Singapore hub for urban research & industry

  • January 22, 2024
  • William Payne

Singapore Management University (SMU) has launched a new research institute focused on urban infrastructure, growth and urban planning within cities in Asia, which aims to become a regional hub for sustainable urban growth for researchers, policy makers and industry. The SMU Urban Institute (UI) will focus on development of urban infrastructure, socio-cultural aspects of urbanisation, and the balance between urban growth and sustainability.

The SMU UI will address the sensory, socio-cultural and economic experiences of living in a city, the inequalities arising from wealth accumulation, and how infrastructure in terms of buildings, policy and regulation might limit or enable the growth of cities. It aims to be a hub for scholars, policy makers, communities and industry focused on urban challenges and development.

Spanning urban geography, urban and behavioural economics, public policy, operations management and geospatial data analytics, UI will consolidate SMU’s existing urban-related research and generate new research directions. Taking an interdisciplinary research approach that bridges theoretical and applied research, data science and the critical social sciences, industry and the academy, it will focus its research on three pillars: urban life; urban growth; and urban infrastructure.

Leveraging SMU’s footprint in Singapore’s city centre, UI will also develop urban research partnerships with global universities and think tanks. With the recent launch of SMU Overseas Centres in Indonesia and Thailand, the institute is already developing partnerships with like-minded collaborators in the region. It is also pursuing research collaborations further afield, with other Schools, institutes and initiatives focused on the study of cities.

SMU has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Thammasat University’s Design School. Under the partnership agreement, SMU and Thammasat have agreed to support the exchange of data, documentation and research materials; the exchange of students and researchers; as well as the joint organisation of seminars and symposiums. Looking ahead, SMU hopes to develop more partnerships with stakeholders in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and beyond.

SMU UI is also in talks with the University of Melbourne (UniMelb) and the University of Toronto (UOT) on a variety of urban research collaborations. SMU and the Melbourne Centre for Cities are planning to partner in a joint event for ASEAN city leaders at the upcoming World Cities Summit in Singapore; while SMU and UOT have hosted a joint grant call to foster collaborative urban-related research on the theme of “Migration, Thriving and Belonging”. These collaborations underpin the importance of sharing expertise, data and information with cities to learn from each other in a fast-changing urban landscape.

The SMU UI was inaugurated by Ms Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development. Although Singapore has overcome some of these pressures, she noted, the challenges are ever-evolving as urban pressures continue to grow, hence, it is important for cities to learn from one another, and explore collaborative solutions for sustainable urban development.

SMS Sim said, “In the early days of our independence, Singapore experienced acute urban challenges: overcrowding, slums, traffic congestion, environmental pollution, floods, and water shortages. These challenges remain pressing in many cities around the world even today. The urban solutions developed by Singapore are of interest to these cities, even as we learn and adapt good ideas from others. SMU’s Urban Institute will play an important role in promoting the exchange of experience and research between Singapore and our neighbours in Asia, and in helping policymakers and practitioners create better living environments for all.”

Noting the relevance and implications of the new institute, SMU Chairman, Piyush Gupta, said, “Our cities are facing unprecedented challenges, from demographic shifts due to migration to the rising demand for access to education and jobs. Moreover, the juxtaposition of old and new city-making practices adds an additional layer of complexity. Considering these challenges, SMU Urban Institute will build on the university’s mission to promote applied research that addresses societal problems by creating a hub for urban planners, designers, economists, social scientists, and policymakers to come together and collaboratively explore solutions. The recent upheavals caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical shifts only underscore the urgency of the research that will be conducted within these walls.”

SMU President, Professor Lily Kong, said, “The Institute’s establishment as a university-level entity signals our strong intention to extend beyond the confines of single disciplines and to forge collaborative multi- and interdisciplinary research.”

“Our investment in establishing UI cannot be overstated,” she added, “It is about undertaking deep, rigorous research to enhance our understanding of cities. But more than that, it is about laying the groundwork for liveable, resilient, and inclusive cities in Asia. As Asian cities grow at an unprecedented pace, the transformative potential of the UI becomes even more pronounced.”