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.

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 (

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.

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。



A roof over your head – the key to driving modern global economies

Having a place to call home is fundamental to the success of modern society. Yet a lack of affordable urban housing is a global problem affecting low-income populations in both developed and developing nations. Can Singapore’s model lead efforts to meet this growing global challenge?

When Singapore gained its independence in 1965, the nation faced a housing crisis of epic proportions. Many people were living in unhygienic slums and squatters’ camps, and new immigrants were adding to the strain. Yet in just 5 years, this situation had been turned around with 35% of the population successfully housed in decent affordable accommodation.

Fast forward and today 82% of Singapore’s 5.6 million residents can live, work, learn, and play in modern, self-contained towns; modern affordable developments, integrating residential, retail, commercial, and public areas within walking distance of each other and to public transportation.

Globally, it is a rare achievement. While Singapore has succeeded over the last 60 years, other cities across the developed and developing world have continued to struggle when it comes to providing decent housing for their populations.

New York City, for example, the city with the most billionaires in the world, is experiencing a chronic shortage of affordable housing due to limited access to land, unaffordability, a speculative real estate market. It is a similar story in Hong Kong and across the cities of Europe, Australia, and South-East Asia; all are failing to provide affordable accommodation for their population.

UN‑Habitat, whose mission is to promote sustainable settlements and adequate shelter, defines substandard housing as dwellings that do not meet any of five basic criteria: durability of structure, sufficient living space, access to safe water, access to sanitation, and security against eviction. Depending on location and context, the cost of a home, it says, should not consume more than 30 to 50 percent of disposable household income.

Providing this decent affordable housing for growing and increasingly urbanising populations is a huge challenge that faces governments around the world. More than half the global population already lives in cities, and the figure will be two-thirds by 2050. By 2025 it thought that at least 1.6 billion people will need affordable housing.

So, does Singapore provide a model that can be globally copied? Certainly, its experience over the last half century provides many lessons.

Singapore’s affordable housing model

The driver for Singapore’s programme was the realisation that, in one of the densest cities in the world, provision of affordable housing was critical to the sustainable economic success of the nation. It is a message that is now increasingly being understood in other major cities around the globe.

The model was simple. Singapore’s Housing Development Board was set up in 1960 as the sole independent government agency in charge of planning and executing the housing program. It quickly earned a good reputation for creating self-sustaining, high-rise town-planning designs, complete with social and commercial amenities and efficient public transport. It continues to be highly regarded for its innovative planning and design.

An important goal of the HDB was to push home ownership and, in 1964, the Home Ownership for the People Scheme was introduced to give citizens a greater stake in the country. For the program to succeed, land had to be acquired, homes had to be built at a reasonable cost, and people needed to be able to own them.

To solve the first problem—particularly acute in a land-scarce city-state like Singapore – the 1967 Land Acquisition Act empowered government to acquire private land at market prices.

The scheme was given a boost in 1968 when residents were permitted to use the Central Provident Fund (CPF) – a compulsory pension saving plan for every working Singaporean – as capital against which to borrow money to buy their homes. This helped tether Singaporeans to the dream of a more equitable future and was core to creating national pride and identity.

As a result, throughout the decades that followed, public and private investment has seen construction of vast new high density public housing communities, optimising scarce land resources and providing a total living environment with self-contained educational, social and community facilities.

Renewal programmes have followed, ensuring that the housing stock is well maintained, with social, commercial, transit, and recreational facilities readily available. So well, in fact, that, in 2010, Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) won the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour Award for “providing one of Asia ‘s and the world’s greenest, cleanest, and most socially conscious housing programs.”

Defining decent affordable housing

There are many definitions of affordable housing. At its simplest, the term refers to housing units that anyone, with a household income below the median, can afford to rent or buy. Usually public sector driven, the affordable housing programme stimulates and usually acts to moderate the private housing market.

For example, the City of Vienna built a huge system of housing after World War I and provides 400 million euros annually to maintain it. The city owns nearly 25% of the housing stock and is actively involved in another 20%. The result is that, with so much of the city’s total housing stock is city-owned or subsidized, private landlords are forced to compete with social housing for the same tenants, and cannot afford to inflate rents.

To be classed as decent accommodation, dwellings should conform to a series of minimal standards – floor-area per person, basic amenities, adequate heating, plumbing, and electrical systems. Critically, it should also be free from damage or structural defects such as broken windows, leaks, or cracks, that could be harmful to the health of residents.

Ideally, centers of employment must be within reasonable commuting distance – usually a maximum of one hour away. School and health facilities also must be within short distance, which will vary according to location.

By fulfilling this basic human need for shelter, affordable housing contributes to the wellbeing of both parents and children. Studies show that children in stable housing do better in school and are less likely to experience disruption in their education due to unwanted moves.

Overall such decent accommodation and a stable home life reduces stress, toxins, infectious disease, and leads to improvement in both physical and mental health. Families’ tight budgets are freed up to spend on health care and food, with studies demonstrating how children whose parents receive housing assistance benefit from better nutrition.

Toa Payoh neighbourhood Park, Singapore

Affordable housing as the driver for global economy

Affordable housing is critical to the success of families, communities and is increasingly vital to the sustainability of local, regional, and national economies. Public investment to create and foster this community, bringing together residential, commercial, and social amenities, is critical to sustaining modern urban life and can also help to stimulate economic growth.

Helping to attract and retain employees to the community creates a selling point and competitive advantage for employers and enables the workforce to live close to their jobs. Shorter commutes allow workers to spend more time with their families, boosting productivity while the community benefits from reduction in traffic congestion, air pollution, and expenditures on roads.

Surbana Jurong has been at the heart of Singapore’s affordable housing programme since it was formed in 2003 by corporatizing the building and development arm of HDB. Together with HDB, it has helped implement 26 successful townships occupying some 25% of Singapore’s land. The developments are high rise urban living green, clean and organised, modern and integrated into the transport system.

It is a model that the firm’s experienced team of planners, project & development managers, architects, engineers, and quantity surveyors have exported beyond Singapore. A comprehensive one-stop housing solution has enabled both private developers and public housing authorities to create large scale housing projects in China, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Brunei.

In each case, these states have recognised that replicating this healthy mix of housing options, from market-rate and affordable rental housing, single-family homes, duplexes, and developments for seniors, ensures opportunities for all individuals to improve their economic situation and contribute to their communities.

Unlocking the global affordable housing opportunity

Clearly the issues and drivers surrounding the provision of affordable housing around the world are diverse. It is not always straightforward or even possible to transplant the Singapore model in many parts of the world. However, there are many common core issues on which to focus when seeking solutions.

Land Supply: Finding land in an appropriate location is the most critical step in developing successful affordable housing schemes. Indeed, if the decision about land is wrong, affordable housing projects cannot succeed, no matter how well construction, operations, and financing are managed. Land cost is often the single biggest factor in the economics of affordable housing development – it is not uncommon for land costs to exceed 40 percent of total property prices, and in some large cities, in highly land scarce urban areas, land can be as much as 80 percent of property cost. Where land is available at a lower price—on the far fringes of the city—housing projects may fail due to lack of infrastructure or excessive commute times.

Financing: Financing routes have a significant impact on the affordability of housing – both for home buyers and for developers. While access to finance for low-income households can be improved in advanced economies, it is a challenge in developing economies where financial systems are not as well developed and many low-income citizens are “unbanked” and work informally. As part of housing-finance policy, housing rentals should be considered as part of the housing solution.

Planning and design: Sustainable urban planning and design, with a combination of residential, commercial, educational, and civic space, is critical to fostering a sense of physical and social community. Getting it right provides connectivity and context that works with the community’s natural beauty, along with easy access to transportation and social infrastructure; minimizing the use of cars, maximising the sense security and privacy.

Construction: Most countries have been slow to improve construction productivity due to the lack of technical resources and low labour costs. However, ideas such as value engineering and efficient procurement, as well as adoption of industrial approaches such as use of prefabricated components. Together with modern construction management techniques, this can bring huge potential savings in cost, time and significantly improve the quality. Such ideas make the economics of affordable housing more attractive and encourage developers as well as builders to think beyond housing for mid- and high-income consumers.

Maintenance: Beyond construction of housing, good maintenance is required to avoid dilapidation and help preserve housing stock. Good maintenance starts during planning and design to incorporate material with good life-cycle value to designs which allows easy maintenance. Subsequently, resources need to be dedicated for maintenance. Legislation to provide for resource in the form of contributions to maintenance expense and to enforce maintenance work has been successfully implemented in Singapore. For example, HDB flats look presentable is that cyclic repainting works has been legislated. To maintain and extend the value of property, older developments and units should be periodically upgraded. Hence maintenance need to be incorporated into the overall housing strategy

Policy and management: Affordable housing programs will not succeed without clear governance and implementation for both the short and long terms. Furthermore, human capital is an important factor in housing management. The right legal, technological, research, and statistical expertise must be in place within the different departments and branches of the housing agency, with efficient and transparent policies that institutional support can implement, monitor, and assess.

Developing modern delivery models

While the Singapore housing model relies largely on public sector support, several other development models are available and utilised around the world:

Punggol Bayview, Singapore

Consumer-led delivery: Consumers arrange to construct their own homes, requiring individuals with little knowledge to navigate an opaque and fragmented construction industry. Yet this is a common way in which families obtain housing in many places. Government can improve the odds of success for consumers by providing benchmarking information and technical assistance – letting households know how much materials and labor should cost and providing advice on how to write and enforce contracts and manage timetables.

Incentivised private development: Private developers receive financial and non-financial incentives to build affordable housing, which is sold to consumers, purchased by the government for allocation to citizens, or operated as rental property. The government determines what incentives are appropriate and which land qualifies for such incentives. It also ensures that developers fulfil their commitments.

Public-private partnerships: The public sector is an active partner with the private developer, rather than a passive, regulatory actor. Private developers may be given public land to be developed. The finished units are sold directly to homeowners by the private developer or are allocated to buyers or renters by the government. The structure of the partnership is set up to allocate the risks along the affordable housing value chain to the most natural owner.

The future of affordable housing

Public housing in Singapore has entered a new phase of its evolution, with housing options are being developed to cater to different segments of society, lifestyle preferences and budgets. For example, studio apartments have been developed specifically to cater for an ageing population.

At the same time, it is now understood that designs must be sustainable to ensure that homes are fit to meet the needs of the future. The Treelodge@Punggol, HDB’s 1st eco-precinct, Punggol Waterfront Housing and Dawson projects are landmark developments that combine stylish designs with environmentally-friendly features.

Increasingly we are also seeing existing affordable housing estates being refurbished and regenerated to accommodate changing community needs as they strive to meet Singapore’s vision to become a nation of home owners. As is seen increasingly around the world, modern design and construction technology will be at the heart of Singapore’s future built environment; the use of Virtual Design Construction (VDC) for planning and design, Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction (PPVC) for construction, and smart sensor technologies to boost operational efficiencies of estates.

Precast façade Installation


The affordable housing model developed by Singapore is admired by many. However, it would be hard to simply replicate the ideas behind this success in all parts of the world.

For example, sizable public land in Singapore has been dedicated for public housing, which limits the income that the Singapore government can earn from land sales. By contrast, in Hong Kong, the government earns much revenue from land sales as a form of taxation making it very difficult to adopt Singapore’s model.

That said, many aspects of Singapore’s model, such as providing a total quality living environment, integrated towns, emphasis on sustainability, use of optimal construction technologies for quality and productivity can be replicated and adapted to the local social, economic, and environmental circumstances elsewhere around the world.

