How Singapore Is Becoming the World’s Most Innovative City

Few cities face as many physical constraints as Singapore, but today the place is seen as a model of urban sustainability. Could we all be living like this in the future?

After stepping off the world’s longest flight (19 hours on Singapore Air’s I new direct route from Newark), I walked into Changi Airport, jet-lagged and disoriented. But almost before I knew it, I had sped effortlessly through customs, and was delighted to find my bag already circulating on the luggage carousel. 

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Changi is routinely named the world’s best airport—and that was before the addition, earlier this year, of the vast, Moshe Safdie–designed Jewel, a retail-entertainment hub on the site of a former open-air car park. In Jewel’s Changi Experience Studio, a flashy virtual-reality exhibition, one of the most popular attractions is something known as the efficiency game, in which players are awarded points for swiftly processing travelers and bags. 

Lee Kuan Yew, the long-serving inaugural prime minister of Singapore, was famously obsessed with efficiency; after assuming power of the tropical city-state in 1959, one of his first acts was to install air-conditioning in government buildings to boost civil servants’ productivity. He was also the man who envisioned Singapore as a “city in a garden” and, in 1963, launched a massive tree-planting campaign that resulted in the verdant metropolis you see today. 

That dual legacy—efficient and green—not only continues to shape Singapore but has helped make it a sort of showcase of sustainability, one that the world is increasingly paying attention to. Several decades ago, Singapore may have been catching up with the West, but today it is seen as a model for urban cen- tersacross the globe, both developing and developed, that look to the city-state for road maps to their own futures. 


Darren Soh

“City in a garden” seemed an apt description of Jewel’s 10-story glass, steel, and aluminum dome. The futuristic space teems with thousands of trees and some 100,000 shrubs and houses the soaring Rain Vortex—the world’s tallest indoor waterfall and a marvel of hydraulic engineering. In a city short on water and long on sun, countless steps were taken to make the Rain Vortex work as efficiently as possible. The whole thing is powered by collected rainwater—abundant in Singapore—while the waterfall itself helps cool the space. The nearly 10,000 glass panels that make up the massive “gridshell” covering are coated to let in plant-friendly sunlight but reduce visitor-unfriendly heat. And all those plants just make people feel good; never has a bustling airport seemed so tranquil. 

My arrival at Changi was the first of many moments in Singapore when an example of efficiency would leave me shaking my head in silent wonder. Driving around town, I would find myself marveling at how an electronic transponder automatically collected payment at every parking garage in the country—no more fumbling for cash or tickets. Taking public transit, I was impressed by the “linkways,” as the covered walkways are known, that seemed present at almost every stop, sheltering pedestrians from blazing sun and abundant rain. (They say there are two seasons in Singapore: “wet” and “wetter.”) 

Someone cares, I kept thinking. One afternoon, I took a walk with a government planner through the fashionable neighborhood of Tiong Bahru, a British-built 1920s housing development now popular with expats. As we chatted, I idly noted a spot where the sidewalk ended abruptly. The planner immediately took a picture on his smartphone and uploaded it to OneService, a citizen-powered troubleshooting app. Somewhere in the bowels of the city, I imagined, a roadwork crew was being silently mobilized.

For a long time, many people’s image of Singapore was: clean and strict. “I’m afraid in the States two things come up—chewing gum and Michael Fay,” said Jane Iyer, owner of Jane’s Singapore Tours, which offers itineraries exploring everything from the country’s diverse religious identity to the history of its wartime occupation by the Japanese. That famous gum ban and the 1994 public caning of Fay, an American teen alleged to have vandalized cars, ensured that the city-state was often seen as little more than a straitlaced business destination, or a gateway to other, more culturally rich southeast Asian countries. 

But that’s changing, Iyer said. Word got out about the next-level street food served at the country’s cherished hawker centers. Then came last year’s headline-making Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. And shortly after that came Crazy Rich Asians, the blockbuster movie about Singapore’s one percent with a majority Asian cast (Iyer runs a tour of the film locations). Although Singaporeans say its portrayal is skewed—and half of it was shot in Malaysia—the movie helped put the country on many people’s mental maps. (There was apparently a post-release spike in “Where is Singapore?” Google searches.) 

In a place where architects often live to see their own projects demolished to make way for new designs, the past decade or so has also seen a growing interest in preserving the city’s architectural inheritance. Today, visitors can experience it first-hand in projects like the Warehouse, a boutique hotel housed in a 19th-century godown on the Singapore River that once served the spice trade, and Six Senses Maxwell, a high-end hotel in a renovated block of 19th-century shophouses. 


Darren Soh

“On the surface, you might think there’s not that much going on here,” said Vijay Mudaliar, proprietor of a bar named Native, which is set in a former shophouse in a neighborhood where numerous historic buildings have been repurposed as fashionable restaurants, boutiques, and galleries. “We’re trying to change that perception.” Mudaliar is part of a growing number of creative entrepreneurs looking to reconnect with Singapore’s cultural heritage. At Native, drinks are made with locally sourced—sometimes even foraged—ingredients like candlenut and laksa leaves. “We’ve grown so fast in the last 50 years,” he said, “that sometimes we don’t slow down to see what we actually have.”

After its reluctant separation from the Federation of Malaya in 1965, writes Nicholas Walton in Singapore, Singapura: From Miracle to Complacency, the city-state didn’t look much like a viable country. “It had no ready market for whatever it wanted to sell, no place from which to draw labor, food, and water.” But with the help of some “farsighted leadership and work and sense of vulnerability, it pulled itself up by its bootstraps.” Today, the country boasts the world’s third-highest GDP per capita. What happened in the intervening decades entailed “bold responses” to myriad problems, as Lim Hng Kiang, the country’s former minister of trade, described them. Housing shortage? The country instituted a forced-savings plan and started a massive public-housing campaign; today more than 80 percent of Singaporeans live in a “haytchdee bee,” as residents pronounce the initials of the Housing and Development Board. (HDB housing populations are carefully calibrated to prevent ethnic enclaves.) And while U.S. residents might balk at the idea of a national government controlling where they live, and next door to whom, the policy is a source of pride for many Singaporeans. When impassable traffic jams began to plague the city in the early 1970s, the city passed the world’s first congestion pricing scheme—something that made it to cities like London and Stockholm only decades later.

It disincentivized car ownership itself by requiring a “certificate of entitlement” typically costing more than the vehicle itself. Fewer than 50 percent of households now own a car, and the government wants the figure lower still. It was precisely because Singapore faced a whole host of issues that are becoming more relevant for an increasingly urban world—a growing and aging population, land and resource constraints, the challenge of maintaining social cohesion among different ethnic and religious groups, the effects of climate change—that it became, suggests Johns Hopkins University scholar Kent Calder, a “de facto global laboratory for pioneering approaches to urban problems.” Once famously dismissed by Indonesia’s president as a “red dot” on the map, the city is no bigger than Hamburg, yet has a population of more than triple the size—plus an army, an air force, and all the other responsibilities of nationhood. Singapore has very few natural resources, so it must rely on global supply chains for most of its food, water, and energy—even the sand that helps it expand (the island is 24 percent bigger than it used to be).

That unique combination of size and fragility, suggests Calder, has forced Singapore to become especially nimble, responsive, and innovative. “Singapore has always had a radically practical approach,” the architect Peng Beng Khoo, of ARC Studio, told me, “simply because we have to deal with a lack of resources.” It helps that the same party has been in power since the country’s founding. “You can’t transplant Singapore,” cautioned Michael Koh, executive fellow at the government’s Centre for Livable Cities. “The values are different, the population is different.” Like a true laboratory, what happens in Singapore happens under a very specific set of circumstances. But that doesn’t mean the solutions and remedies forged in this “radically practical” laboratory can’t help cure problems elsewhere.


Darren Soh

Not he ground floor of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, an agency almost wholly responsible for the way Singapore looks today (and will look tomorrow), there’s a special exhibit celebrating the draft release of the country’s latest five-year master plan. I toured the space, which is filled with information kiosks and a huge city model, with Yvonne Lim, the URA’s group director of physical planning. “It’s our chance to tell Singaporeans how we see Singapore developing,” she said, pointing out a flurry of forthcoming changes: a huge port relocating here, a dense new town being built there.

Every ten minutes, the lights dimmed, a video flickered to life, and a booming voice filled the space. “Space may be limited,” it intoned, “but opportunities are not.” Breathless buzz phrases filled my ears. “Growth sustained through careful planning.” “We’ve turned water into land, suburbs into hubs.” The video concluded: “Singapore. Invent the future.”

There aren’t many countries that would create such a glitzy showcase for urban planning; fewer still would have a “concept plan” stretching 50 years. Singapore’s zest for strategizing is its soft power: Planners come from around the world to study it, and the country has exported its know-how to countries from China to Rwanda. The state-owned group that runs the standard-setting Changi Airport, for example, has now consulted on some 60 airports globally. Lim suggests that all cities are facing the same broad set of issues. “What’s unique to us is that we are a small city-state,” she said. “In major cities like New York, you don’t have to think about defense land. We have no choice.” Needing land for air bases, or to capture water, and yet still plan for growth, makes every square foot precious. And being forced to do more with less leads to innovative solutions.

Everywhere I went in Singapore, it seemed something was being pushed to its highest productive use. That beautiful park, rich with birds, along the Kallang River? It was once a concrete channel—and still is a concrete channel—but thanks to clever bioengineering, it’s also now a sus- tainable floodplain and public green space. Semakau Island, the country’s only landfill, is a veritable nature reserve, teeming with species. The former Malaysian-owned rail line, which until 2011 connected the city to Kuala Lumpur, is being reclaimed as a 15-mile-long nature trail. With space for solar panels in short supply, the country plans to develop the world’s largest floating solar array at Tengeh Reservoir, one of its crucial water-catchment sites (the energy will power water purification). As companies like Comcrop set up greenhouses on the tops of parking garages to reduce near-total reliance on external food sources, the country is aggressively expanding its underground space for storage and utilities.


