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WCS 2021 Session: In-Conversation with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat

21 June 2021 (Monday), 5.00pm – 6.10pm (Singapore time: GMT+8)


  • Mr Heng Swee Keat, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, Singapore


  • Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Executive Deputy Chairman, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore

Innovating, investing and integrating for the cities of tomorrow

Reflecting on Singapore’s response to COVID-19 and other disruptions as a small city-state, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Heng Swee Keat emphasises the enduring relevance of cities in knowledge creation and innovation, and shares how we need to rethink how we plan our cities and innovate, invest, and integrate to emerge stronger.

Session Takeaways:

Cities remain important centres of activity despite COVID-19

Despite recognising that COVID-19 has made some question the relevance of cities, DPM Heng asserted that people will continue to be drawn to cities. Even though cities’ high densities do pose a threat to the spread of diseases, other factors like quality healthcare, trust in government, and compliance with safe management measures are even more crucial to successfully combatting infectious diseases. Furthermore, cities still provide economies of agglomeration and thrive as “hot beds of innovation, creativity, knowledge sharing and networking.”

Liveability to be central in re-envisioning cities of tomorrow

DPM Heng underlined that the pandemic has taught us that re-envisioning cities of tomorrow requires developing greater resilience, better crisis preparedness, and more international collaboration. Given that cities are part of a global network of supply chains and produce 70 per cent of global carbon emissions, planning them well against disease and climate change is key.

The underlying concept for re-thinking cities to better face these challenges is the need to place liveability at the core of planning. DPM Heng expressed that liveability is “fundamentally about people – enabling people to flourish and improving their quality of life”, including access to basic necessities and redesigning spaces to enhance health and well-being.

Cities need to innovate

DPM noted how innovation helps cities explore new possibilities to “push the next bounds of liveability and sustainability for urban living,” citing examples like Singapore’s efforts in building a polycentric city, integrating green spaces in urban landscapes, and responding to water stresses with technologies like desalination, smart metering, and automated leak detection systems.

He also highlighted the need for research and development to catalyse these innovations in urban solutions and sustainability. He shared how the “Cooling Singapore” project addresses key urban issues of global warming and the urban heat island effect beyond adding greenery, by exploring new solutions like cool paints, reflective glass coatings, and a Digital Urban Climate Twin to simulate how various features of the city affect its temperature.

Cities need to invest

Noting that an infrastructure financing gap existed in many cities even before COVID-19, DPM shared that the pandemic has accelerated these structural changes, and now warrant the need to boost investments in innovations. DPM Heng urged cities to think long-term in their investments, and build up digital infrastructure, social infrastructure, greener buildings and cleaner energy. He mentioned how Singapore has USD19 billion budgeted for their Research, Innovation, and Enterprise plan over the next five years.

DPM Heng highlighted the importance of mobilising investments through improving the flow of capital across borders, and catalysing green financing such as sustainability-linked loans and green bonds. DPM extended a welcome for further collaborations to “harness the power of finance to promote cleaner and greener forms of energy and activities in the region.”

Cities need to integrate

“COVID-19 has demonstrated how interdependent and interconnected our world is, and why global collaboration is critical,” DPM Heng emphasised, highlighting the need for integrated collaboration across borders and sectors both in innovation and investment efforts. He further encouraged cities to build on the momentum of the successes of global information sharing and cooperation in the COVID-19 response, identifying the digital economy and green economy as new areas of growth. DPM Heng highlighted the collaboration of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in these areas of growth, sharing that investing in training and human capital development in the region could be especially fruitful given its youthful population.

Beyond integrated efforts across borders, DPM Heng also encouraged building a cross-sector social compact, not only for individuals, but also for businesses to remain accountable for their carbon footprint, and for public-private sector collaboration to sustain efforts through sharing research solutions and green financing. He highlighted the power of consumers to demand companies to be more sustainable. Moderator Ambassador Ong Keng Yong agreed, noting that “businesses today are huge, so there is an expectation for them to be involved.” DPM Heng also shared how the Green Financing Industry Taskforce set up by the Monetary Authority of Singapore aims to help connect businesses to green finance, the launch initiatives like providing a framework to help banks assess green trade finance transactions.

DPM Heng closed by highlighting that cities are here to stay. He pushed for cities to learn from every disruption and crisis, so that cities of tomorrow will look different from today’s.

Session Recording: