Sustainability: Staying Ahead of the Curve [Speeches]

July 6, 2011 by  
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Keynote Speech By Mr Andrew Tan, Chief Executive Officer Of The National Environment Agency And Fellow Of The Centre For Liveable Cities At The GSK-EDB Green And Sustainable Manufacturing Symposium, 6 July 2011

“Sustainability: Staying Ahead of the Curve”

Mr Christopher Dobson, Vice President and Site Director, Global Manufacturing & Supply Singapore, GlaxoSmithKline
Mr. Kevin Lai, Deputy Director, Biomedical Sciences, EDB
Members of the Scientific Advisory Board
Distinguished guests
Ladies and gentlemen


Thank you for inviting me to address this symposium. I am honoured to be here to share my perspectives with such a distinguished audience. I should qualify that I speak neither as a scientist or researcher, but as a policy maker who has to work with the rest of the community to improve the lives of our citizens. This community includes people like yourselves, scientists, technologists and industrialists, working at the forefront of some of the most exciting scientific breakthroughs in this era, from advances in the medical sciences to materials engineering.

Staying Ahead in a Complex World

The biggest risk for anyone is to believe that we can shape the world we live in, where in reality, the world is a complex place that lends itself to no easy solutions. The world does however need simple and practical solutions. Yet many of the solutions today have only compounded the problems they seek to solve, leading to more intensive use of resources, greater pollution and more congested and crowded cities.

In addition, many solutions ignore the social dimensions where the process of coming up with the solution is as important as the solution itself. My favourite science and engineering example is the construction of the humble bridge. Bridges have been constructed for thousands of years, yet one famous collapse was that of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940. Then the third longest suspension bridge in the US, it collapsed under moderate wind speeds of 42 mph due to a phenomenon known as “resonance” even though it was built to withstand winds of up to 120 mph.

Many interesting insights can be drawn from the bridge’s collapse. For one, positive and negative feedback loops, as in this case, the oscillation of the bridge, had been underestimated. Next, while experts may debate on the exact cause of the collapse, Henry Petroski, a professor of engineering at Duke University made an interesting observation in his book “Success through Failure” where studies of bridge collapses have shown that such engineering failures seem to take place at regular intervals of 30 years or so. This could well be linked to the lack of continuity between one generation of engineers and the next, and thus any insights gained in building bridges were lost in the process of trying out new ideas.

Now there is nothing wrong in trying new ideas, but the process of developing such ideas has to recognise the human and social factors that drive the solutions. As we deal with the more complex problems of today, we should bear in mind that solutions are only as effective as the way the problem has been defined and solved. We should avoid either wrong solutions to the right problems, or right solutions for the wrong problems.

Manufacturing For A Global Village – We Are All Connected Now

If we turn to the challenges confronting the world today, the one consistent theme that emerges is inter-dependence and inter-connectivity. We are now more connected in ways unimaginable in the past, from Facebook and Twitter that creates new and instant communities, to the low cost budget airlines that allow more people to travel, to the number of components made in different countries that goes into your smart phone.

Modern technology has brought the world closer together through mobile telephony, the internet and new social media, whether you are in a Favella in Sao Paolo or a swanky boardroom suite in Manhattan. Yet modern science has yet to solve the most basic of problems in many societies, such as poverty, disease, lack of sanitation and access to clean air, land and water. These challenges are becoming more urgent and pressing.

All trends point towards the world heading towards an inflexion point. Exactly when I do not know. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase from 6.9 billion to 9.3 billion, with most of the increase coming from developing countries. This growth will put a strain on our resources, from food to energy to water. The nexus between these three resources and how we manage it, will be one of the key defining challenges of this century. Add to this the increasing prevalence of natural and man-made disasters, not to mention, the threat of climate change, we can see the conditions for a perfect storm.

If my hunch is correct, all these challenges will converge in cities, where half of humanity already lives, and the other half waiting to get in. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB)’s latest forecast, about 1.1 billion people will migrate from the countryside into Asia’s cities in less than 20 years, or about 137,000 people every day. India needs to build the equivalent of a city of Chicago every year to provide commercial and residential space for its migrants according to the Mckinsey Global Institute (MGI). And 100 new cities from China will join the list of the top 600 urban centres – which generates about 60% of global GDP – in the next 15 years according to MGI.

