Towards a ‘sustainable’ Singapore

‘Smart’ and ‘sustainable’ cities seem to be the new catchphrase describing cities of the future and the role of technology takes centre stage in such narratives, manifesting itself through technological networks that mediate the flows and flux between nature and the city (Kaika and Swyngedouw, 2000). While the role of technology does seem all encompassing, as the visit to The Crystal has surfaced, I can’t help but think if technology is indeed the be-all to cities of the future.


Fig 1: Future Singapore where technological networks takes centre stage (source: Straits Times, 2017)

I will explore Singapore’s planning considerations towards a ‘sustainable’ city future, exploring the roles that technology plays in contributing towards this narrative (Fig 1), but more importantly, highlighting non-technical aspects such as community-centric considerations that places the community and a sense of identity in the midst of future developments (URA, 2012).

Technological networks have enabled the transformation of sanitary to sustainable cities, making them more resilient to environmental changes (Pickett et al., 2013). Examples in Singapore includes reclaimed water (showcased in The Crystal and my previous post); eco-towns that rely on the flows of green energy to provide for the daily lives of residents; the rolling out of electric car sharing to cut down on carbon emissions and even the erection of gantries moderating the flow of vehicles and encouraging a car-lite lifestyle (Olszewski, 2007). Indeed, these technological networks sets the city up as a ‘process of transformed nature’ and eases the metabolic and social transformation of nature into our everyday lives, through which making us more resilient to changes in the environment that may hamper our everyday activities.

But is technology key to sustainability? As cities become increasingly urbanized, its boundaries become increasingly porous to flows of people and cultures. This makes sustainable development more than infrastructures and preserving the environment as we also consider building cohesive communities and preserving local identities and cultures (URA, 2012). (e.g. housing policies; built and natural heritage) This is an important aspect that is missing out in many literature solely focusing on the role of technology in sustainable development, but is particularly important in global cities (e.g. London and Tokyo) where the flows of people and ideas are increasingly prevalent and may potentially result in conflicts.


Fig 2: Softer approaches to sustainability (source: URA, 2012)

My stand is that while technology is definitely an important aspect of sustainable development, we cannot forget the softer measures (Fig 2) that are also in place to metabolise the myriad flows through the city so as to ensure the smooth functioning of these future cities as one system; as well as to create a greater sense of ownership towards these unseen flows as discussed in previous posts on water and animals.

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Kaika, M. and E. Swyngedouw (2000) ‘Fetishizing the modern city: the phantasmagoria of urban technological networks’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24.1, 120-138.

Olszewski, P. S. (2007) ‘Singapore motorisation restraint and its implications on travel behaviour and urban sustainability’, Transportation, 34, 319-335.

Pickett, S. T. A., C. G. Boone, B. P. McGrath, M. L. Cadenasso, D. L. Childers, L. A. Ogden, M. McHale and J. M. Grove (2013) ‘Ecological science and transformation to the sustainable city’, Cities, 32, 10-20.

URA (2012) ‘Designing our City – Planning for a sustainable Singapore’, Singapore: URA supplement.


Urban Waters III: Using each drop of water more than once

The previous posts had illustrated the state’s promotion of engagement with water as ways of fostering greater affection between citizens and the water resource. But are all flows of water encouraged for greater interaction with humans? This last-of-three-series post focuses on the flows of used water, and its socio-political aspect that becomes more prominent when such flows of water is recycled for potable and non-potable use. It is an interesting area of water recycling, bringing to focus the metabolism of used water and how this may be a solution for cities to achieve water sustainability, though public acceptance requires much work (Po et al., 2003; Lee and Tan, 2016). This post looks at Singapore’s experience with reclaimed water, highlighting what makes it work and its potential as a sustainable resource.

