Sunday, October 11, 2009

Good bye to Singapore - for now, but with challenging future prospects

.My two weeks’ in Singapore passed all too quickly, but confirmed my belief, based on previous experience, that a preliminary reconnaissance trip, when contemplating an extended stay, is essential. The stay was intense, which is what one wants when arriving as uninvited guest, with no previous institutional relationship. Though I had visited Singapore as a tourist, I had little knowledge of the local terrain and no previous contact with the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public affairs, apart from a letter of inquiry and a cordial response from the Dean.

System Dynamics modeling, the computer simulation theory/methodology I have studied and written about from time to time, made the difference. This fall, the Lee Kwan Yew School initiated, for the first time, a course in System Dynamics as an option in the Master of Public Policy curriculum. It is being co-taught by the dynamic, high-energy Director of the School’s Institute of Water policy, who had studied the methodology as part of his graduate studies. His co-instructor is an equally energetic young faculty member whom I had met at the System Dynamics Society meetings in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Thus, on very first working day in Singapore, I was scheduled for a sixty minutes-plus lecture, following a lengthy get-acquainted meeting with the two instructors to discuss course related matters and and research-related opportunities that could be be informed by System Dynamics. This was particularly exciting for me, because it rekindled a long dormant interest in water policy issues, reminding me about the importance of water resources as an element of the development process. On the morning of my second day, I had moved into a temporary office, adjacent to that of the IWP Director. Soon, I was meeting students potential future colleagues, getting a sense of the School’s research agenda and making plans.

The most important outcome is a possible research initiative inspired by the IWP Director’s concept of the “Living City” as a future scenario for addressing urban development challenges and opportunities in Asia. Urbanization is widely viewed as a Yin-Yang dynamic. While urban growth, and especially growth of megacities, is seen as problematic, it is also in cities that the economic future of Asia will inevitably be shaped. Cities must, inevitably, be the engines of economic growth, creativity, innovation and revitalization if the human race is to survive and prosper sustainably on planet earth. The challenge is to define a vision that makes this possibility real and then to implement development trajectories that can attain it.

According to the IWP Director, a living city comprises dynamically interlinked subsystems: shelter, competitiveness, infrastructure, transport and information. Effective governance plays a particularly important role. But more important than the elements themselves is how they are interlinked and function. In his view, a living city resembles a thriving, healthy organism. It is beautiful, livable, sustainable and resilient. It interacts with its environment symbiotically. It offers a hopeful, empowering, attainable option for the survival of the human species on the planet earth. But is this vision attainable? If it is attainable, what development trajectories could move growing cities in the 500,000-population range toward the vision of a living city? How can today’s megacities, presently grappling with major problems of unsustainability and overshoot move in that direction?

If things work out as looks promising, there will be an exciting opportunity begin a project that seeks answers to such questions when I return to Singapore in January.

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