Our basic starting point therefore is that we should see ourselves as connected in more ways than one. We should understand the nature of this connectivity and develop solutions that address not one part of the problem, but in the context of the entire system. This is such a fundamental starting point that I cannot underscore its importance. So whether it is in the field of international aviation, logistics, manufacturing or production, the safety, security and robustness of the system, hinges upon nodes in that system. These nodes are our cities, and the systems we build in these cities will determine how the overall system responds to major events such as earthquakes and disasters, terrorist acts, pandemic outbreaks and spread of infectious diseases.

Solving the Urban Conundrum – It’s People, Culture & Behaviour

If cities are where the real tests of mankind’s ingenuity and ability to adapt to the challenges of our time, then it would be appropriate for us to relook at the way we organise our societies, approach consumption and production, manage our resources, as well as waste. Much has been said about our wasteful consumption lifestyles and production methods of today. Recently, an interesting debate was sparked by a New York Times article under the title “Across Europe, Irking Drivers is Urban Policy” (NYT 26 June 2011), where it was observed that: “While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.”

In trying to explain this phenomenon, experts on both sides of the Atlantic resorted to various explanations, but the one comment that caught my eye was from Peder Jensen, head of the Energy and Transport Group at the European Environment Agency. He said: “In the United States, there has been much more of a tendency to adapt cities to accommodate driving… Here (in Europe) there has been more movement to make cities more liveable for people, to get cities relatively free of cars.” As we all know, in the US, automobiles ownership is a manifestation of one’s expression of individual freedom and choice. So the issue is not just between more or less cars, but dealing with deeply ingrained societal attitudes and some may even add, political cultures.

Now, if you assume that the millions of people ascending into the middle class in the developing countries are basically not very different from you and me in their lifestyle aspirations, you can imagine what the world will be like. Indeed, I recall one conference in 2009 that I attended in New Delhi where Jaipal Reddy, who was then the Minister for Urban Development in India, responded to a question on whether walkability in Indian cities could be achieved by saying that the problem was that whenever someone reached a certain social status, they would want to own a car to show that they have arrived. At that point, I thought to myself that this comment was true no matter where in the world.

Drivers Towards Greater Sustainability

It is in this context that today’s forum on sustainable manufacturing takes particular relevance. Sustainability as a concept has been around for a few decades since the Brundtland Commission came up with the definition of sustainable development in 1982. But for much of the 20th century, it was a concept best identified with greenies and tree-huggers.

However, the resource crunch of today means we have to take this concept more seriously. As I explained earlier, the challenges today are interdependent and connected, and require system rather than standalone solutions. The pressures for sustainability in the manufacturing process are no different from those affecting the business world today, namely, (1) growing public awareness of the environment, including the business practices of corporations, (2) growing reporting demands by shareholders on corporate risks and governance, including social and environmental risks, and (3) growing pressures on the sustainable use of resources. All signs point towards these trends as here to stay.

At its most basic level, green and sustainable manufacturing helps drive down costs and improves the bottom-line of companies by employing various strategies to reduce their carbon footprints and minimise pollution. Techniques such as life-cycle analysis can be used to pinpoint parts of a products’ life that can be redesigned to increase energy efficiency or reduce use of resources. Companies that have begun to address these issues systematically, and across their entire value chain, have recorded significant gains in resource utilisation. Other approaches that are gaining momentum, especially in Europe, is the cradle-to-cradle approach where components of products could also end up as good material inputs in subsequent products.

Within Singapore, we have also been paying more attention to green manufacturing. A*STAR’s Sustainable Manufacturing Centre, which is driven by the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology, is promoting sustainable manufacturing and assisting the Singapore industry in developing their own green manufacturing processes. For example with the help of the Centre, Cadbury Enterprise Singapore has carried out a carbon footprint assessment of cocoa production to improve its resource management strategy. A*STAR is also driving green chemistry research through its Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences.

There are also several industry driven initiatives with the support of agencies such as NEA. For example, the F&B industry in Singapore have made changes to their packaging or redesigning their processes to reduce waste at source, collectively and cumulatively reducing their packaging waste by about 4,500 tonnes, saving $8.3 million within the first 3 years of the Singapore Packaging Agreement, a voluntary agreement that my Agency has signed with industries.

Other sectors have improved the energy efficiency of their manufacturing processes. In fact, the winner of the Best Practices category for this year’s Energy Efficiency National Partnership Award, Eastman Chemical Singapore Pte Ltd, has optimised the operation of its distillation columns that are used to purify products, resulting in a 22% reduction in steam usage for distillation. This translates to an annual energy reduction of about 6.6 Terajoules or energy cost savings of $150,000 per year.

Rethinking Approaches Towards Green & Sustainable Manufacturing

But much more needs to be done. I believe the next step towards sustainability for the business community is not only optimising inputs and/or outputs, but designing solutions that combine behavioural changes with the technical elements of these solutions to achieve a major change in lifestyle. This means that solutions not only have to be technically robust, but also well-designed, innovative and people-centric. This is encapsulated in this simple equation: Better Solutions for Tomorrow = Collaborative Design + Innovative Solutions + People-Centricity .

Collaborative Design

Let us first look at Collaborative Design. Design is increasingly a multi-disciplinary endeavour. It could involve the government sector, business community, research community and even public participation. Previously, securing buy-in was thought to be the key consideration for collaboration but increasingly, the complexity of the challenges has become a key consideration itself. At the same time, the innovative effort is now moving from being a closed and inward-looking process to a more open and networked one. What was commonplace in the software development industry has now proliferated to other fields such as design, research & development, and even manufacturing. The current GSK-EDB collaboration is one such initiative that I hope can develop into a new collaborative platform for Singapore’s emerging research eco-system for urban solutions.

I understand GSK has even opened its laboratories to other research bodies in a bid to accelerate research for new medicines for infectious diseases like tuberculosis and malaria. But in the current age of ubiquity, manufacturers and researchers can harness global creativity as how Nike did when it launched its Web-based corporate idea-sharing GreenXchange last year. Nike publicly released over 400 of its patents that involve environmentally friendly materials or technologies, making it possible for other firms to improve on those innovations that could in turn be used by Nike in its own products. The future of designing solutions now lies in “open and user-driven processes”.

Innovative Solutions

Next we come to innovative solutions. We often think that addressing urban challenges requires technological solutions, forgetting that people are part of the city eco-system and thus part of the solution. Most people would also prefer a simple to a complex solution. We therefore need to develop innovative solutions around people’s lifestyles and behaviour that are practical, scalable and replicable.

Innovative solutions need not necessarily be high-tech. This is especially true in developing countries. In many parts of the world, where many urban dwellers lack adequate sanitation facilities in their homes, highly portable toilets for rent would help improve public hygiene standards tremendously rather than wait for a comprehensive sewerage system. Likewise, portable filters help make water drinkable. The science that goes into this may actually be quite complex. But the solution – simple products as these – go a long way towards reducing infant mortality and raising public health standards. In this case a good engineering solution that would have worked in developed nations has no practicality here. We have also seen high tech solutions that have been labelled “green game changers” but have not found any headway in the market. Here is a waterless washing machine, but how many of us would change our behaviour when water has been used to do our laundry for generations?

From my own organisation’s experience, innovative solutions can also come from taking a systems approach. NEA is responsible for ensuring Singapore’s streets are clean and free from litter. As with any global city, changing demographics and a transient population has meant that NEA’s anti-littering regime needs to be recalibrated and enhanced from time to time. Behaviour is difficult to change, but studies have shown that changing the system or the environment of the individual can influence outcomes. Departing from previous approaches, NEA conducted a sociological study on littering that led to a better understanding of the behaviour of litterbugs, refined its enforcement strategy through greater visibility of our inspectors, repositioned the locations of our bins around the island, and improved the outreach of our anti-littering message to specific target groups. And yesterday, we launched a new iPhone application MyEnv that allows members of the public to report environmental lapses by sending us their pictures that are geo-tagged. At the same time, our fines remain a deterrent.


Some products may be able to inspire desired consumer behaviour change in reducing environmental pollution through the “feel good” factor, but we cannot bank on market revolution driven by a few green members of the public. Sometimes we need to align our processes and products with the way people think and work. Edward Elias at the University of Bath looked at user behaviour of refrigerators, by literally observing when users opened and closed the refrigerator door, for how long and why. The results showed that user behaviour can be a significant proportion of a refrigerator’s energy demand. His recommendation? Design a refrigerator with a transparent door to minimise user-related energy losses. Users would be spending less time looking for food in their fridge with the fridge door open.

In the absence of people-centric design, solutions may not be able to inspire the desired behaviour even though they were designed to do so. For example, would households manage and reduce energy use if smart meters providing real-time information about their electricity usage were installed? In fact, studies show that energy consumption of households with smart meters remains the same, with some households going back to their old energy wasting habits after the initial novelty of the meter wears off.

Exhorting people to be environmentally friendly may not be the best way to get them to change their behaviour. By using systems that are already embedded in people’s lives, we can change their attitudes to the environment, and encourage a higher sense of public responsibility for the environment. I am sure most of you are smartphone users. Now you will be able to use it to check the air pollution readings in your neighbourhood or check the weather before you go for a jog or even report on environmental lapses along the way. The Smart Environment System, which is being developed by NEA, will help the public make better choices in their daily lives, and make it easy for them to contribute environmental-related information or feedback to the system to facilitate more effective operations at NEA.

Towards More Liveable Cities

The 21st century will be an era for cities. The growing scientific community in Singapore involved in urban research can lead the way in developing solutions that incorporate collaborative design, innovative solutions and people-centricity around the concept of sustainability. It is often said that Singapore is small enough to be a good testbed for specific technologies as well as “system of systems” solutions. Let us move boldy on this. Existing projects like the Punggol Eco-Town, Cleantech Park and the upcoming Jurong Island V.2 provide good opportunities for the development and demonstration of best practices and solutions. With strong industry participation, perhaps Singapore can translate R&D to new technologies and solutions on the market and play a vital role in helping other cities overcome the challenge of sustainable development.

I have given you some food for thought for the way we should start relooking at our approaches towards solving our urban challenges. The engineering challenges of tomorrow will require us to build better cities that are capable of accommodating larger numbers of people, meeting their aspirations for jobs, housing and mobility, while ensuring a high quality of life.

Good solutions can be low-tech – portable toilets, non-invasive dengue kits that people are more receptive to, or a conditioner that not only has a low water footprint, but requires less water to rinse out. Good solutions can also be at the other end of the technology spectrum such as the application of an iPhone app to influence sustainable behaviour. But good solutions must be developed bearing in mind that each society, whether developed or developing, has a different set of beliefs, culture and norms that require different solutions.

Perhaps we can also draw some inspiration and insights from Singapore’s own efforts at city building, which encompass elements of Collaborative Design, Innovation and People-Centricity, although it was not defined in such terms when we embarked on the effort of housing a nation. Firstly, a comprehensive approach to balance the various competing needs and tradeoffs in land use is conducted through the Concept Plan and the Master Plan, processes which are reviewed in consultation with the public, private and government sectors. Secondly, public housing in Singapore is not just a bricks and mortar solution but about building strong and cohesive communities for people who live in the public housing estates. Towns are built catering to the needs of residents, and to provide opportunities for residents to interact with their neighbours as part of our ethnic integration policy, including providing common spaces and facilities such as our shopping malls, markets and hawker centres.


As we all know, our current production and consumption patterns are highly resource intensive and unsustainable in the long run. But, good science alone is rarely enough to solve these challenges that confront us. What we need today is a more inter-disciplinary endeavour that brings together experts from various disciplines, including policy makers, scientists, economists, behavioural psychologists, including the leaders of our society, to frame the problems, analyse the issues, and come up with practical and workable solutions. Solutions that will be able to change the way we work, live and play.

I commend the partnership of GSK and EDB in building capabilities in green and sustainable manufacturing in Singapore. I would encourage you to take an inter-disciplinary approach to all your endeavours. Use Singapore as a springboard to the growing web of cities in the region and beyond. I am confident that this collaboration will inspire a new wave of green technology that will change manufacturing, and perhaps improve the livelihoods of the millions that will live in our cities. Only then can we stay ahead of the curve.

I wish all participants a fruitful discussion at this Symposium.

Thank you.

Source: NEA

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