Home > Speeches > SM Teo Chee Hean at the Worlds Cities Summit 2022

SM Teo Chee Hean at the Worlds Cities Summit 2022

Speech by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean at the World Cities Summit 2022 Plenary - "Liveable and Sustainable Cities: Emerging Stronger" on 1 August 2022

Resilient, Sustainable and Cohesive Cities

The Honourable Patricia de Lille, Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure, Republic of South Africa
My colleague Desmond Lee, Minister for National Development, Singapore
Mayor Oh Se-hoon, Mayor of Seoul, Republic of Korea
Dato Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat
Dr Chi Young Cho, President and Chief Innovation Officer, Hyundai Motor Group
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

Good morning. A very warm welcome to Singapore and the World Cities Summit 2022.

It has been more than 4 years since the last World Cities Summit was held as a fully in-person event. It is great to be here in person. All of you will feel the same way too. Since then we have been weathering a world-wide pandemic, and facing the global effects of a war in Europe. We are also facing longer term secular trends, such as climate change, and attitudes towards a more integrated global economy have shifted.

All these have major impacts on cities. Cities formed and grew because of the important economic, social, and cultural functions they play. But cities have also generated new problems because of the growth of economic activity and the crush of many people living together – and over the centuries, cities have been afflicted by plague, pollution, and uprisings.

Emerging Stronger from COVID-19

The pandemic has highlighted the challenges that cities face, in terms of how to be more resilient, sustainable and cohesive. In the meantime, cities will continue apace. The percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas has risen from 39% in 1980 to 55% today. Both global population and the extent of urbanisation will continue to grow. The UN projects that urbanisation will increase to 68% globally by 2050. This translates to an additional 2.5 billion people in urban areas. Bigger cities are likely to grow even bigger, and smaller and medium sized cities will continue to grow, especially in the developing world. Close to 90% of the growth in the world’s urban population will take place in Asia and Africa.

We need a new paradigm to put all these things together – to plan, build, rejuvenate and create resilient, sustainable and cohesive cities. This World Cities Summit will help us share experiences and be inspired by what has succeeded, and understand what has not worked so well. This will allow our cities and our city leaders to offer the pathway to a better future – for our residents, our countries, regions, and our world.

But the path ahead is not a simple one, and cities face several dilemmas. It is essentially because there are so many objectives, some of them conflicting with each other, which have to be resolved at the same time. It is a multi-factorial problem.

First, do we become more concentrated or distributed? Build more densely or extend the sprawl? Can we achieve the benefits of both concentration and distribution at the same time? Second, can we achieve growth, yet have sustainable and liveable communities? Third, can our cities stay open, yet remain cohesive and united in purpose?

Let me elaborate on the physical challenges as well as the social cohesion challenges that cities face as they grow – borrowing the terminology of our friends in the Infotech world, the hardware in terms of physical development, the firmware in terms of processes, rules and regulations that make the city work, and the software in terms of building cohesive communities. As I said, there are no easy solutions, and the paths we choose depend on our history, geography and cultural roots and values.

Concentration or distribution?

First, concentration or distribution. Since historic times, populations have concentrated in places which offer natural advantages – resources, water, agreeable climate, along natural routes in river valleys, or sheltered coves along well travelled coastlines. The concentration of people and resources in urban centres continues to bring many advantages. Cities reap economies of scale in efficiently producing, supplying and exchanging a wide variety of goods and services for a large number of people. The consolidation of resources allows cities to provide better basic and raise the level of services that can provided to a higher level: tertiary education, specialised healthcare, more airline connections, and a wider variety of cultural activities. The concentration of people, economic activities and knowledge sparks new ideas and innovation, which drive economic growth, create new jobs, and attract even more people to the city.

However, we are all too familiar with the problems that afflict cities: Overcrowding and traffic jams, long and crowded commutes, air, noise and light pollution, sanitation and the management of urban waste streams, higher levels of stress and health issues, and as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, while urbanisation is designed to increase opportunities for interaction, this also increases contact and exposure, and the likelihood of transmission and evolution of infectious diseases. Cities can become incubators, and multipliers for disease outbreaks.

