Shaping cities: Balancing social cohesion and urban infrastructure

Shaping cities: Balancing social cohesion and urban infrastructure

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 29 February, 2024


Great cities always challenge you in various ways, they force you to grow as a person. There is an intelligence that comes from urban living that needs to be recognised and embraced. So, for me, the best or most effective cities are those that serve their purposes as incubators or catalysts for human progress.

Orlando Woods

Associate Professor of Geography

In brief

  1. In multicultural societies like Singapore, religion influences social dynamics and spatial use, but can inadvertently heighten divisions within society.   
  2. Urban infrastructure encompasses not just physical structures, but interconnected systems that facilitate human activities and interactions. 
  3. Equitable access to infrastructure and resources is crucial for the liveability of a city, necessitating interdisciplinary research in fields such as urban ageing and digital governance.

This article is featured in Special Feature: Raising Cities

In a world in which rapid urbanisation is the norm, understanding the intricate interplay of social dynamics, technology and urban infrastructure is vital to shaping cities that are both functional and liveable. This is particularly true in diverse societies like Singapore, where a mix of cultures, religions and backgrounds presents unique challenges and opportunities for urban planning.

At the forefront of addressing these complexities is Associate Professor Orlando Woods, Director of SMU’s new Urban Institute and Lee Kong Chian Fellow at the College of Integrative Studies. His areas of expertise span three areas: smart cities and urban infrastructures; multiculturalism and social diversity; and everyday urban practices.  

His research on smart urbanism and infrastructure development draws on extensive research on Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative, and the impact of the infrastructural megaprojects associated with the China-backed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. As a leading researcher on smart urbanism in Singapore, he is currently helming a project that explores the role of Singapore in the development of smart cities in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. His work on infrastructure development in Sri Lanka builds on over a decade’s worth of experience studying religion in the country, and explores how the impacts of the BRI are mediated through local webs of power and resistance. These two projects are aligned in their consideration of how flows of capital and structures of power are complicated through infrastructure investment. Closer to home, in Singapore he has explored how smart technology is changing the culture and practice of eldercare. 

Emphasising the need for adaptable and inclusive urban planning approaches, Assoc Prof Woods discusses how cities can evolve to meet the challenges of rapidly changing social landscapes.    

Q1. You have done a lot of research on how religion is expressed in different spaces, such as Sri Lanka and Singapore. Why, as a geographer, do you find religion informative about meaning for people and spaces? 

Assoc Prof Orlando Woods: Religion means different things to different people. It is deeply personal and subjective. From my perspective as a researcher, religion gets interesting when it materialises in the world. Through a house church, for example, or a burial place, or a Hindu temple. These materialisations of religion yield insight into the ways in which beliefs, and practices of belief, are mapped across different spaces, and the different social groups that use these spaces. Understanding these mappings – the how, what, where, why, and when of them – can yield interesting and important insights into how religion drives different patterns of both sociality – or the ways in which we interact with others – and spatiality in the world. 

Q2. In your book titled Religion and Space: Competition, Conflict and Violence in the Contemporary World, you and your co-author stressed that religion is “never static” and that it is always on the move. How is that so?  

Assoc Prof Orlando Woods: Throughout the world, migration leads to greater social diversity. When people move, they typically bring their beliefs – and normative ways of practising their beliefs – with them. So, just as migration foregrounds social diversity, it also foregrounds religious diversity. Sometimes this diversity can be generative, leading to new religious practices and beliefs, or the enrichment of a religious community. However, it can also lead to divisive politics insofar as religious practice becomes a form of difference-making. For example, in my study of Hindus in Singapore, religion is used among believers to regulate one another’s practices and behaviours in the temple, especially those who are migrants from India. Worshippers may use different practices of Hinduism as a proxy for more fundamental ethno-nationalist politics to manifest. In other words, religious practice can yield insight into new patterns of ethno-racial politics in Singapore. 

Q3. What are some pivotal changes that are happening today that can impact cohesion in multicultural and multi-religious societies like Singapore?

Assoc Prof Orlando Woods: The most tangible driver of change is immigration. Since the publication of the Population White Paper in 2013, the number of foreigners in Singapore has increased noticeably. Often, these foreigners look and sound a lot like Singaporeans. Many are from China or India, and thus share, to varying degrees, a common cultural background. The problem, however, is that they are also subtly different from Singaporeans, meaning they cause the broad categories of “Chinese”, “Malay” and “Indian” to become  more diverse. I use religion as a way to understand this diversity. In Singapore, some religious groups are closely or exclusively tied to ethnicity (think of Malay-Muslims, or Indian-Hindus, for example), whilst others represent a range of ethnicities (Christianity and Buddhism, for example). The importance of studying religious groups is that they have often not been considered enablers of migrant integration, specifically, and social cohesion, more generally. 

Q4. Could you explain what ‘new religious pluralism’ is? How is this manifesting in specific communities, and what are some consequences that are arising from it? 

Assoc Prof Orlando Woods: Religious pluralism is often thought of as a situation or context in which there are multiple religions present. So, in Singapore, we have sizable numbers of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus (and more), and the government’s efforts at managing such religious diversity have been very much geared towards mitigating the problem of tension between religious groups. New religious pluralism embraces the growing diversity found within religious groups, and thus provides insight into the new and more subtle forms of difference taking root in Singapore and beyond.  

Q5.  What is one key takeaway about religious and non-religious organisations to understand how they impact cohesion in societies?

Assoc Prof Orlando Woods: Religious groups are just as responsible for the integration of people and the cohesion of societies as any other stakeholder. Many of them think that this is not their job, and often, unknowingly, reproduce various divisive politics. Recognising that they have a role to play in forging cohesion is an important first step.

