Example 7. Singapore’s wicked problems of population and sustainable development.

Singapore, like most global cities, is now facing a series of tough economic and political choices regarding economic growth, population pressure, immigration policies, and sustainable development. On the one hand, Singapore has for decades been an international talent attraction magnet. This importation and transfer of new ideas, thinking, and innovations has been a successful economic strategy. At the same time, Singapore has imported for nearly 30 years less-skilled foreign workers (to work in constructions, the retail service industry, and childcare, among other areas). The nation has clearly benefited economically from this balanced strategy of importing high and low-skill workers. Both of these strategies, however, create sustainability challenges.

Specifically, discussions on sustainability and cities must include issues of population growth (or shrinkage) and demographic challenges like aging populations (or youth bulges, low domestic birth rates, and brain drain), and these are key issues for Singapore. Approximately 1.7 million of Singapore’s 5.5 million inhabitants are non-residents (more than 30%). Following recent trends in growth and immigration, Singapore’s population would be expected to rise to nearly 7 million people by 2030 [19] . About 60 percent of this planned demographic growth is expected to come from non-residents. Such perspectives raise questions about the future of the city which already is felt to be space limited and in the midst of all the expected cultural transitions associated with substantial immigration.

As such, questions about population and demographics are being debated here in a community that has deeply embedded expectations about annual GDP growth and high levels of personal consumption. Recent surveys of Singaporean voters reveal the following concerns: 1) stable and reliable economic opportunities for future generations; 2) increased capacity and less crowded transportation systems for subways and highways; 3) decreased housing availability and increasing housing prices; 4) social stresses and over-crowding caused by immigration; and 5) steadily rising prices of consumer goods, but also of staples such as food, energy, and water. Importantly, sustainable economic development is at the inter-connected heart of all of these voter issues.

Singapore has been actively working to address these concerns through sustainability planning and blueprints [20] . And in Singapore, as in many large cities throughout the world, the constraints are starting to bind, in terms of space and capacity, but also politically. For instance, as immigration has been limited, economic performance and growth in some sectors has already suffered. But to return to immigration at previous rates would be both socially stressful and would pressure housing, transport, and other infrastructure requirements that are already constrained.

Singapore’s way forward out of wicked problems like this is to frame sustainable development as an economic opportunity: in technology development, as well as in management systems and services; but, also in terms of establishing future economic growth more upon productivity increases and innovation potential than on growing populations (labor inputs) or infrastructure (as necessary responses to expanding populations). By connecting key inputs of technology, laws and governance, and economic drivers for major sustainability projects, as well as developing the supporting governance and institutional capacity, Singapore is following a template similar to that described by the three pillars strategy framework.