Charting our changing cities



Left (top-bottom): SMU Associate Professor of Science, Technology and Society Winston Chow; SMU Associate Professor Humanities Orlando Woods.

SMU Office of Research & Tech Transfer – For most of human history, populations across the world lived in low-density, rural settings. Over the past few centuries, however, this changed dramatically with the trend of urbanisation. Today, more than four billion people live in urban settings worldwide; by 2050, about two thirds of the world’s population are expected to live in cities.

Despite their rapid growth, cities do not spring up fully formed, but are shaped by evolving human constructs including government policy, legal frameworks and emerging technologies. It is precisely because much of human life is now led in cities that it is essential to examine these constructs and their implications on city living, said SMU President Professor Lily Kong at the New Cities in the New Normal workshop on 22 January 2021.

The workshop was coordinated by the SMU Cities Research Cluster (CRC), which comprises the School of Social Sciences (SOSS) faculty Associate Professor Winston Chow, Assistant Professor Ishani Mukherjee, Associate Professor Orlando Woods and Assistant Professor Fiona Williamson.

Building better cities

Cities today are guilty of contributing to many challenges humanity collectively faces, Professor Kong said in her opening remarks, citing the example of climate change and the corresponding need for sustainable living. This concept of sustainable living goes “far beyond” environmental issues, she qualified. It touches on social issues too – for example, ageing populations and how to sustain an elderly population in an urban environment.

This is where universities come in, providing research and education that can turn interdisciplinary, complex theories into tangible policy actions, Professor Kong explained. Concurring with Professor Kong, Professor Chow pointed out that with the recent pandemic altering countless aspects of city living, it has become even more crucial for university researchers to examine these changes in government policy, legal frameworks and emerging technologies – so as to understand their impact on cities of the future.

Agreeing that the COVID-19 outbreak has reshaped city life, Professor Shenjing He of the University of Hong Kong emphasised the issue of limited physical and social mobility. The latter is an important consideration as it is highly related to quality of life and wellbeing in cities, she said.

Moving through physical and virtual worlds

In her keynote speech, Professor He observed that as the pandemic was curtailing physical mobility – with people’s movements largely restricted to their nearby communities and neighbourhoods – it was also reducing social mobility. “It’s a public health crisis, but also a huge economic and social crisis… you see unemployment and economic hardship on the rise and it’s hitting disadvantaged people the hardest,” she said.

Since the concept of mobility also pertains to travel between cities, Professor He brought up the issue of pandemic travel bans and countries working to develop travel bubbles. “This creates a selective mobility only available to certain countries and particular [privileged] groups,” she shared. “It actually signifies a more segregated and divided world.”

Professor Woods further advanced this dialogue on inequality and equitable access in the next panel discussion on New Cities in the New Normal, which featured Associate Professor Hallam Stevens from NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity (NISTH), and Professor Stephen Cairns, a Programme Director at the Future Cities Laboratory.

Examining the issue from a digital angle, Professor Stevens said that post-pandemic cities have grown to encompass more than the physical spaces they take up. “[They are] intertwined with all of these online spaces that we exist in at the same time. And we spend so much time in these online spaces,” he said. As social distancing measures continue, human life and interactions are increasingly playing out on virtual spaces. This underscores a new need to include the novel kinds of digital rights in discussions of equitable access, Professor Stevens concluded.

Collaboration and communication

When it comes to public discussions on inequality and sustainable living, researchers can play a role in kickstarting much-needed conversations, said Professor Chow, who hosted a second panel session on urban sustainability featuring Dr Olivia Jensen, Lead Scientist for Environment and Climate at the Lloyd’s Register Foundation (LRF) Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk; Dr Limin Hee, Director of Research at the Centre for Liveable Cities; and Dr Hui Mien Lee, Vice President for Sustainable Solutions at Mandai Park Development and Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

Adding to the discussion on the role of research in inspiring policy changes, the panellists concurred that much like the sprawling nature of a city, the myriad dimensions of such research would necessitate collaborations with multiple players in the ecosystem. “Academics, agencies, practitioners, developers… in coming up with integrated, systems-level solutions, we all have different roles to play,” Dr Hee said.

Apart from establishing partnerships with other organisations, Dr Jensen also emphasised the importance of effective communication in turning academic studies into tangible action. “Who are the people you need to know? What are the barriers to them using it? And how can you, as a researcher, enable that process?” she asked the audience. “If you’ve done a great piece of work collecting and analysing data, then when it comes to communicating the results be as strategic and analytical as you would be in the research itself,” she advised.

As cities continue to evolve, so too should the conversations about sustainability research, and workshops such as these, held virtually in light of the ongoing pandemic, play an important role by bringing more people into the discussion and broadening our understanding.


By Sheryl Lee

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Goh Lijie
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