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WCS 2021 Session: Engaging Communities, Building Resilience

21 June 2021 (Monday), 8.30am – 9.45am

Hybrid Broadcasting Studio 1, Sands Expo & Conference Centre / WCS Virtual Platform

Opening Remarks:

  • Dr Cheong Koon Hean, Chairman, Centre for Liveable Cities and Chairman, Lee Kuan Yew Centre of Innovative Cities


  • Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for National Development, Singapore


  • Prof Lily Kong, President, Singapore Management University
  • Mr Cheng Hsing Yao, Group Managing Director, Guocoland
  • Mr Edward Walter, Global CEO, Urban Land Institute
  • Ms Amy Chester, Managing Director, Rebuild by Design


  • Prof David Chan, Professor of Psychology and Director of Behavioural Sciences Institute, Singapore Management University

Building trust with humilty and regular, genuine conversations

COVID-19 has revealed the limitations of top-down solutions and highlighted the need to prepare and mobilise communities to face disruptions on the ground. Speakers at the WCS Session on Engaging Communities, Building Resilience discussed key ways to do this: nurturing community leaders, addressing inequalities, and especially building trust through open dialogue

Session Takeaways:

Engaging communities and building resilience is multi-dimensional

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of engaging communities and building cities’ adaptive capacity to address the next disruption. Prof David Chan, Singapore Management University (SMU), noted that this process is multi-dimensional and multi-level, involving partnerships across the 3P (Public, Private and People) sectors, including universities and academia, and across different scales. Mr Cheng Hsing Yao, Group Managing Director of GuocoLand Singapore, added that cities that were able to adapt and implement initiatives across the 3P sectors were better able to address the challenges, citing initiatives such as government support measures for businesses and disadvantaged communities as examples.

Trust as the real foundation

Minister for National Development and Minister-in-charge of Social Services Integration, Desmond Lee, highlighted the importance of trust throughout society, in that “trust is hard to build but easy to lose”, and in times of crises can easily divide a society if we fail to sustain engagement across all sectors. This sentiment was echoed by Mr Cheng, who regarded trust as “the real foundation behind strong 3P coordination and collaboration”, and that such reservoirs of trust are crucial in facilitating honest and transparent conversations between leaders and communities. He added that this will involve “open, genuine, and regular communication and dialogue”. Ms Amy Chester, Managing Director of Rebuild by Design agreed, suggesting that city leaders should engage communities with more humility, and be comfortable even if they “do not have all the answers, so long as they are being transparent”.

In connecting with communities, Mr Edward Walter, Global CEO of the Urban Land Institute, shared that the Dublin City Council has an online portal for the public to submit requests to facilitate safe and equitable mobility around the city while accommodating social distancing. This allows the government to listen to individuals, communities, associations and interest groups.

Prof Lily Kong, President of SMU, also pointed out that universities are rich resources of information, perspectives, insights and ideas across wide-ranging domains that can contribute to strengthening communities, societies and economies, to which Prof Chan noted that people need to trust the competence and integrity of universities to create, disseminate and apply these knowledges.

Cities that rectify inequalities will reap benefits in the long run

Prof Kong observed that the pandemic has highlighted inequalities in societies, such as students not having adequate internet accessibility and equipment for online learning. Ms Chester concurred that “the most vulnerable are the most affected” during the pandemic, and stressed the need to “design with the most vulnerable” in mind. She also emphasised that COVID recovery funds should ensure that it reaps multiple benefits across both national and local scales, and help the most vulnerable first. Prof Kong shared how SMU students delivered an average of 140 hours of volunteer and community service as part of the university’s programme, and supported migrant workers by distributing necessities and having conversations to strengthen their mental health and social resilience, in times of isolation.

Professor Chan also noted the challenges of caregiving during the pandemic. He shared that it is a responsibility that exists regardless of socio-economic class, and cities around the world have been trying to identify and invest resources to assist those in need. Mr Walter opined that cities and governments are best placed to rectify the inequality, and cities that do so the best will reap benefits in the long run.

Government and community leadership

A key attribute in building resilient communities lies in leadership, a sentiment echoed by participants in a poll aimed at addressing the next global disruption. Mr Cheng acknowledged the role of leaders in all sectors, but also stressed for leaders to always adopt an approach of “balance, accuracy and always trying to see things from the other side”, to achieve an outcome of “win-win or win-win-win”.

In his keynote, Minister Lee stressed the importance of community leadership to complement government efforts, likening the community to “the glue that holds people together”. He shared how the government closely collaborated with industry partners, along with community groups such as the Migrant Worker Center and the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition, to offer the necessary aid to foreign workers during the pandemic – resulting in a stronger task force. He complimented the groundswell of community initiatives and highlighted that such “mutual support is the kind of social DNA that we want to promote” under the Singapore Together movement to harness the diversity of Singaporeans as a vital source of strength.

Flexibility in the built environment in the face of disruption

Beyond the social sphere, Minister Lee outlined Singapore’s efforts to enhance adaptability in city planning and the need to “buffer some ’white space’ that can be quickly adapted for emergencies”. For example, during the pandemic, community isolation facilities were set up in existing exhibition centres while alternative housing were set up within vacant public housing and schools. Mr Walter also noted the greater emphasis on improving liveability with more parks and open spaces, encouraging outdoor activities and finding innovative uses for existing green spaces. He shared examples of how golf courses in Atlanta, Georgia, were closed once a week to provide additional outdoor recreation spaces for residents, and Melbourne has provided new design assistance and guidelines in accommodate safe outdoor dining.

Session Recording: