3 keys to building resilient and human-centred cities

3 keys to building resilient and human-centred cities

By SMU City Perspectives team


What the pandemic has done is to refocus our attention on what living in a city means for the human individual. And that, I think, is something that entails drawing our attention to basic physiological needs again. — Professor Lily Kong 

Lily Kong

President; Lee Kong Chian Chair Professor of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University

In brief

  1. ​​To meet food security goals, populations need alternative foods that are not just technologically and economically possible but also psychologically acceptable.  
  2. Smart cities are emerging but to thrive, we must address fundamental physiological, safety, emotional, psychological needs to build humanistic cities. 
  3. Education institutions are critical in the nurturing of the next generation of empathetic, listening leaders for cities to thrive. 


What does the future hold for cities? On 2 August 2022, SMU President Professor Lily Kong, was joined by a diverse group of leaders to discuss how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the evolving role of cities. Each speaker shared examples from their home country, with a special focus on Asia. 

The panel, moderated by The Economist Intelligence Unit Chief Global Economist Simon Baptiste, consisted of:  

  • Professor Lily Kong, President, Singapore Management University
  • Flemming Borreskov, LKYWCP, Prize Jury; President, Catalytic Societ
  • Josef Hargrave, Global Leader of Foresight, Arup
  • Craig Lawton, Technical Chief of Global Smart City Program, AWS
  • David Wallerstein KC SoC; Chief eXploration Officer, Tencent
  • Hou Yongzhi, Director-General and Research Fellow, Department of Development Strategy and Regional Economy, DRC

Based on her expertise on urban transformations, and social and cultural change in Asia, Prof Kong shared three challenges that she believes are key to building resilient cities of the future. 

Professor Lily Kong, President, Singapore Management University 

Building a self-sufficient and food secure city

According to research by the Asian Development Bank, 40% of developing Asia can expect to face severe water shortages, urban encroachment and soil erosion by 2030. These factors place significant stress on the region’s agricultural land base. Add on climate change issues and you have a recipe for severe food security challenges.

Historically reliant on foreign imports for food, Singapore has a "30 by 30" goal to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs domestically by 2030. However, as shared by Prof Kong, the country is “at best, one-third of the way at this point of time”, a far cry from its goal.  

Drawing inspiration from Singapore’s strategic approach to innovating and protecting its water supply, Prof Kong shared how businesses and governments can once again work together to ensure it is “technologically and economically possible to create alternative food products sustainably, but that they are also psychologically acceptable to the population.” She cited TurtleTree Labs’ cell-based milk, and Insect Feed Technologies’ soldier flies as animal feed, as examples of innovative companies contributing to food security. Both start-ups are SMU Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE) incubatees.  

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Lessons from Singapore’s water supply challenge 

  • Scaled up and brought the cost of desalination technology down for more independence in providing access to clean water. 
  • Invested in public education to improve perception and psychological acceptance of consuming NEWater, Singapore’s highly-treated, reclaimed wastewater.

Putting humans back at the centre of cities 

“Actually, data collection has made cities very un-humanistic,” said Simon Baptist, Chief Global Economist at The Economist Intelligence Unit, and he cited digital strategies used during the Covid-19 pandemic as an example of how data has resulted in cities becoming increasingly dehumanised.  

To urge leaders to think about inclusive technological advancement, Prof Kong supported this view with examples from Myanmar where technology has been adopted in the transport domain, such as the use of smart traffic lights and timetables for drivers. With the former, if the potholes in the road were not repaired, then the smart traffic lights would do little to improve efficiency. With the latter, garbage truck drivers who are tracked and have their routes optimised by advanced GPS are unable to take on much-needed opportunities in the informal economy like delivering goods on the side. In both examples, Prof Kong illustrated how advancement in technologies that may be used “with the best intentions” could very well be detrimental to individuals. 

Building a self-sufficient and food secure city

In a world where technological advancement and economic growth take centre stage, Prof Kong reminded attendees that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the focus back on “what living in the city means for the human individual.” She highlighted the importance of 3 key needs that leaders have to focus on in building “humanistic cities”: 

  1. Physiological needs 
  2. Public health and safety needs 
  3. Emotional and psychological needs  

While new technology has its important place in the management and planning of cities, leaders need to look beyond the data, listen “through the heart” and recognise the fundamental needs of people. In this respect, Prof Kong emphasised the role of educational institutions in nurturing empathetic leaders through interdisciplinary learning and research. 

What the future of cities looks like 

As a closing point, Prof Kong shared her belief that “cities are here to stay, but the size, nature and scale may modify.”  While a certain critical mass is needed for cities to reach the level of economic activity and vibrancy that people expect, she opined that the time of mega cities may be coming to an end, while second-tier cities will soon be given the opportunity to shine and demonstrate their abilities.  

About World Cities Summit 

The biennial World Cities Summit (WCS) is an exclusive platform for government leaders and industry experts to address liveable and sustainable city challenges, share integrated urban solutions and forge new partnerships. Jointly organised by Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), key highlights of the Summit include the WCS Mayors Forum, the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize and the WCS Young Leaders Symposium. For the 2022 edition, Singapore Management University was a Patron Sponsor. 

Source: World Cities Summit