Darren Soh

The Marina Barrage, a dam built to cordon off a supply of fresh water, has a visitor’s center and rooftop picnic ground. In Singapore, infrastructure is more than just pipes; it’s a cause for civic celebration. Water itself is being “endlessly reused,” as I learned one morning at a high-tech water-treatment plant, which has been proudly turned into a tourist attraction. The country currently gets half its water from Malaysia, under an occasionally contentious agreement set to expire in several decades. Aiming for self-sufficiency, Singapore has been aggressively investing in desalination plants, rainwater-harvesting systems, and “reclaimed” water— whatever just went down the drain. Along the way, it’s made itself into a global leader in water conservation.

At first glance, it seemed like the classic promenade one might see in any European capital. There were lovers embracing, children wobbling by on in-line skates. Then I remembered that this street is actually a “skybridge” 50 stories-high—the tallest in the world—with views stretching to Malaysia (visitors can enjoy it for $6). Somewhere below, in Chinatown, sounded the distant clanging of a lion dance, which marks auspicious occasions. This was the scene at Pinnacle@Duxton, a much-feted series of towers comprising some 1,848 apartments linked by the aforementioned skybridge.

When Pinnacle debuted ten years ago, its density broke all records, even for Singapore. The building was designed by ARC Studio, which is run by Belinda Huang and her husband, Peng Beng Khoo. Huang told me that when the couple sat down to design Pinnacle, they could barely comprehend its scale. But they strove to soften the building’s impact by maximizing views and keeping the façade as “porous” as possible, using color and texture to break it up. Pinnacle’s density informed ARC Studio’s work on 1000 Singapores, the city-state’s official pavilion at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2010. If the world’s population lived at Singaporean density, Khoo suggested, it could fit into Texas; if it lived at Pinnacle density, it could fit into Florida.


Darren Soh

Khoo understands this might sound dystopian, but he sees Singapore as an urban proving ground, exploring “what it means to be compact and livable at the same time.” To me, what stands out most about the city is the sheer amount of green architecture. By green, I mean, yes, triple-glazed-windows, solar panels, and striking innovations like the massive wind scoop on top of the Toyo Ito–designed CapitaGreentower, which funnels cooling air into the building’s core. But I also mean buildings positively bristling with vegetation, as if the tropics were reclaiming the built environment. Richard Hassell, a partner in the architecture firm WOHA, told me that a decade or so ago, the city passed a law calling for “100 percent replacement green.” In other words, all new buildings needed to house as much greenery as the empty site could have contained. In their design for the 635-foot-tall Oasia Hotel Downtown, where the 12th-storylobby opens dramatically to the elements, WOHA went even further, covering the building in a screen of aluminum mesh interwoven with 21 species of plants. There’s as much green on the building as would occupy 11 of the same-sized plots on the ground. This veritable forest in the sky isn’t just aesthetically striking; it’s also dust-absorbing and cooling. (“Plants are the only thing you can shine light on that don’t heat up,” Hassell explained.)

Sustainable doesn’t mean only green. Kampung Admiralty, a WOHA-designed senior housing project that was the World Architecture Festival’s Building of the Year in 2018, does include, prominently, a large stepped rooftop garden filled with native plants and a recorded 57 species of birds and insects. But it also has a bustling community space, a supermarket, and an on-site medical center. Similarly, SkyTerrace @ Dawson, a government-commissioned public-housing scheme designed by SCDA Architects, boasts green-building credentials (and lots of actual green), but the central idea is that it’s a place where three generations of Singaporeans can live together in interconnected, separate-entry modules. Soo K. Chan, the founder of SCDA Architects, has lived and worked in New York City (he designed the Soori High Line condominium complex). He told me he can do things in Singapore he could never do in New York—largely because there, the government is more open to experimentation than the profit-minded private sector.


Darren Soh

The emphasis at SkyTerrace, he said, “really was how to improve the way people live.” It’s an ethos underscoring the “Garden City” concept, originally devised by the 19th-century British reformer Ebenezer Howard—which in turn inspired Le Corbusier’s concept of “vertical garden cities.” For a long time, these ideas existed more on paper than in reality. But in Singapore, Howard and Le Corbusier’s visions have come alive. A project like Kampung Admiralty, noted Hassell, is “not just an architectural outcome. It’s an outcome of a whole lot of social and economic policies that architecture has made visible.” It’s the sort of thing, he suggested, that might be a bit “embarrassing for governments around the world. They look at this and think, ‘Why can’t we do that in our city?’”