The key is to be pragmatic on what can be adopted. This would depend on what which can reasonably be controlled and what resources are available.  That means first understanding the circumstances of the market, working out solutions and then decide on how to implement these solutions.

Perspectives, developed by SJ Academy, is our platform to explore new ways of tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. We draw on ideas and opinions from our staff associates and experts across different businesses. Click here to read more about Technology & Innovation, Infrastructure & Connectivity, and Design Leadership.

The Food Tower: looking up to solve the global food crisis

How built environment design and engineering will solve the global feeding problem

The Food Production Challenge

With the global population rising rapidly and expected to reach 9.7bn by 2050, governments around the world are increasingly asking the simple but critical question: how will we feed ourselves in future? The radical Food Tower vertical urban farming model could provide an answer.

Food, it seems, is all around us. In our homes; on our televisions; in our shops; on our streets. Yet, surprising though it may seem given this apparent proliferation, the question of how we continue to feed ourselves in future is set to become one of the biggest challenges facing the developed and developing world.

The combined impact of population growth, climate change and urbanisation, which in 30 years’ time could see some 70% of the global population living in cities, means that we are running out of available space and resources to grow crops in traditional ways.

In short, we need to come up with new ways to farm; new ways to manage food production and delivery; new ways to reduce pressure on resources and sustain our environment and lifestyles.

The food production challenge is already seen in cities such as Singapore. With almost no arable land, Singapore is heavily dependent on food imports and faces a potential food security problem. While past investment has enabled water self-sufficiency to be achieved, the need for a sustainable locally-grown supply of food is now becoming more important. The built environment designers must now adopt a radically different approach to city planning to include food production within their thinking.

The Food Tower

Enter the radical Food Tower vertical urban farming concept as an innovative solution to these challenges.

While Singapore may not have vast land area, it is blessed with an abundance of sunshine and rainfall. The Food Tower concept attempts to maximise this natural potential, and by stacking vegetable growing areas in an open, sunlight flooded high rise towers, sunlight can be captured boosting growing yields across the 1 hectare site to some 400 times that of traditional farming.

The Food tower concept takes a major step forward in large scale urban farming by using Aquaponics; vegetables are grown on towers using the water and nutrients from a system of tanks in which Red Talipa fish are reared. The vegetable towers are located on “wings” on higher floors that spiralling upwards to maximise sunlight exposure; the fish farms are located at the lower floors where there is more shade.

The Food Tower also features a closed loop energy system, with onsite photovoltaics generating power, rainwater harvesting to collect water and wetland reed beds to purify and recycle waste water on site. The wetlands act as part of a garden for the larger community.

It is estimated that a 100 storey food tower on a 1 hectare of land can provide sufficient meat and vegetables for just over 11,000 people per year.


Policy Support for the Food Tower

While the technology and design for high-rise farming in cities has been slowly maturing, there are a number of other factors which need to be addressed early so that Singapore can stay ahead of the curve and be ready to capitalise on the technology when it becomes viable.

This starts with the physical planning and zoning of suitable sites for urban farms, in particular, to ensure that the immediate setback of buildings around the site enables sunlight to reach the crops. Government agencies must be armed with well researched and clear policies, to ensure that this need is well understood and taken into account, and the tenure offered to the farmer or farming community for the land use must take into consideration the efforts put in to develop the farm.

Clearly, despite the predictability of the weather in Singapore, the availability of sunlight varies around and throughout the Tower. This must be matched to different types of crops to maximise yield. Land use zoning could designate that certain heights be developed as farms while lower floors are used for other commercial and retail use.

Yield per square meter would also need to be mandated to encourage developers to adopt best technology to maximise the efficiency of land use. For example, natural sunlight could be supplemented by artificial LED growing lights, powered by stored photovoltaic energy from panels on the structure – possibly creating 24 hour a day growing conditions in the tower and so maximising growing efficiency.

Creating a sustainable solution also means working with the community. Commercial farming revenue from towers could be supplemented by sharing the poorer growing space with other community and residential facilities. These might include an environmental research centre, restaurant and a school plus other facilities such as Community Parks and wetlands to boost interaction with the local community.

A new way of farming will need us to create a new breed of farmer; an urban-agriculturist. It is a role that currently does not exist, requiring knowledge of technology and the specific techniques needed to adapt modern intensive farming practice to a high-rise urban environment.

The farm workforce would also need a multitude of new skills to run the urban farm; understanding the internal drainage, water and electrical needs of a modern building, the external environment such as solar effects, winds flows plus the impact of dust and city pollutants on crops.

In the factory environment of a Food Tower, they would need to be thoroughly grounded in managing work flow and production process while also understanding and managing resource use and recycling of water, waste and energy so as to maximise productivity and output.


It is clear we must look globally at more sustainable ways of living. This means including food production in future planning policies as we define and design the increasingly urban, increasingly congested cities of the future.

Although the idea sets out to rethink mass food production, it also demonstrates that consumers can be supplied with fresher and safer food with a lower overall carbon footprint. The project has already shown that it has a viable commercial business model but it is also a model that can rejuvenate urban sites, engage the community in various levels and create local jobs.

However, the development of such projects will require major commitment and intervention by governments to cover the substantial start-up cost and to create the necessary governance to allow such high-density food production in urban areas.

Perspectives, developed by SJ Academy, is our platform to explore new ways of tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. We draw on ideas and opinions from our staff associates and experts across different businesses. Click here to read more about Technology & Innovation, Infrastructure & Connectivity, and Design Leadership.

Floating ponds – urban fish farming to transform global food production

How engineering and technical innovation can meet the challenge of feeding a growing global population

There are always plenty more fish in the sea, so the saying goes. Turns out it isn’t necessarily so true anymore.

Over-fishing, poor management of fish stocks and the impact of a changing climate means that we must now look increasingly for new ways of satisfying the global demand for fish as a sustainable source of food. The development of the Floating Ponds urban farm concept – a radical systems based design incorporating innovative engineering and technology – holds the potential to turn the dream of efficient, self-sustaining food production into a reality.

The global population is becoming rapidly urbanised, with the United Nations’ predicting that some two thirds of the global population – around 6 billion people and rising – will be jostling for space in the cities by 2050. Oceans and farmlands are falling short of meeting our food demands. Climate changes are fast rendering farming uneconomic and untenable; and those which still are, are being gobbled up by sprawling metropolitan areas for housing, infrastructure, or commercial needs.

Thus our ability to feed ourselves is and will be challenged by the need to provide for housing, infrastructure, transportation, employment, education and all other basic requirements in competing for the strained limited resources we have.

Sustaining a sustainable healthy food source for these dense urban areas is a vital challenge

Rethinking food production:

Surbana Jurong is rising to this challenge with the Floating Ponds high-intensity urban farming concept. The vertically stacked fish raceways help to multiply the production capacity of any available space, and not just land; whilst its inherent self-sustaining, closed-loop farming eco-system optimises the use of resources – water, nutrients and energy.

The result is an ecologically sustainable farming model which is modular, scalable and replicable.

Currently Singapore imports some 92% of the fish consumed locally. Rising concerns over the sourcing of fish has switched focus towards ways to improve local production and increase the sustainability and reliability of the food supply.

Land based fish farms are not in themselves a new idea. Landlocked regions or high-density urban development without access to conventional fish farming have been developing such food sources. However, these traditional facilities are resource hungry and consume enormous quantities of water, energy, and nutrients to produce quality fish products. The Floating Ponds model sets out to transform this existing model.

Systems Thinking to Close the Loop:

The vision for urban fish farming is founded on a comprehensive systems level integration of the three primary systems engaged by the farm – water, nutrients and energy. The design and architecture of the farm works towards enabling flows and exchanges amongst the three systems. The concept employs a vertical stacking of water raceways for fish farming which helps to relieve  space for the environmental systems needed to create these systems flows and exchanges to ensure a closed loop ecosystem.

Water reuse:

The role of water is paramount to this project. Traditional fish farms consume large volumes of water in a linear flow set-up, rendering significant volume to be discharged into the sewers as waste. Together with it, vital residual nutrients are washed away as well.

In Floating Ponds, it is the planned flow of water which creates the medium for the systemic exchanges to take place.

Expunged waste water from the fish tanks is treated via a specially constructed wetland system to enable natural cleaning as bacteria and aquatic plants feed on the organic waste while the drainage actively captures rainwater. Treated water can be re-used for several non-potable uses or re-circulated back into the fish tanks.  Alternatively, the nutrient-rich water from the fish farm can be fed into a hydroponic system to sustain the production of vast quantities of green leafy vegetables. Bio-swales enhance the water system by treating and capturing surface run-off thus reducing demand for clean potable water in the fish tanks.

Such concerted efforts can reduce the volume of water being discharged out from the site into the sewer system.


In addition to the primary nutrient being nurtured in the form of fishes, the aquatic plants in the wetlands become an essential ancillary source of nutrients. They help to close the nutrient loop as a certain quantum of them is processed back to become feed for the fish.

Furthermore, micro-algae are cultivated using the nutrient laden waste water as feed for the fish. Algae are also used to condition the sea-water which is also used as a source of topping up.

Hydroponics further adds to the production capacity of green leafy vegetables by directly using the nutrient rich waste water from the fish raceways.


The roof structures covering fish farming areas of the Floating Ponds provide a perfect platform for the use of photovoltaic panels capable of generating enough energy to offset significant portion of the consumption demands.  Algae, grown in transparent tubes and pumped with waste water and a lot of CO2, is capable of producing bio-fuel in the presence of sunlight. This is a technology which requires more research and development but clearly holds future potential as demonstrated in projects across the world.

Besides the conscious design decisions to incorporate passive design features, the overall energy balance can be significantly enhanced by efficient and innovative technologies for spaces such as labs, offices, cold storage which inherently  tend to consume more energy. Technologies such as passive displacement ventilation, radiant cooling, the use of heat recovery systems are being considered together with the use of fan assisted ventilation to improve thermal comfort at higher supply air and room temperature.

Creating a modular system that meets the needs of the community:

By rethinking the factory fish farm model, the team has developed an integrated, self-contained farming ecosystem, placing local food sufficiency and resilience for the local community at its heart. To be successful, it is imperative that the farming and food production process is visible and accessible to garner community interest and attract engagement.

As such the central space above and around the constructed wetlands attempts to create a space to anchor that community engagement – both spatially by drawing visitors in but also functionally by providing a useful and attractive recreation area.  While by being modular and scalable, the Floating Ponds typology makes itself flexible and adaptable to any available urban space, ranging from a park space, to un-used roof space and to even community spaces within larger commercial developments.

In doing so, Floating Ponds can not only make a small pocket of urban space significantly productive by producing high-value food fish, but can also enhance the surrounding ecology and generate a vibrant community hub with farming activities.

A design that adds to the urban environment:

With this initiation in Singapore and in the face of the global challenges of urbanization and food production,  high-tech, systems based and resource efficient facilities such as the Floating Ponds will soon start to transform food production around the world.

Fundamentally, the Floating Ponds concept will create a new urban typology; taking high-value food production out of isolated and secluded land-based farms and placing them into the heart of high-density urban cores, as inclusive elements of the social and economic function of the city.

Image caption: Systems Map

Image caption: Planning for a closed-loop vertical fish farm which allows for systemic flows and exchanges

Image caption: Functioning prototype built to test the vertical stacking and the water reticulation system

Image caption: Elevated visitor / community spaces suspended above the integral blue-green spaces

More than four walls and a roof: Housing as an anchor in times of turbulence

Singapore shows how an effective housing program can promote social and political stability

On every continent, there are pockets of political turmoil, driven in part by economic resentment. At the same time, the world is inexorably urbanizing. More than half the global population already lives in cities, and the figure will be two-thirds by 2050. To cope, and also to strengthen their own legitimacy, governments need to address their citizens’ concerns. Housing is at or near the top of the list in many places.

In this regard, the experience of Singapore is worth considering. Even before it became independent in 1965, Singapore considered housing a high priority. Many people were living in unhygienic slums and squatters’ camps and new immigrants were adding to the strain. On the basis that widespread home ownership would foster social stability, the government took concerted action to improve matters.

By any measure, it has succeeded. More than 90 percent of households own their residences, up from 59 percent in 1980, and they are well maintained, with social, commercial, transit, and recreational facilities readily available. In 2010, Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) won the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour Award for “providing one of Asia’s and the world’s greenest, cleanest, and most socially conscious housing programs.” A survey of residents of HDB units in 2013 found that 91.6 percent were satisfied with their homes and 92 percent with their neighborhoods. The provision of quality affordable housing has tethered Singaporeans to the dream of a more equitable future; it is a core part of the country’s national pride and identity.

Every country and city is unique, but the basic issue is the same everywhere: to craft policies that enable housing projects to be developed and financed to suit the needs of all levels of society. In addressing that question, Singapore, in effect, turned the problem of housing inside out, recasting it as an opportunity to build both the economy and the society.

As the government saw it, the state would not only be building homes but also a sense of community and national identity. That was important for a new, multiethnic country. Economically, the public-housing program sought to make the home an asset, thus creating and managing a sustainable national housing market. Socially, the housing authorities envisaged building spaces that would encourage different ethnic groups to interact and to allow for multigenerational households.

In the early 1960s, Singapore was a developing country struggling to find its feet. In this context, providing every household with a decent home was a challenging goal. But by demonstrating its commitment to the population, the government hoped also to create a spirit of responsible citizenship and thereby contribute to political stability.

Making it work

For the program to succeed, land had to be acquired, homes had to be built at a reasonable cost, and people needed to be able to own them. To solve the first challenge—particularly acute in a land-scarce city-state like Singapore—in 1967, the Land Acquisition Act empowered the government to acquire private land at market prices.

With respect to building, HDB was set up in 1960 to be the sole independent agency in charge of planning and executing the housing program. Since its early days, HDB has earned a good reputation for creating self-sustaining, high-rise town-planning designs, complete with social and commercial amenities and efficient public transport. It continues to be highly regarded for its innovative planning and design. To give one example, as people’s expectations have risen, planners have worked to design each new township with a distinctive identity. For another, HDB uses the most modern construction techniques, such as precast and prefabricated volumetric construction. HDB has also embraced the concept of sustainable design, integrating highly efficient energy, water, and waste- management systems in its townships. The Treelodge@Punggol HDB project in northeast Singapore, designed by Surbana Jurong and completed in 2010, is an award-winning eco- development. Since 1960, the HDB has built more than a million units; these house more than 80 percent of Singapore’s citizens.

How was all this paid for? The Central Provident Fund (CPF) has been critical. Established in 1955 and revised several times since, this compulsory savings plan for every working Singaporean and permanent resident is funded by individuals and their employers and helps to pay for retirement, healthcare, and housing. Citizens can draw from their CPF at low interest rates and use the money to buy their homes. The CPF therefore actively supports home ownership and ensures that public housing is within reach of the population so that less than a quarter of a first-time buyer’s monthly household income is used to pay for his or her mortgage instalment.

Increasing urbanization and ageing, growing populations will test the ability of many societies to develop the housing and social amenities that future populations will both aspire to and be able to afford. Political and social environments vary considerably. Even so, it is clear that Singapore’s public-housing record is one that city planners and world leaders can learn from. Government policies and programs—specifically the creation of a single independent agency accountable for results, and the steady financial resources derived from the CPF—have been the basis of this success. Singapore has shown that the provision of affordable housing for all can be a force for stability. Given the turbulent times, that may be the most important lesson of all.

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