How can we reap the benefits of urbanisation, without the disbenefits of concentration? As city planners, our decisions are not quite so simple as choosing between building higher and more densely in existing urban centres; or extending the city limits even further with even more distant new suburbs and townships, creating their own problems. Our choices are constrained by ownership and land issues, the cost and difficulty of each scheme. If these constraints cannot be overcome, sometimes the result is steady decay of the city centre, while the periphery continues to grow. Sometimes, the problem is too difficult and we build a new city somewhere else while we try to solve the problems of the existing one. These are not good recipes for the long-term future of a city.

Most countries are not able to have as centralised an approach as China for example, which has limited the growth of its biggest cities, increased the attractiveness of its next tier, and encouraged the development and modernisation of smaller cities. This is complemented by developing overarching plans for regions or belts that may encompass several urban centres of varying sizes in close proximity.

On a city scale, good planning can maximise the benefits, and minimise the disbenefits of urbanisation, through a creative combination of centralisation and distribution. Having a comprehensive transportation system that is well-integrated with urban planning will improve mobility and accessibility, and achieve a better balance between a more concentrated or distributed urbanisation.

We also need to rethink how we organise and plan heavy infrastructure for essential services such as power and solid waste disposal. In central Tokyo for example, there are 21 clean and efficient waste-to-energy plants within the city itself. Waste is transported, sometimes through vacuum conveyance systems directly to the local on-site waste-to-energy plant, and converted for heating and electricity. Planning and design such as this can achieve the benefits of concentration but in a distributed way in a megacity.

Digitalisation is also a key enabler. Citizens can stay connected and collaborate without the need to physically gather. The pandemic has taught us how to work and study from home, and to carry out many other activities, for example through parcel and food delivery which can operate efficiently at scale in cities.

On a wider system level, many cities, like the city of Seoul, are investing in infrastructure to boost smart innovation and digital services for city planning. Many cities also have or are implementing city operational centres, that feel the pulse of the city through feedback from citizens and sensor networks, are connected to key city agencies, and supported by AI and other decision tools to optimise the flows and rhythm of the city, and anticipate and respond to incidents.

Growth, yet sustainable?

The second dilemma is: can we achieve growth, yet have sustainable and liveable communities? While good planning for the hardware of a city, its physical infrastructure, provides the foundation for a more sustainable and liveable city, another key element is the firmware – the processes, rules and regulations that translate policy intentions into actual actions by agencies, property owners, developers and citizens.

One of the key things we talked about financing just now is to get the economics right. We need to appropriately reflect the cost of externalities when we price our activities and resources. This will incentivise consumers and businesses to take into account the real cost of using these resources and avoid excessive consumption or waste. It may be a paradox but charging the right price and sometimes a higher price may help to ensure that basic services can be provided because people then are prepared to invest in them.

According to the World Resources Institute, Singapore will be one of the most water-stressed countries in the world by 2040. Water in Singapore is priced to reflect the full cost of its supply and production, and we also impose a water conservation tax to reflect its scarcity value. The appropriate pricing approach has made it possible for Singapore to invest in the recycling of water for potable use, making use of every drop of water more than once, and increasing our water resilience.

Energy is also priced at market cost to encourage efficient use, with no subsidies. We also price in the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, Singapore was the first Southeast Asian country to introduce a carbon tax, which is borne by the parties contributing to those emissions. On the other side of the coin, we support and encourage businesses to pursue energy efficiency, and we incentivise households to switch to more energy efficient appliances by subsidising their upfront costs. We use some of the carbon tax for these purposes. We believe that with the right policies, city governments can embed environmental sustainability more meaningfully in the psyche of its businesses and residents.

Sustainable urban transportation is also an important element for a greener and more liveable environment. The city of Medellin in Colombia is focussing on sustainability to enhance its transport networks and grow its green economy. Sustainable urban transportation is not just about replacing internal combustion engines in vehicles with electric vehicles. This removes the engines, but not the vehicles and the congestion. The more fundamental system solution is to minimise the need for personal use cars, through well-integrated urban planning and a more comprehensive public transport system.

This is why Singapore has also invested heavily in public transport; and since 2018, Singapore has implemented a zero-growth policy for our vehicle population. We aim to be a 45-minute city in 2040 – 9 out of 10 trips between homes and workplaces will take less than 45 minutes on our public transport network, even during peak hours. Today, we are already two-thirds there. We also have to think creatively about how to make our cities more pandemic-resilient. On a mini-scale, the design of Singapore Changi Airport’s new Terminal 5, which is expected to serve more than 30 million passengers a year, has taken into account how to let travelers enjoy a fully integrated and interactive experience in normal times, but be able to segment and separate traveler streams efficiently when needed. Achieving this for a city is many times more complex, especially if we have to retrofit this into existing cities, buildings and transportation systems.

