A Brave New World
By Kirsten Han
The message at the inaugural ULI Singapore Annual Conference, held before an audience of some 200 members and guests on 26 February at Capital Tower’s STI Auditorium was clear: the times, they are a-changin’.
Focused on the themes of disruption and innovation, the conference looked at issues ranging from the changing context and demands of planning to developing and building in an urban context, both in Singapore and beyond. Panels drew on the expertise of a range of actors from the local real estate industry, including city planners at government agencies like the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and JTC Corporation award-winning architectural firms like WOHA, and developers and operators like OUE Limited and CapitaLand Retail.
With a total land area of only 721.5 square kilometres for a population of about 5.6 million, Singapore is constantly grappling with land constraint issues as it seeks to maximise its limited resources. In addition, planners today must also deal with a new problem: Singapore’s population is ageing fast, with an estimated 900,000 citizens aged 65 years and above by 2030.
This was a puzzle the keynote panel was keen to address. “Within our small land area, how do we provide a good quality of life plus have a vibrant economy?” asked Hwang Yu-Ning, Acting Deputy Chief Executive Office and Chief Planner of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The answer: find the sweet spot between planning for the long-term and maintaining the flexibility to constantly evaluate and revise plans.
This doesn’t just apply to decisions about what to build and how, it also cuts across the whole spectrum of urban research and planning, allowing measures—such as those catering to an ageing population—to be deployed in integrated ways that fit into a wider plan of urban mobility and accessibility for the entire island.
“The way the world’s going, we cannot afford to be spinning our wheels,” said WOHA’s Richard Hassell. Architects and developers in today’s fast-paced economy aren’t actually building for today’s users, because by the time plans are firmed up and construction is completed, the world will already have moved on. Anyone working in city planning, real estate and development must therefore be thinking about what will happen tomorrow, and not skimp on research.
Demographics are not the only harbinger of change in Singapore. Market trends and customer expectations are evolving too. In particular, e-commerce has arrived in Singapore in a big way with brick-and-mortar stores feeling the pinch as shoppers migrate increasingly to online sources such as Alibaba and Amazon.
“It’s very clear that we have the barbarians at the door, and the barbarians these days call themselves e-commerce,” said Wilson Tan, Chief Executive Officer of CapitaLand Retail. Only those are able and willing to think out of the box will survive.
According to Patrina Tan, Senior Vice President of Retail, Marketing & Leasing at OUE Limited, the need to define tomorrow’s shopper is key: “What we really want to know and reimagine in the brick and mortar space is how to create the experience and space for the future self?”.
Malls can therefore no longer be about just selling product. What’s needed is an experience that lures people out of the comfort of their homes.
On top of that, modern customers—particularly millennials—are also very detail oriented, focusing on a whole universe of issues that were never important in the past: the sustainability and ethics of the brands they buy, the ingredients in the food they eat, and even the visual impact of the environment they’re in. Instead of the old “build it and they will come” mindset, developers find themselves addressing different concerns such as: “Is our space Instagrammable?”
All in all, the day’s sessions stressed the need for evolution, flexibility and boldness. As Hassell said: “We really need to be shooting for the moon at the same time are achieving incremental advancements.”
For more photos from the conference, please visit the Facebook album