire city-state that’s now under construction by the French software company Dassault Systèmes in partnership with the National Research Foundation Singapore. Enriched with a comprehensive mass of data, the 3-D simulation – think SimCity – will be available to architects, urban planners and officials to spot trends and to scheme the city’s sustainable future.

At the click of a mouse, platform users can zoom in on individual buildings to bring up information on anything from the number of residents to energy use and the availability of parking spaces. Zoom out, and a wider search might yield data on, say, neighborhood traffic conditions, health stats or even weather patterns. “It’s the most significant project in the world to demonstrate the power of the 3D platform,” says Sylvain Laurent, executive vice president of Dassault. And its main purpose is to make the city efficient and green.

To be sure, Singapore still has a long way to go. Singapore loves to dwell on its Garden City image (this is still a city of seven million trees) and regularly attracts delegations from far and wide that are keen to emulate its success. Abu Dhabi has been studying Singapore’s water management and the Philippines hope to learn lessons on waste. But for now, renewable energy still represents a paltry one percent of Singapore’s energy mix. That said, the direction is set and targets in place. Planners want to see 80 percent of buildings meet the highest green standards by 2030, as well as a 35 percent hike in energy efficiency.

More importantly, the underlying philosophy is clear. Improvements will come without lavish state subsidies and pie-in-the-sky objectives. “What is important for Singapore is a long-term strategy,” says Heliatek chief executive Thibaud Le Séguillon. “They want independence from fossil fuels, but they don’t want to set unreachable goals. They want to see if there is technology to meet these goals.” And if that means offering their country as a proving ground, so much the better for all parties.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Handelsblatt Global Magazine. Meera Selva reports for Handelsblatt Global from Singapore. To contact the author:

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