Flooding: How Can Cities Be Prepared for an Increasingly Unpredictable Future?

2018 was a year of unprecedented global weather events. In Asia, Super Typhoon Mangkhut brought close to $50 billion in damages to Hong Kong and China, on top of $16 to $20 billion it exacted from Philippines (Yap et al., 2018), while extreme precipitation-induced flooding in Kerala state killed at least 350 people and displaced over 800,000 (Kotecki, P., 2018). Meanwhile, 2019 started off with a historic deep freeze in the United States, brought about by unusual polar vortex formation (Channel News Asia, 2019).

Causes of climate change has long been associated with extreme events and is the biggest threat to the planet as reported by the World Economic Forum. Unless drastic changes are made to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, it is likely that we will continue to witness such events with increased magnitude and frequency. These events will continue to interact with complex systems, eventually set off their own ripple effects in a cascading manner akin to toppling dominoes (U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2018).

Introducing Resiliency in Global Warming

In the face of global climate change and diminishing natural resources, designing today’s cities and buildings require environmental, economic, and social considerations. The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 saw Sustainability at the forefront of many global policies aiming to minimize impacts on the environment. While Sustainability focuses on how we can slow down effects of global warming to the Earth, there is also a pressing need to look into the aftermath of warming – that has long been associated with extreme weather events. This is where we enter a new field known as “Resiliency”.

Importance of Resiliency Planning

For the past 20 years, climate-related calamities accounted for 91% of all disasters, with floods topping the list at 43%. Direct economic losses within this period due to climate-related and flooding specific disasters brought about US$2,245 billion and US$656 billion worth of damage respectively (Crunch, C., 2018).  In terms of property value, a study by First Street Foundation (2019) has found that property values on the East and Gulf coasts of United States have reduced by $16 billion due to flooding threats, signaling that the market is already reacting to such disasters. Recent research in the field of attribution studies have further demonstrated that the frequency, intensity, and duration of natural disasters will continue to increase due to climate change (Achakulwisut, P., 2019).

And how do all these impact our lives and homes? How will our cities deal with such uncertainties of the future? Are we doing enough to overcome the challenges that lie ahead while mitigating risks? – The field of “Resiliency” attempts to shed light on planning ahead for such possible uncertainties of the future. From a broader perspective, resiliency is defined by the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow regardless of the kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience (100 Resilient Cities, 2019). From a flooding perspective, it is about how cities can plan for a flood-resilient future.

In light of recent severe events, and the risk of them occurring again, it is appropriate to consider how to assess flood risks in order to reduce the likelihood of flooding, and robust planning for a flood-resilient future. Such an approach usually considers the 4-R model developed by the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) at the University of Buffalo in the United States, which describes resilient systems as one that encompasses the following properties:

  1. Robustness (ability to withstand shocks, such as housing and bridges built to withstand flood waters)
  2. Redundancy (functional diversity, such as multiple evacuation routes)
  3. Resourcefulness (ability to mobilize when threatened, such as functional community groups who can quickly turn a community centre into a flood shelter), and
  4. Rapidity (ability to contain losses and recover in a timely manner, such as access to quick finance for recovery)

Digitisation Enables Us to Predict Flood Risks Unlike Before

The World Economic Forum 2019 in Davos with Industrialization 4.0 taking centre stage focused on digitisation, which enabled the interaction of multiple layers of data to generate insights and predictions unlike before. Such approach towards flood resiliency will transcend current approaches, which are currently conducted in a siloed, non-repeatable, and non-integrated fashion, as well as address currently missing key considerations, from specific geographies to the timing of storms that introduces complex compound flooding (Begos, K., 2019).

Our approach leverages on a common Geographic Information System (GIS) platform that brings together a multitude of data accurately geo-referenced to a single point, providing the basis that makes interaction possible. Among the comprehensive list of data required (refer to Illustration A) for such an analysis are topographical survey, building models, local rainfall, waterbody distribution, drainage network, and imperviousness data, that are most crucial for an accurate assessment.

Learning from Nature to Effectively Mitigate Flood Risks

While embarking on digitisation endeavors and relooking at traditional approaches, we should not neglect processes that have worked brilliantly for billions of years – that is nature. By safeguarding natural buffers, we can leverage on them to enhance protective functions and confer disaster resilience. This is in line with the United Nations Disaster Resilience Scorecard for Cities (2017), as well as the Sendai Framework for resilient cities.

Since the last century, urban planning was focused on adopting a “pave, pipe and pump” methodology of storm water management (Knight, S., 2017), discharging them into sewers as soon as they make landfall. Recent unprecedented flooding events across the globe with effects intensified by both climate change and urbanisation have demonstrated that such an approach is no longer relevant. A softer approach should be taken, as opposed to solely upsizing and re-laying concrete pipes and sewers for every new flooding hotspot that occur (refer to Illustration B).

Termed as low impact development (LID), these flood mitigation measures mimic natural processes using solutions such as vegetated swales, rain gardens, wetlands, etc to absorb, infiltrate, diffuse, and convey stormwater runoff. Apart from reducing the peak flow rate of runoffs, they also improve water quality and enhance overall biodiversity and aesthetics of its site. Such projects have been gaining traction across major cities in United States, China, Australia, and Singapore, seamlessly integrating LID with architectural and landscaping elements to create biophilic “Sponge City” environments (refer to Illustration C).

The Next Frontier in Flood Resiliency Analysis

Given the high natural variability and underlying dynamics of climate, it is extremely challenging to model and predict flood risks. As such, before we can even consider flood mitigating solutions, it is imperative to consider how to precisely target existing and future flooding hotspots, evaluate the effectiveness of deploying a single or multiple array of solutions, and quantify the before and after flooding risks to arrive at a practical solution. On top of quantifying flooding risks and evaluating suitable mitigating strategies, digitisation enables us to visualise flood water propagation throughout every stage to facilitate informed decision making.

Our flood risk analysis is applicable for projects ranging from small-scale plot level developments, to mid-scale district zones, and large scale urban planning projects – providing tailor-made flood resilient solutions for every client. A combination of resultant flooding hotspots, water depth indication, and animation of flood water propagation interacting with topography and physical obstructions provide for multiple angles of analysis.

When capacities of storm sewers, drains, and rivers are exceeded during a precipitation event, stormwater runoff will start propagating to low lying areas that can be visualised in a flood propagation animation that varies with time. Together with a flood risk map, this enables planners to precisely determine which zones are at risk, evaluate a combination of suitable mitigating solutions or re-locate critical zones to less flood-prone areas, effectively taking guesswork out of their design. A demonstration can be seen in figures below, showcasing “before” and “after” flooding risks. Such optimization can potentially save the many lives that have been lost in recent extreme precipitation events by putting effective measures in place beforehand. Afterall, investing in pre-event resilience building is more cost-effective than simply cleaning up after a disaster.

Illustration C: The City’s Flood Risks from a 1 in 50 Years Precipitation Event, Before and After Incorporating Mitigating Solutions such as LID and enlarged drainage pipe sizes. Multi-Coloured Spots Outlined in White (with legend on the right) Demarcates Depth of Water Ponding. (Regions circled in RED indicates potential flooding hotspots on land. Regions circled in WHITE indicates problem of flooding has been reduced/resolved.)

Our Smart Approach Towards Flooding

During actual deployment, real or near real time sensors can be considered in conjunction with weather cameras to provide data to monitor flooding situations. Such data is first input to a sensor fusion platform which is then fed into our model, after which the output is visualized in the city or estate operations control centre for the controller to activate or even automatically trigger certain emergency processes such as evacuation, road closure or traffic diversion. Nearby safe shelters or medical facilities locations and information can be communicated to the public via mobile applications or roadside display panels.

Furthermore, the flooding analysis model can also be integrated into a digital twin of the physical environment to allow other systems to be built on it, interacted and tested to a certain confidence level before rolling out to the actual environment. This helps to continuously train and update the model with real-time information to make it more intelligent and robust for detection and triggering of future events. The flood analysis model can help to fine tune the placement of sensors through testing in the digital twin environment to increase the availability or accuracy of data, or even better communicate to the public in the event of an emergency. Through this exercise, it helps the city or development agencies better plan and manage an emergency event from the input of data, triggering of actions and communication to the public. Ultimately, calibrated digital twin enables for far more effective real-time operational decision making and control, that also facilitates risk prediction and defining the best course of action to prevent communities from being taken by surprise (Begos, K., 2019).


Moving forward to a future with an increasingly uncertain climate, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way cities are planned and designed, using such flooding analysis to provide certainty for our future cities to become flood resilient, and smart tools to provide real-time information to facilitate decision making. In doing so, we are not only building cities, but also shaping the lives of those people who live in them.


100 Resilient Cities (2019). Defining Urban Resilience. Retrieved from: https://www.100resilientcities.org/

Achakulwisut, P., (2019). Climate Change is a Public health Emergency. Scientific American. Retrieved from: https://www-nature-com.proxygw.wrlc.org/articles/s41558-018-0315-6

Begos, K., (2019) Local Flood Forecasting Has Been Dangerously Imprecise – That’s About to Change. Scientific America. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/local-flood-forecasting-has-been-dangerously-imprecise-mdash-thats-about-to-change1/

Channel News Asia (2019). More than 20 dead in US polar vortex, frostbite amputations feared.

Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/world/more-than-20-dead-in-us-polar-vortex-frostbite-amputations-11194248

Crunch, C., (2018). Economic Losses, Poverty & Disasters 1998 – 2017. US Agency for International Development

Disaster Resilience Scorecard for Cities (2017). United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

First Street Foundation (2019). Rising Seas Soaked Home Owners for $16 Billion Over 12 Years. Scientific American. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/rising-seas-soaked-home-owners-for-16-billion-over-12-years/

Knight, S., (2017) What would an entirely flood-proof city look like? Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/sep/25/what-flood-proof-city-china-dhaka-houston

Kotecki, P., (2018). Natural disasters set records around the world in 2018. These were some of the worst. Business Insider.

Retrieved from: https://www.businessinsider.sg/worst-natural-disasters-records-world-in-2018-2018-11/?r=US&IR=T

List of Data Required for Our Flood Analysis Includes:

Aquifers, building models, climate, discharge locations, drainage network, flow diversions, imperviousness data, land use, LID design parameters, local rainfall, manhole design, orifices, outfall locations, pumps, river flow centrelines, storm water storage tanks, subcatchments, topographical survey, waterbody distribution, and weirs.

U.S. Global Change Research Program (2018). Fourth National Climate Assessment. Retrieved from: https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/

Yap et al., (2018). Hong Kong On Lockdown as Typhoon Mangkhut Arrives. Bloomberg.

Retrieved from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-09-14/super-typhoon-mangkhut-slams-philippines-with-category-5-power

Special thanks to the following who have actively contributed to the article:

Adam Kua ZhengJie
Sustainability and Resiliency Office

Yi Huilin
Sustainability and Resiliency Office

Martin Lim Huat
Principle Project Manager
Sustainability and Resiliency Office

Designing and Operating Airports: A Complex System of Systems

Keynote speech by Liew Mun Leong
Chairman, Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong Group
At The Complex Systems Design and Management Asia 2018
6th Dec 2018 at NUS University Town

While some air travellers may still appreciate the sophistication of aerospace technology while flying, few can visualise that an airport is just as, if not more complex, in its system design. An airport is indeed, in my opinion, one of the most complex public infrastructures to build and operate. It has to cater for basic functional efficiency and safety in the handling of aircraft, passengers and baggage; and of late, meet passenger demand for shopping, dining and entertainment so that they can pass time comfortably while waiting for aircraft boarding. It is a difficult piece of what we would call “mixed developments” (i.e. residential homes, hotels, service apartments, offices, shopping malls integrated in a development) in real estate jargon.

The Aviation Industry Landscape

The global aviation industry is now booming. International Air Transport Association (IATA) has forecasted that global air travel will increase from 4.3 billion annually in 2017 to a whopping 8.2 billion over the next two decades. The exponential growth in air travel – both for business and leisure – can be attributed to the swelling middle-income group with growing wealth in countries like China, India and ASEAN, globalisation and its demand for connectivity, entry of affordable low-cost carriers, and improved aviation technologies which have enabled ultra-long-range air routes and more fuel efficient aircraft that has lowered the costs of flying.

Global Shortage of Airports 

With the rapid increase in air transport demand, the industry will obviously need more planes, pilots, crew and other parts of the aviation supply chain, but fundamentally it will need more airports. This basic transport infrastructure is understandably missing in infrastructure planners’ minds, especially in developing countries as they focus more on urgent domestic needs such as roads, bridges, rails and housings, etc. There is now a shortage of airport infrastructure worldwide to meet the global aviation growth. IATA estimates that out of the 55 mega aviation cities, 47 – mainly in Asia – are constrained by runway and terminal capacity limits. For the top 100 airports in Asia, 52% need more terminal capacity and 69% will be short of runway capacity by 2030.

Asia’s shortage of airports is more critical in view of it being the region with the fastest economic growth. While US with a population of 326 million has 919 airports, China, with 1.3 billion people, is only served by 229 airports or 25% of that of the US. It is reported that China is rushing to build 10 airports every year now. Similarly, ASEAN, with a population of 639 million people only has 370 airports, or twice the population of US but with only a third of its airports. It is clear that Asia has to build and operate more airports to be more efficiently connected to the world to keep up with its fast economic growth

Airports as Complex System of Systems

Because an airport is a very demanding public infrastructure, it usually takes a long time – typically six to ten years — to plan, design and to get it commissioned for operations. The complexity of a modern airport includes meeting “predictable demands” such as efficiency in handling passengers and baggage, ensuring safety and security, serving F&B and shopping needs, and providing comfort and entertainment for waiting passengers passing time in the airport.

The system also has to deal with unpredictable demands such as managing entropy (i.e. lack of order or predictability) within the system (e.g. delays from upstream airports), as well as handling major disruptions arising from the external environment (e.g. volcanic ash in Iceland and Bali). An airport is hence a complex system of systems. It has complex interdependencies between aspects of airport operations, e.g. ground transport, air traffic control, terminal and airside operations, and cargo operations. One failure will automatically trigger adverse consequence in others.

Within each system, there are also multiple components that operate in an independent and yet interdependent manner. For example, efficient passenger processing within a terminal requires check-in, immigration, security, flight information and baggage handling systems to work in an integrated manner. Above all, an airport will require multiple stakeholders to work hand in hand together as an integrated system. These include government agencies such as the immigration authorities and customs, operational entities such as airlines, ground handling companies and security providers, as well as commercial players running retail concessions.

Let’s use Changi Airport as an example to explore system complexity in designing and operating airports. I will discuss a few common airport features to illustrate their complexities.

Complexity in Airport Planning and Development

There are four key considerations when planning for terminal capacity. They are: terminal handling capacity, minimum connecting time, technology in process designs, and last but not least, retail and entertainment for passengers to pass time while waiting in the terminal.

Terminal Handling Capacity

Passenger terminals serve as a node for the dynamic processing of passengers, baggage, aircraft, vehicles, visitors and staff going through the various touch points and inter-dependent sub-systems. A bottleneck at any touch point will affect the entire system throughout due to a domino effect.

For instance, a bottleneck at departure immigration due to insufficient number of counters will result in passengers not being able to board their planes on time and delay aircraft departures.  Consequently, aircraft are held up at the boarding gates for longer than the scheduled time. This results in reduction of gates/parking stands for inbound aircraft which creates delays in arrival flow. Aircraft will have to circulate in the air for longer periods or park at remote gates which require busing of passengers to the terminal. Baggage claims will be delayed as arrival flights are now bunched together resulting in insufficient belt capacity.

Planning for Peak Hour Demand

Although airport capacity is generally measured in terms of millions of passengers per annum (mppa), what is more critical for operational efficacy is to evaluate the number of passengers that an airport can process at peak hours demand. This varies according to different peak hours for different airlines that are flying to different geographical locations. For peak hour capacity planning, IATA has recommended a guideline known as the “Level of Service of Framework (LOS)”. For example, in check-in halls, IATA’s optimum LOS is 2.0 to 2.3 square metres per passenger. In Changi Airport, we planned for 4.0 square metres per passenger in parts of the check-in hall with high trolley circulation, which provides for greater system resilience to handle entropy and exogenous shocks or disruptions

Minimum Connecting Time (MCT)

MCT is defined as the minimum time required for a passenger to connect between an arrival flight and a departure flight. Achieving a short MCT is crucial for a hub airport as shorter connecting times makes the airport more attractive for transfer passengers and airlines. In Changi, MCT within and between Terminals 1,2 and 3 is set at 60 minutes with transfers to and from T4 requiring an MCT of 90 minutes. MCT is affected by two key operational flows that work in tandem: passenger movement and baggage conveyance. Passenger movement times are affected by four factors, namely, efficiency of air traffic control for on-time arrivals, ease of wayfinding, speed of people mover systems (connecting walkways or Skytrains) and finally, efficiency of security checks.

Baggage Handling System

Baggage handling is probably one of the most common airport facilities which can positively or negatively affect passengers’ experience. Airports must get it right. Baggage conveyance is affected by three factors: efficiency of air traffic control for on-time arrivals, efficiency of ground handlers in off-loading and transport of baggage, and finally but crucially, the Baggage Handling System (BHS) performance. The BHS is itself a highly complex engineering sub-system. For transfer passengers, it comprises baggage induction at the integrated transfer lines, hold baggage security screening, as well as conveyance to the early baggage storage system for bags whose next departure times are more than 3 hours away. The BHS engineering design must be efficient, reliable and precise.