National Taps

Fig 1: Singapore’s four National Taps (source: PUB, 2017)

Singapore has four national taps (Fig 1) of which, NEWater (aka Reclaimed water) accounts for 40% of total demand, a proportion set to grow. Unlike the previous posts sharing about the benefits of bringing the water flows to the citizens, the flows of used water is something that the government seeks to effectively distance from the everyday realm, citing sanitary concerns.

How NEWater works:

The process of reclaiming water is interesting in that the treatment of used water allows it to be used again either directly for non-potable use or indirectly for potable use, driving home the idea of ‘using every drop more than once’ (PUB, 2017).  Viewed in the metabolic sense, it showcases the cyclical nature of such water flows because used water channelled to the reclamation plants are treated and then channelled back into flows for either potable or non-potable use, and the flow continues – very much like the water cycle.

Sounds like the perfect solution? But would you drink such water knowing that you are technically drinking used water? Sounds yuck? You are not alone.

NEWater quality

Fig 2: NEWater quality comparison (source: PUB, 2017)

Worried that public acceptance might not be high, much emphasis was placed on public relations in the form of positive reference projects (e.g. the USA where water reclamation has been practiced for more than 20 years), quality comparisons (Fig 2), community engagement (e.g. public education in schools/ treatment plants and community events) and even a change of terminology (‘NEWater’ as specifically chosen term to accentuate its ultra-clean nature; renaming wastewater as ‘used water’ etc.) (Lee and Tan, 2016).

While technology has made NEWater production viable, it is clear that strong government support and public acceptance plays a vital role in its success – highlighting the interlinking socio-politico-technical aspects of the metabolism of used water. It is an area that cities, like Hong Kong, are studying (Chan et al., 2014) and could prove a sustainable mode of water production in the future. Do you think it can be adopted in your city?

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Chan, P. T., K. Y. Lau, W. K. Wong and S. H. Woo (2014) ‘The success of water management in Singapore: the possibility of applying NEWater in Hong Kong’, Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong.

Lee, H. and T. P. Tan (2016) ‘Singapore’s experience with reclaimed water: NEWater’, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 32, 4, 611-621.

Po, M., J. D. Kaercher and B. E. Nancarrow (2003) ‘Literature review of factors influencing public perceptions of water reuse’, Australia: CSIRO Land and Water Technical Report.

PUB (2017) ‘NEWater’ (WWW) Singapore: PUB (; 6 November 2017).


Urban Waters II – bridging the nature-city distinction

The extensive reach of administrative control was obvious through the networked flow of waters into the everyday lives of it citizens, creating a new relationship between the citizens, the state and water. However, such ‘hard’ disciplinary governance had to be supplanted with ‘soft’ security mechanisms due to backlashes associated with the ‘blackboxing’ of water flows (Graham and Thrift, 2007). The distancing of water flows from the population gave the impression of a nature-city distinction and inadvertently led to an attitude of indifference towards the water body, undermining the state’s anti-littering drive (Hansard, 1990). Further, these covered systems and impervious surfaces hampered the removal of stagnant water, leading to a series of dengue outbreaks and negative impacts on anti-flood initiatives and biodiversity protection (ibid).

In this respect, the state sought to adopt a more decentralized mode of governance by removing physical barriers and bringing the community closer to the flows of water through the Active, Beautiful and Clean (ABC) Waters programme launched in 2006. It was hoped that by bringing the citizens closer to water and adopting softer approaches of governance, the public would build a stronger sense of relation for the environment through participation and appreciation. This does not mean that the state does away completely with disciplinary approaches however, as fines and surveillance measures are still in place, though complemented with softer approaches seeking to weave water into the everyday lives of citizens forging a stronger bond and affection to this precious resource.

The flagship project of the ABC Waters programme is the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park – a first in Singapore where the concrete canal was redeveloped into a picturesque park as part of efforts to increase the carrying capacity of the waterway and rejuvenating the neighbourhood (resembling Concrete Plant Park on the Bronx River). With the naturalizing of the river, wildlife such as the Common Bluetail damselfly and Common Scarlet dragonfly has been attracted to the riverbank and residents now bring their families out to the park during weekends. Indeed, disrupting the built forms of residential buildings and bringing a patch of nature into the city.

Other projects:

Alexandra canal

Alexandra Canal (source: PUB)

Jurong Lake.jpg

Jurong Lake (source: PUB)

see more

Viewed critically, these projects highlight the shift in governmentality of the state as they incorporate greater elements of security into the once disciplinary mode, adopting softer approaches to complement hard ones – exemplifying how if the ‘sovereign wants to change the human species… it will be acting on the milieu’ (Foucault, 2007: 32). The concept of governance through network flows explored here is relevant not just in Singapore but in many cities where the state is seeking to decentralize governmentality and engage greater citizens involvement, especially in nature conservation (e.g. Hong Kong, Tokyo). How best can that be done? Maybe the answer lies in Foucault’s (2007: 73) saying that ‘to govern is to stimulate and manipulate the naturalness of desire’, where citizens are given greater agency and sense of ownership towards nature.

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Graham, S. and N. Thrift (2007) ‘Out of order: understanding repair and maintenance’, Theory, Culture & Society, 24, 3, 1-25.

Hansard (1990) ‘Budget, Ministry of the Environment. Session 1, vol. 55’, Singapore: Official Reports – Parliamentary Debates.

Foucault, M. (2007) Security, territory, population, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Enevo and Rotterdam Cooperates to Transition to Smart Waste Management

In 2016, Rotterdam extended a Paper and Cardboard Waste project with Enevo, leading innovator in smart waste-management. This project sought to increase monitoring of waste containers and use of Enevo Smart-Plan software for optimised waste collection route-planning in Rotterdam.

This video provides an introduction to the project!


The multi-storey, residential apartments in Rotterdam utilises a central waste collection system. This places the onus of ensuring that the underground containers are emptied reliably on the municipality of Rotterdam. To encourage recycling, waste collection needs to be made convenient for citizens, necessitating an optimal number and placement of receptacles along with scheduled collections to ensure space in the recycling containers.

I found the use of Geel’s (2004) framework for transitions in socio-technical regimes and Van de Poel’s (2000) framework for examining external pressure, useful in crystallising Rotterdam’s transition to a smart waste-management system.

Geel (2004) identified three dimensions of socio-technical regimes: regulative, normative, and cognitive. I identified the existing mechanisms under each heading for Rotterdam’s case-study here:

  • Regulative – previous waste management system implemented by the government
  • Normative – the lifestyles, habits and technical systems that people are used to
  • Cognitive – core competencies of waste-management operators that turn into rigidities when operators are resistant to change

Regime transformation entails change in existing norms, regulations and beliefs that fall into these three categories (Geel, 2006).

External pressure from outsiders (definition: actors excluded from the community) are highly influential in these transitions (Van de Poel, 2000). In the case of Rotterdam, they fall into the Van de Poel’s (2000) categories of: (1) professional engineers who impart knowledge and design concepts, and (2) firms and entrepreneurs that develop technological novelties to match these concepts.

  1. Professional engineers introduce big data, analytics, and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to aid Rotterdam’s government in uncovering more efficient waste management and recycling practices
  2. Firm and entrepreneurs – Enevo and its smart waste-management solution for Rotterdam (illustrated below)
Enevo's Smart Waste Management Solution
Key aspects of Enevo’s smart waste management solution


Fill-level data collection, forecasting (with data analytics), cloud data sharing and efficient daily route planning


Driver route guidance via in-vehicle tablet
Driver route guidance via in-vehicle tablet

I hope the two frameworks were fruitful ways to explicate the mechanisms behind the cooperation between Rotterdam and Enevo!

I personally find that they are useful ways for understanding how rigidities and resistance to change stymie green transformations in the city. While technological solutions may be foreign and unfamiliar, they provide a propitious means to enhance the efficiency of urban metabolic flows of waste and recyclables. Using bodily metabolic processes that sustain human life to understand flows of waste underlying the everyday functioning of cities (Marvin and Medd, 2006), perhaps it is useful to think metaphorically of Enevo’s smart-plan software as akin to a pacemaker sending electric pulses to the human heart. I guess humans, and the cities we build alike, just need a little technological oomph sometimes.


For a more detailed understanding of the 2 models:

Geels, F. (2004) ‘From sectoral systems of innovation to sociotechnical systems: insights about dynamics and change from sociology and institutional theory’, Research Policy, Vol. 33, No. 6, 897 – 920.

Van de Poel, I. (2000) ‘On the role of outsiders in technical development’, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, Vol. 12, No. 3, 383 – 397.

Other resources that helped me:

Geels, F. (2006) ‘The hygienic transition from cesspools to sewer systems (1840-1930): The dynamics of regime transformation’, Research Policy, Vol. 35, 1069 – 1082.

Marvin, S. and Medd, W. (2006) “Metabolisms of Obecity: Flows of Fat through Bodies, Cities and Sewers”, Environment and Planning A, Vol. 38, Issue 2, 137 – 149.

You can also read more about this project here:

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Urban Waters I – of canals, culverts, and underground networked flows

Water and its circulation through the city is a complex and interesting element, surfacing its politics, metabolism and flow through the urban environment. This post marks the first-of-three-series as I explore the flows of urban waters in Singapore. The first two posts surfaces the networked flows of urban waters in Singapore, focusing on the relationship between governmentality and infrastructural change through the urban histories of such flows and its evolution in recent years; while the third post explores the emerging sector of reclaimed water. Through these posts, I surface the oft hidden flows –  out of sight, yet very essential for the functioning of everyday life, and explore how socio-political and technological advances may allow for sustainable development in water-scarce Singapore.

There has been a long-standing prominence on the agency of urban technological networks in shaping and developing urban spaces (Gandy, 2004) and how the state taps on such networks to centralize its administrative control over territory (Swyngedouw, 2015) – that of urban water infrastructure is no different. To fully grasp the topic in context, let us appreciate the urban history of such flow in context (explore other blogs).

Post-independence, keen interest was paid on environmental initiatives through a ‘clean and green’ model, deemed important in creating an environment attractive to inward investments and a highly mobile professional workforce (Neo, 2007). Above greening initiatives, water flows were also identified as key to improving the sanitation of the city. Through the urban history of such flows and Foucault’s analytics of governance and the ‘milieu’, I provide an entry point into the wider interactions between everyday practices, technologies and politics (Taylor, 2011).


Fig 1: Networked flows of water in Singapore (source: PUB, 2017)

Like many developed cities, Singapore turned to the use of concrete canals as a medium for hydrological flows to efficiently get the water off the land and into the sea/ reservoir. Consequently, to decrease its reliance on Malaysia for imported water, Singapore sought to increase its local catchment areas and anti-pollution measures (inexplicitly linked to water quality). Trapezoidal canals and culverts were built across the city, giving rise to a network of flows that efficiently conveyed the flows to the reservoirs and the sea (Fig 1) – a seemingly normal sight of our everyday life, but viewed through the UPE lens, exemplifies a disciplinary system of containment and control, through which the state regularizes the flows and rhythm of water through design considerations (PUB, 2017) and separation from contaminated circulations (Scott, 1998).

Further, with the provision of water by the state, and through the provision of water to domestic and non-domestic customers, the reach of the government extends into our everyday lives. This blurs the private-public sphere boundary, allowing for the ‘monitoring’ of our water usage through water meters and the subsequent introduction of pricing mechanisms, intervention measures and even app games!

Other education materials:

The underground nature of such flows and its segregation from the public distances our understanding of how governance has been exercised in respect to the material environment (Foucault, 2007). But is the state always right and is this disciplinary governance all encompassing? Stay tuned!