Q6. You have noted that China’s “Belt and Road Initiative is an extraordinary phenomenon that has shaped – and will continue to shape – the futures of the countries and communities”.  What are the lessons we miss if we only see the concrete infrastructure as concrete installations for urban growth? 

Assoc Prof Orlando Woods: I see infrastructure as more of an optic, or a perspective, than a concrete “thing”. A definition that I commonly use when presenting infrastructure-related research is that infrastructure is “something that enables something to do something”. So, a road enables a car to move from point A to point B. The human body enables food to be metabolised and converted into energy. Both roads and bodies can be understood as infrastructures. Just from these two examples, we can begin to see a multiplicity of infrastructures at play in any given scenario. So, whilst concrete infrastructures are an extremely important and integral part of much urban growth and development, we must also recognise that they are not isolated “things”, but systems that overlap with, shape, and are shaped by other systems as well. Put simply, a road is meaningless unless people or things use it. But questions concerning how these people or things use it, the politics of use, the politics of access, the changes in livelihood or behaviours or attitudes that it might trigger, are just as important as the road itself.  

Q7. Increasingly, we are using sensors in our homes to help us monitor our elderly. Your research reveals that home-based smart technologies have been embraced as a cost-effective solution to help alleviate the ‘care crunch’ societies face. What does this trust in technology tell us about living “smart”?

Assoc Prof Orlando Woods: The main lesson is that such “trust” is often unequally distributed, and can benefit some people whilst marginalising others. In more concrete terms, from a caregiver’s perspective, digital technologies can enable more efficient caregiving practices. However, from a care receivers’ perspective, such technologies can be alienating, as they replace the human aspect of “care” with a digital ecosystem of sensors, data, algorithms, and distance. More than anything, this tells us that there are many ways to be “smart”. Importantly, being “smart” does not necessarily mean being dependent on technology. Or, that smart living is not just technologically mediated living. Instead, “smart” living might be as simple as elderly people leaving their doors and windows open so that your neighbours can check in on you as they walk down the corridor, or can hear you if you shout out for help. Such practices have nothing to do with technology, but enable informal networks of caregiving to perpetuate and grow. 

Q8. Your study of how games like Pokémon Go shows how it can connect people by using a common experience of play around public spaces, such as parks. What can these games bring to the process of city planning?"

Assoc Prof Orlando Woods: The problem with planning is the plan itself. A plan, almost by definition, is something rigid, formal, top-down, prescriptive, ideological, and so on. The interesting thing about Pokemon Go is that it is a game that encourages distinctly urban forms of sociality to emerge. But it would never work the way it does if it is part of a “plan”. This distinction reveals the need for a multi-pronged, and multi-perspectival approach to “planning” cities – an approach that blends many, sometimes contradictory, or unpredictable, elements. With this in mind, I do not think that augmented reality games could be used to build cities from scratch, but they most certainly could be incorporated into planning-related decisions. 

Q9. Urban research is indeed varied and multi-faceted in helping us understand the human aspects of “trust” and “cohesion” and “belonging” living in a city. What would your ideal city look and feel like?

Assoc Prof Orlando Woods: That’s a difficult question to answer! I think you’re following an illusory ideal if you’re trying to make any city – or anything for that matter – perfect. In my view, what makes cities so interesting and exciting is their imperfections. It’s the sharp or rough edges they have, the energy, the sense of perspective that pushes us to cope, adapt, and be better. Great cities always challenge you in various ways, they force you to grow as a person. There is an intelligence that comes from urban living that needs to be recognised and embraced. So, for me, the best or most effective cities are those that serve their purposes as incubators or catalysts for human progress. 

Q10. Singapore is often regarded as a highly liveable city. What does liveability mean to you? As the Director of SMU’s new Urban Institute, what aspects of urban life should Singapore devote more research to?

Assoc Prof Orlando Woods: For me, liveability means that as many people as possible have equitable access to infrastructure, resources, representation, justice and opportunities. Generally speaking, the central question of “access” is very well distributed in Singapore, which causes it to be extremely liveable. The central mechanism for this is the public housing system, which is world-class. There are other factors at play. Its small size, island geography and a single layer of government all work in favour of the idea of “access”. Of course, Singapore is not perfect. Certain social cohorts have always been, and continue to be, marginalised by certain government policies. Migrant workers and foreign domestic workers are two well-rehearsed and well-researched categories. However, we must also acknowledge that things are changing, especially as we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to transition into a post-COVID society. 

I would like to see the Urban Life pillar leveraging the breadth and quality of SMU’s research ecosystem. We have some excellent research centres that do world-class work on issues related to, for example, ageing (Centre for Research On Successful Ageing), digital governance (Centre for AI and Data Governance) or green finance (Singapore Green Finance Centre). I would like to see us working with our colleagues from these centres to develop collaborative, cross-domain research programmes on ageing cities, for example, urban privacy, or green infrastructure finance, that have an urban question at their core.

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Methodology & References
  1. Woods, O., & Kong, L. (Apr 2022). Aestheticized temples, rationalized affects: sacred modernities and the micro-regulation of Hinduism in Singapore. Journal of Cultural Geography. Retrieved from {}.
  2. Strategy Group Singapore. Population White Paper: A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore. Strategy Group Singapore. Retrieved from {}
  3. Woods, O., & Kong, L. (2020). New cultures of care? The spatio-temporal modalities of homebased smart eldercare technologies in Singapore. Social and Cultural Geography.  Retrieved from {}
  4. Woods, O. (2021). Experiencing the unfamiliar through mobile gameplay: Pokémon Go as augmented tourism. Area, 53(1). Retrieved from {}