Technology in Process Designs

Technology is a key factor in delivering the required capacity for airports with increasingly complex operational requirements. This is particularly important as we face severe manpower constraints for ground handling agents and government agencies like the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) to handle the fast growth in passenger traffic.

Changi Airport has invested extensively in passenger processing technologies, the latest example being the Fast and Seamless Travel (FAST) programme in T4. This is the world’s first integrated end-to-end biometric self-service flow for passengers across four passengers processing touch points: self-service check-in kiosks, self-service baggage drop, automated immigration gates and automated boarding gates. All four automated touch points are unmanned and use facial recognition technology. FAST has significantly improved the performance of T4 in processing departing passengers. Check-in throughput has increased by 30%, leading to less waiting, queuing and clearance times. Manpower productivity has improved, with airlines and ground handling agents saving 20% manpower. Advanced facial recognition technology has enhanced reliability of security checks as risks of human error are reduced.

Retail and Entertainment — One of Changi Airport’s Winning Experiences!

An airport is now no longer just an air transport infrastructure. Besides efficient processing of aircraft and passenger movements, the modern airport has to enhance passenger experience at the airport terminal. At Changi, there is a wide array of options for shopping, dining and entertainment, including beauty care, gyms, a swimming pool, and even a butterfly garden to cater to passengers with long transfer times. In fact, at Changi, as much as 43% of our revenue is derived from our retail operations. As such, planning for such non-aeronautical commercial facilities need to be given equal importance in the design of the terminal space. To keep up with the interests of our passengers-shoppers, the retail offerings need to be regularly rejuvenated to maintain and enhance their shopping experience. We have more than 60 million passengers-shoppers a year, and it makes a lot of commercial sense to drive greater sales conversion when they are captive within the terminal.

Complexity in Airport OperationsCollaborative Decision Making in Airport Operations

In a complex airport system, managing entropies such as a fire break-out, which can generate chaos, disorder and inefficiencies within and across the various sub-systems, is crucial. One global incident is the 2010 volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland, which resulted in massive flight cancellations from Singapore to Europe, stranding passengers at Changi Airport. Yet another alarming case was the recent flooding of Kansai International Airport in Osaka due to typhoons, which totally paralysed the whole airport, overwhelming even the Japanese who are normally very familiar with and well-prepared to handle major natural disasters.

Airport operations have to be planned to handle system entropies to avoid severe disruptions, no matter how unexpected they may be. This requires decision making support tools that can analyse dynamic traffic conditions in real-time and facilitate coordination of various activities across multiple stakeholders to respond in a swift and integrated manner. Changi Airport has implemented an Airport Collaborative Decision Making system, which is a common platform to share information amongst all airport agencies, so that they can make best use of their resources based on timely updates on statuses for each flight. This will enable operators to predict the downstream timings of an aircraft the moment it arrives at Changi, the most important of which is the estimated time when it is ready for its next departure. Because of improved predictability in flight times, airport resources such as runways and parking stands can be used more optimally.

High Service Levels

Having the best physical infrastructure and technology is insufficient for Changi Airport to win and maintain itself as a successful air hub. We have to focus on having the necessary software — system and processes — in place to deliver a world class experience to all airport users. Ensuring a good experience for passengers that is personalised, stress-free and positively surprising is the winning point of Changi Airport’s DNA. This requires Changi Airport to have the discipline to establish and enforce the standards of efficiency and service quality across all touch points all the time. This includes pleasant encounters at immigration, customs, tax reclaim, baggage claim, trolley collection, information counters, retail outlets, entertainment facilities, and even within our toilets. There is a long list of incidents which can make passengers very happy or unhappy. We have to constantly measure performance outcomes and to take follow-up actions to remedy any shortcomings, and at the same time provide comprehensive training to all staff including our airport partners.


An airport is a highly complex system where it has to manage both predictable demands expected from its role as an air transport infrastructure, as well as to handle unpredictable demands arising from entropies and disruptions. Expectations of performance and competition for an international air hub is increasingly high.

For Singapore, our airport — and only one — is an important economy strategy. It has multiple economical effects of connecting the city to the world and vice versa. In addition, the airport is like the face of the country, being the first and last point of contact for visitors, and giving either good or bad first and last impressions of the country. Therefore, having the right systems design, technology, processes, and most crucially, people would be critical to ensure our continued success in this highly complex and competitive aviation industry.

I am proud to say that Changi Airport has been able to deliver good passenger satisfaction consistently since our opening in 1981. This is demonstrated by winning more than 580 Best Airport Awards by various ranking agencies, though I keep repeating to our colleagues that winning many best airport awards is the outcome and not to be mistaken as our obsessive goal. I did a mental calculation recently that with the airport processing an average of 160,000 passengers a day, just 1% dissatisfaction rate would mean complaints from 1,600 upset passengers. Even at 0.5% dissatisfaction rate we would have displeased 800 passengers a day. Imagine 800 passengers writing emails, texting messages and making phone calls to us! However, it is reported to me that we have been able to keep the number of negative daily feedback to less than 100 a day, meaning a dissatisfaction rate of less than 0.1%. But of course, we do not know how many may have kept silent about their unhappiness and not bothered to complain to us at all! The important point is to learn from these feedback or complaints that we have received and continuously improve our operations to meet users’ expectations. Never just be defensive.

Presently, Changi Airport possesses strong foundational infrastructures that have been put in place, and we continue to undertake progressive improvements and expansions. With our good track record and excellent operational performance, barring unforeseen world events that may have catastrophic effects on global travel, Changi Airport is, in my opinion, well poised to continue to excel as a good international air hub.

Flowing Towards a Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructural Future

Returning from London in October 2018 as the sole winner of the United Nations’ (UN) World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO) Young Engineers competition, I found it to be somewhat a déjà vu experience.

Back in 2015, I went to California, proudly flying the Singapore flag, to receive my American Water Works Association’s PhD prize – the first ever award for a doctoral dissertation outside of North America since 1966. I was reminded of how Singapore, a nation scarce in natural resources and densely populated, could be so successful in rolling out its sustainability and environmental policies. In fact, the sustainability movement has evolved globally with most governments and private entities being acutely aware of environmental issues, and many viewing the environment as a strategic asset and a source of economic opportunity.

This is evident at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) where conversations are around limiting global warming. Many on ground observations have already outpaced what the modelling and simulations have been warning us about, and it is timely to consider climate change adaptation more seriously than mitigation.

The philanthropic project which I led for the Hlaing Thar Yar township in Myanmar when I was the Deputy Director for Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute Community Development (NEWRIComm) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) illustrated the intricate complexity of our environment, and the importance of social and economic consideration, in providing safe water to an under-served community. Striking a balance is key to the success of the project with coordinated planning and execution.

Case Study: Woes of the HIaing Thar Yar Community

Hlaing Thar Yar is a large industrial city in the Yangon region. A severe Cyclonic Storm Nargis hit the city in early May 2008, which caused the worst natural disaster ever recorded in the history of Myanmar.

Following the disaster, the community was forced to live in slum-like conditions. The city was ill-equipped with proper waste and water management systems. The community did not have access to clean water due to the polluted brackish underground water in the area. As a result, it had to purchase portable water for their daily needs. The Don Bosco School in HIaing Thar Yar which serves 350 children and parishioners through school programmes and religious activities was in dire need of access to clean water.

Water Management: Making Every Drop Count

The only water source within reasonable proximity from the school’s compound is its polluted saline ground water. To provide a proper water management system, we proposed a Reverse Osmosis (RO) treatment system (please refer to Illustration 1) designed to produce 5-10 cubic metres of drinking water daily[1]. To ensure that the system is protected from natural elements like soil conditions, supporting civil and structural components were designed in-house for quality assurance and cost effectiveness.

It is known in the industry that the utilisation of an RO system is energy intensive and expensive, and may not be suitable for community development projects. This is compounded by the extensive pre-treatment required which results in higher operational costs.

[1] System is designed at 1m3/h average production with double capacity at maximum. 1500 pax @ 10m3/day = 6.8L/pax/day for only essential drinking and cooking according to WHO guidelines that requires minimum 5.5L/pax/day.


Illustration 1: Reverse Osmosis (RO) Treatment System (Photo credit: Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute)

Hence, a sustainable model was formulated to ensure that the resources required for water production is sufficient for the community to operate and maintain. Affordability in the production of water remained key for this project.

The engagement with local authorities, village head, the school and community resulted in a positive and meaningful outcome. The school was subsequently appointed as the overall-in-charge to manage the operations and maintenance of the RO treatment system.

Well-oiled Machine & Community

Designed with the community in mind, the project which was funded by the Lien Foundation, utilises proven technology to achieve the most economical and sustainable solution for water management & treatment. Critical instrumentation like pressure transmitter, conductivity meter and oxidation-reduction potential are placed at various process stages for continuous monitoring. These stages are conscientiously selected for the project for their simplicity, ease of maintenance and ability to support the concept of affordability at its core.