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Foucault, M. (2007) Security, territory, population, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gandy, M. (2004) ‘Rethinking urban metabolism: water, space and the modern city’, City, 8:3, 363-379.

Neo, H. (2007) ‘Challenging the developmental state: nature conservation in Singapore’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 48.2, 186-199.

PUB (2017) ‘Planning & Design’ (WWW) Singapore: PUB (; 27 October 2017).

Swyngedouw, E. (2015) Liquid power: contested hydro-modernities in twentieth-century Spain, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Taylor, V. and F. Trentmann (2011) ‘Liquid politics: water and the politics of everyday life in the modern city’, Past and Present, 211, 199-241.

Smog Vacuum Cleaner – White Elephant or Solution to Air Pollution?

Dutch Designer Daan Roosegaarde installed a 7-metre high air-purifying tower akin to a smog vacuum cleaner in Rotterdam.

Analysed as an independent space of flows (Caprotti and Romanowicz, 2013), the tower is able to clean 30,000cm3 of air an hour and leaves surrounding air 75% cleaner by:

  1. Sucking in dirty air
  2. Using ion technology filtration
  3. Capturing small pollution particles (PM2.5 and PM10)
  4. Returning clean air through the tower’s vents


It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 1.55.28 AM

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 12.30.27 PM

As a component of urban flows and circulations (Caprotti and Romanowicz, 2013), this air-purification tower acts as a metabolic vehicle in the array of components governing the circulation and exchange of air and pollution in Rotterdam. It unconventionally alters the direction of circulations of air pollution. Regular ventilation systems provide isolated and static containers, protecting the “inside” of buildings from the polluted atmosphere “outside”. Instead of acting in opposition to the environment (Gissen, 2010), the tower provides a space of flows that interacts and engages with pollution in a radical way, being the site of attraction, absorption and transformation of smog particles, collecting and releasing cleaner air to the surroundings.

On top of that, Roosegaarde applies high pressure to the soot collected to make diamonds. The sale of these diamonds made out of soot (something that is discarded, rejected and regarded as sordid to most people) carry with them powerful messages on air pollution. It enhances the tower as a nodal point of Rotterdam’s urban metabolism, for the confluence of the agency and discourse of actors, from urban-planners to designers.

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 12.32.21 PM


Yet, the political and ideological role of eco-city projects in fashioning new urban metabolic relations is founded on asymmetric readings and conceptualisations of sustainability, environmental governance and the city. As processes of metabolic change are hardly socially neutral (Swyngedouw, 2006), I question the penetrability of this eco-tower in sending an engaging message about air pollution to a general population of city dwellers. Or is this message about air pollution restricted to avant-garde millennial consumers? Furthermore, large-scale construction and application of this tower as an actual purification system for Rotterdam is costly and unviable. Will this become a mere white elephant, expensive to build and cumbersome to maintain? With little tangible influence on the air pollution problem, is this yet another exclusive project reproducing “hollow” sustainabilities (Whitehead, 2010)?


If you would like to refer to some of the articles I was inspired by:

Caprotti, F. and Romanowicz, J. (2013) ‘Thermal Eco-cities: Green Building and Urban Thermal Metabolism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 37, No. 6, 1949 – 1967.

Gissen, D. (2010) ‘Toxic Territories’, Architectural Design, Vol. 80, No. 3, 54 – 59.

Swyngedouw, E. (2006) ‘Metabolic Urbanisation: The Making of Cyborg Cities’ in N. Heynen, M. Kaika and E. Swyngedouw (eds.) In the Nature of Cities – Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, London, UK: Routledge, 21 – 40.

Whitehead, M. (2010) ‘Hollow Sustainabilities? Perspectives on Sustainable Development in the Post-Socialist World’, Geography Compass, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1618 – 1634.


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