Building resilience, whether to pandemics, natural disasters, or to the effects of climate change such as more extreme weather and rising sea levels, is something that we need to do to protect our cities and our residents. A key way to push the boundaries and unlock green growth opportunities is to invest in R&D and catalyse innovative and sustainable urban solutions. Cities can serve as “living laboratories” for companies and researchers to develop, test and validate clean and sustainable technologies in real-world settings before implementing them on a wide scale to more cities.

Open, yet cohesive?

The third dilemma, which has been touched on by several of our speakers earlier, is how do we build cohesive cities? How do we stay open, yet remain cohesive and united in purpose, serving all the residents including the most vulnerable. This speaks to the software of a city. How can it not only be more liveable but be more loveable both ways? The residents love the city, and the city leadership loves the residents, and the residents love each other.

Cities thrive by being open – attracting skilled, ambitious, hardworking and entrepreneurial people; bringing them together to spark new ideas; and driving economic progress. However, all over the world, being open has also led to growing anti-globalisation, populism and feelings of resentment towards newcomers to the city or to a country. This is particularly so when the disruption of globalisation and openness and technological advance are felt by existing residents, the disruptions of these are felt by existing residents, while the fruits of globalisation are not distributed equitably and may accrue to the new arrivals more than existing residents.

We have seen this in major cities around the world and feel it here too in Singapore. So how do we deal with this dilemma? Rather than to close ourselves, which will mean that cities will no longer serve their proper purpose of bringing people together, cities should continue to stay open to investments and talents from around the world. This is key to creating progress, keeping their economies innovative and vibrant, and thereby providing good jobs and better opportunities for their residents and citizens.

Cities should focus on preparing their people to take up the new opportunities created by that openness. A forward looking education system, coupled with continuing education and life-long learning, a new frontier in education, so that its citizens can acquire the skills of the future and be ready to take up the jobs of the future. Doing so ensures that the city can continue to advance, while making sure that its citizens are better equipped to compete fairly for the good jobs created.

Building trust between citizens and city leaders and between citizens themselves is not only crucial for city building and policymaking, but also the foundation for overcoming crises and to make future progress. According to a study in March last year by the University of California, Riverside on the COVID-19 pandemic, social ties and connections – of which trust is a key component – are some of the most critical drivers to build resilient communities in our cities. The collective efforts witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic are a good example of the social resilience, cohesion and connections that many cities have built up over the years. With fast cohesion and collective action, we combine our strengths together to fight the virus. Without trust cohesion and collection action, we expend our energies on quarreling with each other and not fighting the virus. That has made a key difference.

Cities need to build on this and continue to find ways to create social capital. One way is through civic and government interventions such as the co-creation and provision of shared spaces and shared experiences. In Singapore, our education system gives every Singaporean the opportunity to build a better life and share the fruits of our progress as a country. We provide high-quality, affordable public housing to ensure all Singaporeans have a home and a stake in our country’s future. At the same time, we ensure that our housing neighbourhoods are ethnically integrated to foster racial and religious harmony. This is done through rules and regulations.

The creation of shared experiences and shared spaces also helps us to build bridges and stronger connections between the long-term residents and those who come to work for a time. The conservation and rejuvenation of important landmarks that define the city’s roots and its ethos are also important. It gives a sense of place and a sense of belonging to the long term residents and it helps new ones who come to the city to understand what the city is all about.

Residents have made long-term commitments to staying in the city to build their careers and raise their families. Those who came initially for work, may subsequently become residents, if they share the city’s core values and are prepared to contribute to the shared long-term good of the city and its citizens.


We are at this World Cities Summit because we believe that cities can be agents of change. We have to pool our experiences and knowledge, and work with one another, on the hardware, firmware and software of our cities. This will enable each of us to build unique cities of distinction which are resilient, sustainable and cohesive – eminently liveable and loveable homes for our people. Let us unite our communities so that we can emerge stronger from the ongoing crises and be ready to lead in addressing the future challenges that our planet faces.

I wish all of you a fruitful and insightful summit. Thank you very much.