To do this, we had to understand intrinsically the process and importance of control and automation. The most common cost of failure in an RO system is the ineffective pre-treatment process. This often results in poor reliability of the system, degrading life span of membrane and high operating cost. Overdosing of coagulants and overfeeding of chlorination will also cause common failures which affect the RO system. To prevent such problems, process instrumentations are used to monitor critical parameters such as differential pressure, conductivity, oxidation, and early warning signs of pre-treatment failure.

Another main concern in today’s conventional water treatment control system is that they lack the ability to communicate all processes monitoring from a centralised location, especially at remote location(s). Also, this complex control system requires skilled operators to monitor and control the process operation. In the case of Don Bosco School, the locals are not trained in this field. And to resolve these issues, an IoT (Internet of Things) protocol was introduced to allow remote monitoring of the process.

Going by Gold Standards

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards is widely accepted as a global standard to ensure projects are developed in a sustainable fashion – conserving natural resources, protecting people’s livelihoods and promoting project benefits. The Performance Standards provide guidance on how we can identify and manage risks and impacts, as well as outlining requirements for stakeholders’ engagement and disclosure obligations. In addition, projects must also conform to in-country regulations and international obligations.

Through funding from the Lien Foundation, NEWRIComm has embraced the IFC concept which exhibited the essence of sustainability in evaluating the project, ie assessment with the community in mind. This is essentially what global international financing and aid funding organisations, including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank, AusAid, US Millennium Challenge encompass. It is important that social and environmental sustainability hold equal weightage in delivering a sustainable and resilient infrastructure to alleviate poverty.


The Hlaing Thar Yar township project, administered by NEWRIComm and funded by Lien Foundation, provides for the improved development of the community. I quote from Chairman of Surbana Jurong and Changi Airport Group, Mr Liew Mun Leong’s book, entitled: Sunday Emails from a Chairman (Volume 5, 20th Anniversary Edition, Page 91), “Economic studies have proven that a development strategy based on sustained, large-scale investments in strategic infrastructure projects can contribute significantly to a country’s economic growth”. I resonate strongly with Chairman’s sharing. We need to be conscientious that for infrastructure to be sustainable, it needs to gain wide acceptance by the community-at-large, which paves way in exhibiting its full value to support inclusive human development. Failure to do so will only result in a building or structure with no purpose or a state of derelict, i.e. the common notion of a white elephant.

While emphasis on the project’s technical soundness and economic viability should not be over stressed, it needs to be guided by a few attributes during its conception stage to achieve its eventual value. I am inspired by the five virtues of Confucius:

Ren (仁); Kindness & Empathy (Meeting Needs)

  • This infrastructure is meant to serve the people. Any infrastructure will need to be designed with end-users in mind, so it will be taken care of like its own.

Yi (义); Fairness (Win-Win)

  • The financier, consultants, developers, and owners have profits to make, which sometimes result in the community being forgotten and forsaken. Without the inclusion of community, it is only a short-term gain without an equitable long-term framework for a sustainable and continuous development.

Zhi (智); Wisdom (Innovation)

  • Take more calculated risks. We need to innovate continuously, and not rely on others to do the work for us.

Xin (信); Trust (Collaboration)

  • Tap on one another’s network and expertise, to provide quality proposals and deliver projects on time and on budget.

Li (礼); Respect (Joint Ventures)

  • While we may be superior in terms of techniques and knowledge, we need to remember that we must never take this as an entitlement. Every country has its own rules and culture, local knowledge is more important than what the best technology can bring.

About Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute (NEWRI)

NEWRI is part of the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and is globally ranked amongst the top research organisations in the environment & water domain. NEWRIComm has been conferred multiple accolades, including the NTU Humanitarian Award 2018, and both ASEAN Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award and IES Prestigious Engineering Award in 2017 – for its novel and innovative solution in a community development project in Sri Lanka.

[1] System is designed at 1m3/h average production with double capacity at maximum. 1500 pax @ 10m3/day = 6.8L/pax/day for only essential drinking and cooking according to WHO guidelines that requires minimum 5.5L/pax/day.

East Meets West: Planning Lessons Learned From China

I have spent 15 years living in Beijing and Shanghai, designing and planning projects (from remote locations to mega cities) across China. After moving to Seattle, I am struck by some differences between planning developments for the Far East versus the West.

Let’s Talk About Scale!

In China, growth is happening on a massive scale. New super-scale cities emerge where industry and agriculture once stood, while vast corporate campuses bloom around elaborate infrastructure systems. Some take the form of “Elevated Cities”, where extensive subterranean logistics, services, and infrastructure networks are built to free up the airspace above for expanding hi-tech industry campuses and to make room for residential development (please refer to Diagram 1). The Chinese take this growth and expansion as a sign of prosperity.  Although development is happening on a large scale, there are lessons to be learned to ensure that it doesn’t eradicate structures that are steep in heritage and culture.

In Seattle, there seems to be a general perception that new developments tower over buildings that existed there before. Density and height discussions on aesthetics and visual impact seem to take precedence over benefits for the common good. The long-term socio-economic benefits and opportunities are often overlooked and depreciated.

Diagram 1: Artist impression of “Elevated City” in Foshan, Guangdong Province, stacks new residentials above existing light-manufacturing/industrial buildings with a connected public park above existing infrastructure. (Photo credit: B+H Advance Strategy)

Planning with Interests at Heart

Projects in China set out with the highest of intentions. Clients are often driven by the desire to do what it takes to create truly sustainable solutions to environmental, social and economic prosperity.

Trade-offs diminish barriers that many developers face. For example, China makes it economically viable for developers to provide housing for displaced citizens and communities. The proportion of these units is significant, compared to the scale of the overall mix of market-value units tucked in the density of the new development. In some instances, displaced citizens object to relocation or hold-out for greater compensation from the developer. This can result in citizens becoming physically isolated while construction proceeds around them, insisting on holding their grounds until a resolution is agreed with the developer (please refer to Diagram 2).

For the developer, the belief is that this approach improves living standards and creates better access to jobs. However, the homogeneous norms designed to attract new residents to “destination” cities, do eradicate the cultural and historical foundations that anchor communities to a sense of place.

Diagram 2: At one of B+H’s projects outside Beijing, occupants of the remaining residential block refused to leave, even as half of the building had been dismantled and services were cut – they wanted more in their compensation package. (Photo credit: B+H Advance Strategy)

High Tide Lifts All Boats

As the Puget Sound region (a coastal area of the Pacific Northwest in the U.S. – State of Washington), and Seattle in particular, strives to densify, there are lessons to be learned from China’s human-focused development practices.

Developers in Seattle can take advantage of a high tide that could lift all boats. There are tremendous opportunities to reframe our mindset towards future developments, especially as we invest in new transit links that will create opportunities for better city and community building. As city planners, we should:

1. Look beyond the fence. In our strategic planning practice, we invest a lot of time in thinking holistically about the mix of adjacent businesses, services and opportunities beyond site boundaries. What is already there, and what is missing?

Thinking how adjacent stakeholders can benefit through a shared vision creates opportunity for extended capital partners and serves the entire community, not just the development’s target population.

2. Paint an irresistible vision. The most sustainable developments are those embraced by the community at large because they create local economic engines that benefit the whole. A compelling vision of community living provides desired amenities, services, jobs and social attractors. This vision becomes a narration that animates communities and turns naysayers into strong advocates.

While the approach in the past in China has been to gamify a community through thematic approaches, future generations desire a sense of authenticity that reflects a region’s unique assets and attributes.

3. Density creates room for old and new. Despite the government’s best intentions, swanky new developments in China have created enough density to support housing for existing and new populations, but have no sense of history or culture. New populations struggle to bridge the economic divide that separates the new middle class from the developer’s image of prosperity for all.

As we look to solve our own increasing disparity, we need to create more than just the density to support affordable housing. We must seek to intermingle low-income and affordable units within a development that also provides easy access to well-paying jobs, childcare and support services for all segments of the population, removing the “us” from “them” stigmatization. (Please refer to Diagram 3)

Diagram 3: This master plan for the Guangzhou/Foshan corridor integrates local villages and supports affordable housing. (Photo credit: B+H Advance Strategy)

4. Mix, scale, flex, apply. We often over complicate simple things. Programming is easily adaptable, and the model is flexible. Each development can have a different driver: a community college, a hospital, a corporate headquarter. The secret lies in identifying the critical mix of social and community spaces, services and amenities that will allow each neighbourhood to thrive. Residential developments cannot be the driver alone.

As we plan communities, we should pay more attention to human factors that matter most. Desirable places to live offer a diverse mix of programmes that create a self-sustaining, locally relevant socio-economic environment. Short-term profit margins and schedules will ultimately fall short over time if they ignore the importance of the very things that bind us.


Planning cities that will continue to thrive in uncertain times requires a strategy that supports long-term resilience.

The built form of our cities is the infrastructure that supports human, social and economic activity. It is interdependent with the surrounding natural environment. Recognising that cities are an expression of human needs and desires, requires that resilience planning begins at the community level. As each of the risk that surrounds us increases in scale, our planning must enable us to respond at scale.

The high tide that lifts all boats can be the global knowledge acquired through the urbanisation and development of our cities over time. Many problems faced in one location have already been solved in another. Much can be learned and many issues addressed through open connectivity and communication. To achieve this heightened awareness and global knowledge, we need to build both the physical and the digital infrastructure to share information and solutions effectively. Global connectivity creates a living network of diverse experience that can be shared and built upon to solve today’s complex urban challenges and anticipate future change.

This article was first published in Daily Journal of Commerce (https://www.djc.com/news/ae/12116875.html)

Powering the Water Sector Using Smart Technology

Flowing and Taking Form, Digitally

Universally, the Water Sector has embarked on a journey towards digital transformation, in tandem with the technology shifts happening in other infrastructure industries. Smart technology has crept into our lives, in ways we do our work as designers, and how various infrastructure owners operate and maintain their assets.

It is an exciting time for our industry, and it is interesting figuring out which side of the fence we are sitting on. We need to ask ourselves; do we want to miss the opportunities presented by new technologies, or do we want to be an early adopter?

The key to success is being aware, adaptable and be ready to take on change.

Not only must we be open to the digital innovation wave that is presented to us, we must also be ready to select the technologies we want to champion and apply early. In doing so, our clients can capitalise on these advances.

A large part of SMEC’s business derive from setting foot in the early adopters’ camp. We take on proven technologies and processes as they become available to us, and partner with companies to drive new opportunities. Some of the real value is making technologies available, and tailoring them to our clients’ specific needs.

Novel Ways to Capture and Interpret Data

Remote data capture is already embedded within the engineering community across the board and particularly within the hydropower, dams and water sector.

We move across various spectrums of technology – from aerial photography, to drones, LIDAR, 3D scanning and multiple forms of remote capture that acquire a broad data scope. The team focuses on cross-examining the data, and importantly, aims to capitalise the depth and richness of the data in different ways. A great example of this is how we manage both the collection and interpretation of data from drones.

While we are accustomed to using drones for project images and videos, our requirements have also advanced at a rapid pace.  Often, there is significant cost and time involved, and limitations on how much data a person can collect within a certain amount of time. Now we are starting to use drones in confined spaces, inside a reservoir, pipeline, manholes, pits and places which potentially pose danger to people.

The role of the engineer has also shifted in how he uses technology in a much more interactive and effective way, to increase the quality of data captured – including real time capabilities.

Back in the office, we use smart automation to connect multiple data sources and analyse the results. The data interpretation is complex and operators still require a solid technical background to understand how to analyse the data.

Driving Innovation Through BIG Data Analytics

It is possible to capture large data sets from clients over several years of asset monitoring. We utilise unguided analytics – find patterns in the data without any technical preconceptions – to extract valuable insights, and then leverage on our technical experience to understand and apply those patterns.

This is a process which has been applied recently with Queensland Urban Utilities (QUU), one of the largest water distributor-retailers in Australia – supplying drinking water, recycled water and sewerage services to a population of more than 1.4 million in South East Queensland. The SMEC team did some unguided analytics on the work order history of sewage pump station assets (such as requests for repairs, replacement and other works) as part of the “Enhanced Condition Assessment Programme”. The analytic plots revealed patterns and trends in the dataset which allowed QUU to make informed decisions on how to prioritise their maintenance efforts, future budgets and reduce the operational risk of assets (i.e. assets which are causing the most outages/disruptions, and then targeting them for future maintenance strategies). We were able to pull trends from the data results and confidently engage QUU with data driven recommendations to improve maintenance operations across their asset portfolio.

Championing VR/AR

The SMEC team also recently completed a 3D scanning project in the galleries of a wastewater treatment plant for South Australia Water. This project involved areas which were difficult to access by conventional means. The team produced a 3D model of the galleries which was used as an important resource for the design of key remediation works.

In addition to producing the 3D design, SMEC has championed virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) in the built environment. Other civil engineering and water infrastructure projects include the iconic Snowy 2.0 project, a proposed pumped-hydro expansion of the Snowy Mountains (New South Wales) Scheme which will supercharge its existing hydro-electric generation and large-scale storage capabilities. Here, we utilised VR construction visualisation. Additionally, we have transformed the design into an animated construction sequence where we can see how the project will actually be constructed.

Technology’s Role in Water Security

A recent online article in Create magazine (https://www.createdigital.org.au/magazines/australias-water-security-issues-engineering/) written by my SMEC colleague, Jonathan Kent, outlines how Australia is increasingly adopting dams and engineered water storage. He described how other more high-tech and expensive technologies such as desalination have been installed to provide increased water security to major urban areas. I agree that providing water security to the driest and most in-need areas is the most challenging issue to overcome, especially when urbanisation of major coastal centres continues.

The SMEC team is providing expertise to address the issue, and we are working with Water New South Wales (NSW) on the implementation of the Wentworth to Broken Hill Water Supply Project, which will provide greater water security to regional NSW.

Leading Innovation Across Other Areas of Specialties

To keep up with challenging external environments, our clients and partners are increasingly placing high values on innovation. SMEC has entrenched this culture of innovation with an Innovation Grants Programme, which provides employees an opportunity to pitch and refine their ideas for innovation, and a chance to secure funding to develop their ideas.

Our commitment to smart technologies within the water sector aligns with our broader interest in renewables and sustainability. Our designs positively impact the built environment and help to shape a better future for all.

SMEC was also the Design Lead on the Sydney Metro Northwest surface and viaduct civil works (SMNW-SVC) project, which has been consistently recognised for innovation and sustainability. In 2015, the project won a Leading Design IS rating from the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia for the most environment-friendly project design. In 2017, the project was recognised as a “Leading” As-Built IS rating – the highest possible score for sustainability. And in 2018, the project clinched “Project of the Year” and “Global Best Rail Project” from Engineering News-Record (ENR), which described its design as ‘elegant, innovative and sustainable’.

This article was first published in Infocus, SMEC’s digital platform (http://www.smec.com/infocus/expertise/powering-the-water-sector-using-smart-technology/)

Workplace and Workforce of the Future: Redefined

I was involved in a study several years back, together with other senior HR leaders and practitioners, on the future workforce and its implications to HR.  I ‘interviewed’ my young son, who was seven years old then, and asked him what he thought ‘work’ will look like for him in the future. I was expecting some typical school-kid answers like ‘policeman’, ‘bus driver’ or ‘doctor’ but he replied: “I want to create something new every day!”  Naive as it may seem, and many parents would have taken it at face value, it was thought-provoking to me at that point, and in light of the increasing global interest on the future of work.

After all, many of today’s workplaces in the real world are designed as places for work, literally. And ‘work’, as defined in the dictionary, is to carry out tasks or fulfill duties regularly for a salary. Assuming most kids have similar aspirations about their future, the question, therefore, is whether conventional workplaces are adequately equipped to satisfy the creative desires of future generations over the next ten to twenty years, and beyond. So, to define how the future workplace looks like, we first need to understand the characteristics of the future workforce and what ‘work’ means to them, how individuals generate economic value for themselves, and how organisations can engage them to create business and societal value.

Rapid Workforce Regeneration

Over the last fifty years, we have seen new generations of workforce emerged at a rapid pace. We had the ‘Typewriter’ generation in the 70’s where words-per-minute was a key competency for many jobs. The ‘PC’ generation in the 80’s made typing skills a thing of the past!  Then came the ‘Pager’, ‘Handphone’ and ‘Laptop’ generation in the 90’s, where such gadgets were symbols of mobility and connectedness. The ‘Swipe’ generation emerged in the new millennium. My son lost interest in a LeapFrog tablet which I bought for him when he was two because it did not respond to his swipe gesture!  Then enters the ‘Social’ and ‘Crowd’ generation of today, where ‘Friends’, ‘Likes’ and ‘Followers’ are not just icons but bragging rights for personal pride and self-worth. ‘Twitter’ and ‘Google’ aren’t just company names anymore, they have become every day verbs!  In this age, reputation has become digital and people spend an inordinate amount of time building and maintaining it online. The more entrepreneurial ones monetize it for economic gains with an entirely new industry of social influencers, marketers, and retailers created out of virtually nothing.

The emergence of ‘Cognitive’ and ‘Machine Learning’ will be the defining lexicon of the 2020 generation and beyond. Gone will be the days where one has to do their own analyses to draw insights. Instead, insights and intelligent predictions are expected without even a mouse-click, if we still use mouse at all by then. If you wonder why you are getting medical adverts on your social page and others don’t, you have probably been sharing photos of unhealthy food choices for years! Unbeknownst to you, the technologies you use learn about your lifestyle choices and predicts what attention you need and when. To the generations prior, this is a rather scary thought. But to future generations, this is going to be a basic expectation. In other words, the workforce of the future demands for insights as none of them have the time nor capacity to make sense of the universe of information which is exploding at an incomprehensible rate that requires beyond-human ability to synthesize.

Technological Empowerment

This will be the fuel that propels the fourth industrial revolution from mere conjecture to reality. More and more brick-and-mortar businesses will be disrupted by players without ‘bricks’ and ‘mortars’. With access to insights at their fingertips, more people will be empowered to create economic value on their own without traditional employment. Not too long ago, the likes of Uber and Airbnb were unimaginable. But today, they are serious billion dollar enterprises who created Blue Oceans out of the already crowded market dominated by traditional businesses. Paving forward, more and more products and services will be ‘Uberized’, so will education, talent, and skills.

Without a doubt, the common theme across these generational shifts is technology. It is no longer just means for automation, efficiency, and productivity. The evolution of technology has become the biggest influencer of human mindset, preference, and behavior, more so than fellow humans like educators, friends, and parents.  What this means is that every person, with or without formal education or qualification, is empowered to create higher forms of economic value completely on their own. With virtually zero start-up cost, one can simply make money as a value creator. 3D printer technology will mature to an extent that it costs no more than today’s personal printers. Not only can one create knowledge capital, one can produce real physical products without a factory!  The gig economy will expand to a scale that makes employees wonder why they even bother to sit by an office desk doing mundane work and makes product engineers wonder why they are paid the same salary whether their products sell a million copies or just a few.

Paradigm Shift in the Notion of “Work”

If the above is portentous, the implications to organisational designs, structures, and operating models are immense. Today, we speak of attracting talents to work FOR us, but tomorrow it will be about attracting talents to work WITH us.  The age-old HR philosophy of “Attract-Motivate-Retain” now needs a fresh definition.  To engage the “Talent Cloud”, or “Gig Economy” in today’s parlance, our traditional notion of ‘work’ will evolve into four different forms of participative work arrangements:

  1. ‘Auction’ – where individuals (or teams) table their interest, with their expected reward, to work on a challenge defined by a business entity.
  2. ‘Tender’ – where individuals (or teams) bid to undertake an assignment defined by a business entity at a fixed reward.
  3. ‘Contest’ – where individuals (or teams) compete with others to produce a deliverable to win a reward defined by a business entity.
  4. ‘Partner’ – where individuals (or teams) bring new ideas or opportunities to a business entity and share the resulting gain.

None of these arrangements require an individual, or a team, to be an employee of any organisation – no employment contract, no performance appraisal, no employee benefit to worry about, etc. Real-time evaluation, feedback, and endorsement on their quality, service, and capability will contribute to their digital reputation in the public domain validated by the crowd. This digital reputation becomes their “professional currency”, which they build and maintain over time, and which defines their value and worth to any future prospect.

The Future Workplace

To adapt and enable such new forms of participative work arrangements, corporate functions like HR, Finance, Procurement and IT operating as separate functions in most organisations today will need a new paradigm shift.  Perhaps they will converge into a new form of integrated corporate entity whose mission is to engage global Gig-ers out there to be part of the organisation’s value creation ecosystem. Such an entity will put in place the right technologies, armed with cognitive and machine learning capabilities, to manage these new work arrangements, engage the limitless cloud of talents out there on a global scale, suss out the truly valued ones, and manage and maintain the relationship ecosystem thereafter. Along with this shift comes a new kind of profession, not unlike the emergence of “Data Scientists” in response to the rise of “Big Data” not too long ago.

On the other hand, while we tend to define ‘workplace’ in physical and environmental terms today, the virtual or digital dimension will matter more to the workforce of the future where individuals value their digital real-estate than physical ones.  With digital workbench and dashboard complete with cognitively enabled tools for communication, collaboration, production, and distribution, anyone can virtually own an ‘office’ and run their business off it. Consistent with a recently published study by Mercer where “adaptive work”, “digital living”, “talent ecosystem”, “rethinking HR paradigm”, and “distributed teaming” are some of the top talent trends outlined, we will likely see significant and disruptive changes over the next decade from the status quo.

Although the transition will not happen overnight, it has become increasingly pressing that organisations need to figure out ways to imbue agility into how they operate or risk being left behind. Beyond just mindsets, behaviors and skills, agility requires an all-of-organisation approach as well from business models, operating structures, management systems to technology infrastructures. Especially for traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, the journey must begin now by anticipating how the future will disrupt their core businesses and take the necessary steps to stay on or ahead of the curve.

This article was first published on “People Matters Online Magazine” (17 October 2018).

The Future is Taking Off Key Trends Impacting Airport Planners

To cope with the increased demand for air travel, authorities of the aviation industry will need to put on their thinking hats to implement new processes and technologies. According to Airports Council International (ACI), air passenger numbers are predicted to exceed 22 billion by 2040, a near tripling of the 7.6 billion air travellers in 2016.

It should be noted that the largest demand for air travel will be routes to, from and within the Asia-Pacific region. This gives pressure to air travel & tourism players within the region to better their end-to-end travel facilities, air carrier services, and attractiveness of the country destinations. Not only is the aviation sector required to serve increasing volumes, but passengers are increasingly becoming more discerning and demanding of the level of service they receive. It is forecasted that major airports by passenger volume need major infrastructure developments in the next decade to keep pace with projected growth. However, given the tight timelines for these projects and the scarcity of funding and space, it is unlikely that airports will expand as required within the timeframe.

The solution is to seek out new technologies and processes, and making changes to the airport in the context of the passenger’s end-to-end journey.

Planning the Passenger Journey

Successful aviation planning is defined by adopting a forward-looking approach for potential investment in on-ground infrastructure, and one that provides for operational improvements and passenger capacity growth. Planners are not just looking at the transformation of airports, but the complete ground journey experience that moves through the airport – the passenger, the baggage cargo and the aircraft. Not all airports carry the same interface and characteristics, as decisions are made based on the countries’ economic climate, circumstances and complexity of transport movement.

This complete passenger journey from home to final destination and back home again has two focus areas:

• Off-airport activities (passenger services beyond the offers of the airport), and advanced processing (pre-authorisation, pre-customs clearance, etc);
• Passenger interface systems

Off-airport and Advanced Processing Activities

One key element in enabling ground facilities to cope with huge increase in passenger volumes, and in the case of land-scarce countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong, aviation planners try to move as many processes as possible off-airport. There are virtual and physical components to this strategy. From the onset of aviation planning, government and authorities will need to embrace moving travel authorisations and customs controls to a digital environment, from the time of booking through to departures/arrivals. Airlines and airports also have a crucial role to play in ensuring data exchanges & integration take place, thus minimising the need for physical document checks at the immigration.

For the airport’s infrastructure, all people moving systems will need to conveniently connect airports to the cities they serve. Prevalent in some cities, passengers could even commence their journey from secured entry gates (trains and bus stations) within the city, bypassing the need for processes within the airport terminal building. Linking the airport is the first step towards distributing transportation channels.

Virtual Airport for Passenger Interface

Passenger Interface Systems in airports are taking huge strides forward, thanks to predictive modelling (use of statistics to predict outcomes) and artificial intelligence that crunch real-time data far swifter than any human. Being aware of changes to a passenger’s journey or their baggage will enable airport, airline, ground handler and all other stakeholders to optimise the decision-making process across the entire value chain.

Consistent definitions and a workable interface for information-sharing and data mining is vital. A passenger could turn to several touchpoints – staff, website, mobile applications, customers’ information desk – for a flight update and get several different answers. Hence, deploying more sophisticated real-time passenger interface systems will facilitate greater choice and flexibility for customers, and at the same time, increased process efficiency and trigger compliance & security.

When a virtual airport is created, it literally means that some digital activities can be undertaken beyond the offers of the airport. Human capacity can potentially be added without the need for a physically bigger airport. The next few sections will discuss key trends that airport planners need to look out for when designing Smart Airports.

Designing and Developing Smart Airports

There are many factors to consider when airport planners design Smart Airports – ease of movement throughout the airport, efficiency and seamless integration of passenger processing touchpoints, as well as large scale sharing of information between airport operator, airlines, ground handlers and support organisations, thereby ensuring timely flight departures and arrivals.

Enhancing Passenger Processing Efficiency Through Self-Service Options

Planners are given the uphill task of making sure that passengers’ airport experience and satisfaction index constantly remains a mark above the rest, even as increasing passenger traffic puts strains on the capacity of various processing touchpoints.

As part of the launch of Fast and Seamless Travel (FAST) transformation programme at the Singapore Changi Airport, Changi Airport Group (CAG) has introduced the new “automated bag drop machines” at the self-service luggage check-in facilities, located at the airport’s newest Terminal Four (T4). These machines have incorporated “facial recognition technology”, which eliminates the need for manual identity checks by staff and enables the automation of processes and checks for the departure journey.

This helps to address long term manpower productivity concerns. As such, check-in agents can be re-deployed for other airport roles. For travelling passengers, it will mean shorter queue and greater flexibility to check-in at their own convenience using the self-service check-in options.

Enhancing Operational Efficiency for the Airport Community

Airports have their own set of challenges to overcome, including flight delays, unpredictable events, and inefficient use of resources. Better collaboration amongst airport stakeholders is the key to overcoming these challenges and an “Airport Collaborative Decision Making (ACDM)” technology can very well be a key enabler in this respect.

This technology will provide the airport with accurate information on aircraft arrivals and departures to minimise delays and increase capacity. It basically syncs up airports, airlines, ground handlers, and air traffic controllers, on the same collaborative platform to work more efficiently together.

Some key benefits that ACDM brings to the airport eco-system:-

a) For Airlines – shorter taxi times, fuel savings, reduced delays mean cost savings and customer satisfaction, increased capacity with the same fleet;
b) For Air Traffic Control – more predictable traffic & therefore reduced workload,
reduced probability of errors, better pre-departure sequence, beneficial network effects as more airports become ACDM accredited;
c) For Airport Operator – reduced environmental impacts such as noise and emissions, improved punctuality, improved gate planning, stand planning and management.

Airport IT Infrastructure

With all systems integrated at the front end to serve discerning travellers, it is important to also provide a robust infrastructure to support successful roll-out of integrated facilities management. A good IT masterplan, coupled with knowledge on how different systems interact and complement one another – will help greatly in keeping good records on maintenance, and ensure sustenance of the business.

In essence, the airport scene will not change dramatically even if such a vision comes to pass. An airfield will always be a necessity for the aircrafts. The airport retail model will, however, evolve. The following section will explore how consumer behaviour in air travel has evolved, and how it has impacted the way smart airports pan out.

Air Travel Passenger – Is It All About Me?

We discussed the importance of integrating passenger systems to capture demographical needs. When planning around these systems, a huge population of the “me-centric” passengers (refer to Illustration 1) use mobile devices to communicate with other computers, kiosks, smart devices and sensors to enable seamless, safe and secured transactions.

Airport interface systems need to be consistent and simple, so the me-centric passenger can switch between devices, and have the option of speaking with a virtual agent at any point in the airport.

Illustration 1: “Me-centric” passenger who uses her mobile device to communicate with other kiosks, smart sensors (an important factor to consider when planning for Airport Interface Systems)

Changing Demographics and Needs

The growth of the middle class with its additional discretionary money to spend on leisure and entertainment, means that they are explorative, and will be open to new travel experiences.

The Millennials

The new middle class may be led by Generation Y, or better known as the Millennials. While the millennials make up the majority of global travellers, they are also making huge purchases online – Amazon, Alibaba, etc. This begs the question on whether there is a need for shopfronts at the airport. Perhaps, to give the retail experience a more tactile holistic approach, shops in airports can be converted into experiential centres, as opposed to mere transaction venues. Airports can even have a dedicated space for pick-up of goods ordered online.

Millennials also strive on personalising their purchasing needs and travel options. Investing in a robust “customer relationship management (CRM)” system that provides a 360 view of customers – with better integration of data related to travelling and spending – may very well be the airport’s long term business model.

The Silver Generation

The fact that today’s population is living longer, also means there will be more seniors (older than 60 years) travelling. Airports of the future will need to cater to the exponential growth of the ageing population.

The ageing population will have decreased mobility and the inability to cover long distances. Airports will need to build seamless connectivity (with handicapped friendly facilities) within the terminals, and to review walking distance between touchpoints even as terminals become larger in size. At the same time, smaller details that cater to the ageing population, such as incorporating larger purpose-built public washrooms, will need to be taken into account.

Conclusion – So, What Holds for the Airport’s Future?

As aviation planners gather feasibility studies based on consumer behaviourism, travel patterns, flows and processes, the basic rule of thumb is to remain flexible to changes, and make adjustments where it requires.

Citing the example of Singapore’s Changi Airport, will the airport remain as a key transfer hub, or will there be more planned in/outbound flights to cater to increased air travel demands within the APEC region? Singapore, as a key location for global business exchange, has transformed dramatically from the days when Changi Airport was first opened.

How will new business trends impact Singapore’s status as a hub, and how should we implement terminal design that is modular in nature to facilitate nimble operational adjustments to traffic size and mix? Moreover, with the advent of broader mobility developments such as self-driving vehicles, how should the airport design be sufficiently forward-looking and flexible to seamlessly integrate with such new technologies in the longer run, which are critical aspects of building a holistic aviation ecosystem. All these factors will greatly influence planning and design of the future airport.

This article is co-created by Surbana Jurong Academy.

Drones at Work – Eyes in the Sky!


Drones are now one of several technologies that are transforming every stage of the engineering and construction process. Its use does not only constitute to productivity boost, but every advancement in drone technology provides for better airspace awareness, transformative designs and more intelligent piloting modes.

Surbana Jurong (SJ) is no stranger to drones which have many uses, from conducting inspections and surveillance, to security-led activities by AETOS (Member of the Surbana Jurong Group), and the Infrastructure team has been using drone inspection for land reclamation, and high precision data collection.

SJ has introduced drones in projects across the entire building lifecycle, from planning & design to construction & operations, to improve overall operational productivity and effectiveness.

As drone technologies (both hardware and software) become more developed, there is no doubt that drones help save time and hence, reduce overall costs substantially. Comparing with data collection from the ground; aerial techniques can provide more accurate site surveys, aerial data, photos, videos, thermal signatures, and other useful information in a fraction of the time.

Remote Sensing Made Easy

Traditional remote sensing studies require the academician to engage chartered manned aerial vehicle to capture dataset or make use of satellite imagery, followed by long man-hours to geo-tag, and lastly stitching of individual images to form an orthomosaic image.

Modern drones can now be equipped with payload [ie, the weight a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can carry] such as high-resolution cameras, geo-location sensors, infrared sensors, LiDAR, and can also be highly customisable depending on requirement of datasets. Together with refined photogrammetry software, millions of key points can be generated within a short span of hours with minimum human intervention.

So, How Do We Make Data Useful?

First, we make use of the contextual information which can now be imported into a survey software to create 3D models of existing conditions. These models will help in determining feasibility, understanding constructability, and help owners visualise what the project will look like upon completion. It can also be used to identify areas of risk.

Most work plans start with an accurate current topography map, with elevated contour lines and detailed 2D & 3D models for the Land Survey department, coupled with fill & earthwork hauling specifications for our Infrastructure department for rapid calculation. In this case, drones are used for surveys and inspections. And at a more progressive advanced stage, these activities will be enhanced with Artificial Intelligence, and further streamlined with Building Information Modelling (BIM) workflow.

A recent example of a drone job of this nature was when SMEC (Member of the Surbana Jurong Group) Dams Team travelled to the Eungella Hinterland in North Queensland to conduct a site recce as part of the Urannah Dam Feasibility Study. At the site, a drone was used to capture video footages, which were subsequently used by the project team to carry out their studies and video conversion. And still shots have been incorporated in relevant sections of the report.

From the end-user/client’s perspectives, drone surveys help inject real-world conditions into design and constructability conversations. The ability to easily capture site information improves the rate at which designs can be iterated on. Please refer to illustration 1 on how drones can be utilised during a design and build project lifecycle.

One simple method is to take an aerial shot of what potential tenants and investors would see when they look out from their office. This includes other visuals such as the reface views of the development, building models in the neighbourhood context, and even 180 or 360 degree visualisation from each floor.

Illustration 1: The use of drones during a design and build project lifecycle. Image credit: SJ Academy

Construction jobsite monitoring can use drones to capture pictures for daily, weekly, and monthly progress reports, or site survey maps that provide foundation for work plans. Drone images used in daily progress reports are great for change detection: they can help uncover issues that allow site managers to quickly resolve problems that can lead to performance delays.

Highly sensitive thermal camera can also be used as a payload in drone to assist facilities and security management teams in the creation of “live” data such as hotspot and water ingress behind façade.

And in the case of security management, AETOS uses drones for crowd surveillance and general security at major events. “AETOS has accumulated extensive experience in providing state-of-the-art UAV Services to the Singapore market, ranging from security surveillance and safety inspections to 3D modelling, photogrammetry and even land surveying”, shared by Robin Littau, Vice President (Business Development) of AETOS Holdings.

Robin continues, “Drones are able to complement traditional surveillance methods by covering larger areas, including blind spots while acting as a deterrent to illegal activities. Their versatility and reliability, as well as their potential to increase efficiency and productivity when used to aid ground operations, make UAVs a worthwhile investment for businesses in the security and safety industry”.   

Embracing the Technology; Small Step for Big Result

BIM offers cost and time savings, creates greater accuracy in estimation, and cuts down on errors, alterations, and rework due to information loss. To reap the benefits of BIM, everyone in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries will have to learn to work in fundamentally new ways.

As BIM-plus-drones is a whole new paradigm, taking small steps when implementing a BIM/drone data project is recommended. Choose the appropriate steps and tackle them one at a time. Do a test run on a pilot project, compare, and then use the pilot project to prepare for wider BIM/drone data implementation.


The key takeaway for drone technology is the ability to collect data, and to execute the same mission over and over without causing huge disruptions operationally. A long-term cost and manpower saving tool for the build sector, it has survived the test of time, and has proven to cut down human and technical errors. The drone technology has undergone many generations of technological advancements. And what’s left really is how much the value chain can take to its use, and embrace it in tandem with the digital age.

This article is co-created by Surbana Jurong Academy.

Designing Green Cities and Green Buildings – Is there a Secret Sauce?


The recent global heat wave, that has claimed hundreds of lives, has once again thrown the debate on climate change wide open. Climate change certainly feels real, and backed by meteorological data, can indeed be proven to be real. Industrialisation has often been linked to global warming, and hence climate change. So too, has the consumption of fossil fuels, in which conversion into electricity can also become pollutive to the environment. As an architect and sustainability consultant, my team and I are often asked if buildings and cities – traditional culprits of industrialisation – can be designed to become more sustainable and less impactful to our natural environment.

“How can buildings and cities consume less energy?”

“What is the secret sauce behind designing green cities and buildings?”

Globally, buildings account for about 40% of the world’s energy consumption. Could we start designing, constructing and maintaining buildings that are less energy-dependent, and less environmentally-damaging?

Secret Sauce 1: Buildings that Respond to their Environment

Like a living organism, buildings interact with their environment. Understanding how the climate works, and how buildings can respond to their natural environments, will go a long way towards energy-efficient buildings. Good passive design, which is when a building’s architecture and geometry responds to the climate without necessitating energy-consuming systems, is critical. For instance, in our hot tropical climate, buildings can be oriented away from the harsh afternoon sun, and passages which facilitate natural wind-flow can be created. This would reduce the energy required to cool the building down, to achieve the required thermal comfort.

The design of sustainable buildings of the future will be underpinned by three key concepts: sustainability, resiliency and interconnectedness. Architects and engineers are realising the value of technology beyond its use as a design tool, but also for performance verification, energy management and troubleshooting. Solutions such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), when interlinked, provide enhanced capabilities to visualise both exterior and interior spaces, allowing architects to revolutionize living and working experiences for individuals. Developers can also experience the building concepts in a fully interactive 3D environment, supporting greater efficiency and accuracy in a construction project.

This is also possible at national level. Virtual Singapore allows city planners and developers to visualise and collaborate on building and infrastructure development projects together through VR. By embracing such innovation, we are now able to integrate the design process between buildings and towns, and effectively plan for critical infrastructure such as utilities, sanitation and waste management. This equips governments with capabilities to manage and support the needs of the existing population, while looking ahead to allocate resources for a sustainable future.

Buildings can also become more digitally integrated with other forms of media, developing autonomous capabilities to capture and transmit data about their occupants and making fine adjustments on its own to improve living conditions.

For example, the Building & Construction Authority (BCA) SkyLab, designed by Surbana Jurong and completed in 2016, employs Internet of Things (IoT) by interrelating the variables of lighting, temperature and indoor air quality. The BCA SkyLab is a test laboratory where new, intelligent building technologies can be installed and tested, and automated under a smart building management system – guided by close to 200 sensors. Active design solutions – those which are controlled by technology, such as artificial lighting and air conditioning – can thus be automatically adapted towards external conditions, and internal occupancy. Managed appropriately, technology integration could save more than 30% of a building’s energy consumption.

The BCA SkyLab, the world’s first rotatable laboratory for new building technologies in the Tropics, sited on the roof of the BCA Academy. Image: SJ Sustainability

Sensors placed around a building can also capture data such as human activity, brightness of surroundings and electrical consumption patterns. These devices can then implement intelligent tweaks on the fly to maintain optimal conditions, thus creating a higher efficiency in the energy performance of buildings. A seemingly small implementation of IoT in a building can bring about a significantly positive effect on both the building and its occupants, showcasing the scale at which technology can improve people’s lives.

An artistic impression of sensors placed strategically around the interiors of the BCA SkyLab, recording measurable environmental parameters such as temperature, lighting level and carbon dioxide concentration. Image: SJ Sustainability
A screenshot of the Building Management System (BMS) of BCA SkyLab which records and manages building data, and adjusts the building’s systems accordingly based on optimum efficiency and comfort.

The upcoming SDE4 (School of Design and Environment Block 4) Building at the National University of Singapore (NUS), also designed by Surbana Jurong, with Serie, Multiply, Transsolar and Kajima, is slated to be the first Net Zero Energy institutional building (NZEB) in Singapore. This basically means that the building is first of all designed to use as little energy as possible, and for what it does use, harvest energy from the sun to offset that usage. Here, the advent of high-efficiency photovoltaic (PV) technology, has allowed for a higher conversion rate of solar power into electricity over the roof area. The building will also integrate IoT in managing lighting and temperature levels, based on what is visually and thermally comfortable for its occupants.

These Zero- to Super-Low Energy (SLE) buildings can lead to savings in energy consumption of more than 35%, through:

  1. a) intelligent, IoT-assisted operations,
  2. b) reduction of lost energy via, eg cooling an unoccupied room, and
  3. c) offsetting consumption from the grid through renewable energy sources.

Secret Sauce 2: New Building Materials

With technology, the construction process is also enhanced, guided by a drive towards efficient, productive and non-pollutive processes. Similar to the manufacturing and assembly of consumer goods, buildings too could be designed in modular pieces and assembled on-site, thus encouraging a new mode of creativity that not only innovates building design but drives efficiency in construction and assembly. New materials such as building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs) for electricity generation, organic materials for façades, plant materials for exterior or interior walls, composite materials that resist the effects of weathering, and 3D-printed components for facades can help improve sustainability performance of buildings.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are also making their way into buildings, giving building developers better tools to design more sustainable buildings for the future. For example, artificial intelligence and machine learning today can help designers make more accurate predictions of a building’s usable lifespan, its life cycle cost, and maintenance requirements, allowing building owners to proactively mitigate building maintenance issues before they become a serious problem for the occupants.

Secret Sauce 3: Technology and Self-Regulating Buildings

Buildings themselves are starting to become even “smarter” with the latest technology advancements. Aided with the right building management platform, building owners now have the ability to combine data such as energy consumption and water usage from different machines, and across disparate sources together in an easy-to-view dashboard. To better manage electricity consumption, a huge component of a building’s monthly expenditure, building managers can use a cloud-based centralized energy solution, which allows building owners to track and manage energy usage in granular detail. The data can also yield actionable intelligence to constantly improve the buildings’ energy performance and contribute to climate action.

Technology is certainly taking centre stage in the industry today, as evident by the wave of innovative technologies and new start-ups that promise to uplift the trade. For professionals in the industry, adopting an open mind to these developments in technology allows them to keep up with market trends and stay relevant. In the long run, we need to create a culture of innovation where firms are encouraged to find new modes of balancing design, productivity, operational efficiency as well as revenue. These are challenging times ahead for all of us, but also exciting times!

Artist impression of Amata Smart City in Bangkok, a circular economy district where buildings can share resource as well as energy consumption data with one another, and where renewables play a big role in energy management. Image: SJ Sustainability



净零能耗建筑的挑战在于建筑的运行模式与限高。在新加坡,可以稳定利用的可再生能源是太阳能,因此在有限的屋顶面积前提下,越高层的建筑将会越难达到零能耗。迄今为止,亚热带气候环境下,运行空调系统的最高层零能耗建筑则是新加坡国立大学第四号教学楼 – NUS SDE4。

这栋大楼由盛裕联合国际建筑机构思锐建筑事务所(Serie Architects)和新加坡的Multiply Architects建筑事务所合作设计,由德国Transsolar Energietechnik GmbH担任能源顾问。是一幢净零能耗建筑,不仅预计能在二十年内通过太阳能生产出建筑全年消耗的所有能源,还能在前十年的运营中生产更多能源。建筑总面积8千多平方米,一共有6层。于2018年9月竣工。是为下一代设计师们打造的“未来”建筑。




NUS SDE4也是一个智能的建筑,传感器的优化布局让系统了解房间的使用情况,从而最优化的运行。每个窗口也安装有传感器,一旦在空调环境下开窗,空调则会相应关闭,房间的显示装置会提醒已经打开的窗口位置。

NUS SDE4结合了市场最先进的设备与概念,希望为新加坡零能耗、低能耗的目标打造一个优秀的基础和平台。