Your HDB flat, designed in a ‘living lab’


new HDB flats

The EDB has set its sights on the next generation of flats

I imagine that, like many of you reading this, the only thing I really knew about the good people of the Economic Development Board (EDB) was that it was their job to persuade big business to set up shop in Singapore.

So I was incredibly impressed to discover the EDB had expanded its role to helping make sure the city’s next generation of public housing is among the best in the world.

It wants ordinary citizens to benefit from a strategy of inviting global firms to Singapore to develop and test-run new products that will eventually form the component parts of new HDB flats.

The statutory board is providing companies with space and resources in the form of “living laboratories”, EDB managing director Dr Beh Swan Gin told me when we met up recently.

It wants to create experimental spaces so co-innovation between the private and public sectors can flourish, he said.

These spaces are available to all kinds of businesses but special priority has been given to firms which can create products that will go towards the next generation of homes for ordinary people.

This might sound as if the agency whose role it is to pinpoint and pioneer economic opportunities for Singapore is crossing into Housing Board territory.

Not so.

The EDB’s mission comes hand in glove with the latest growth strategy of turning Singapore into a working model for new ideas and products that could shape the world’s future.

Dr Beh’s enthusiasm at the prospect of new technologies for future public housing is infectious and you can’t help but be struck by the EDB’s thinking.

It would surely also benefit the over 80 per cent of Singaporeans who live in public housing. What is also striking is that as they look to the future, Dr Beh and his team are clearly referencing the high points of HDB design over the past 50 years.

“When you think of HDB housing, it has always been progressive,” he told me.

“The way ventilation was created with the vortex system for maximum air flow to the design of public areas which were developed to foster neighbourly relations, our public housing was ahead of its time from day one.

“Our hope is that the next generation of housing will be just as innovative and we are looking to companies from all over the world to provide planning solutions in terms of design, energy efficiency and issues like the reduction of heat retention.”

Cherry-pick best ideas

Dr Beh was quick to point out the scheme’s other benefits. “Singapore gets to cherry- pick the best of the new products developed here. Whether it is a new design for housing, cladding for the outside of the building or technologies for inside the property, contracts for the next wave of HDB housing will be put out to tender with all these different companies competing.

“And should any of them not be successful then it has not been a waste of time. The chances are they will go on to sell their new products to other countries, like China or in Europe.” What’s great about the concept is that it is just as likely to open the door to local business as it is to produce investment from abroad.

Urban solutions is very much the buzz word for governments and businesses at the moment, as seen at the recently concluded World Cities Summit and Expo held here.

The inaugural Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize also saw the Spanish city of Bilbao recognised for its remarkable transformation in recent years. Bilbao demonstrated just what can be achieved when clear and fresh thinking is combined with a stop-at-nothing determination to cut through bureaucratic red tape and get things done.

The very fact that Singapore organised the event shows how much stock the Government here puts into innovative town planning.

Coming from the United Kingdom, where cities are crumbling because of failing leadership on town councils, I find the process here both refreshing and exciting.

Dr Beh admits Singapore does not have a monopoly on good ideas but admits that the living laboratory scheme is Singapore’s best hope of “overcoming challenges” and “maintaining the edge”.

One of the early successes of the project has been the development and trialing of solar panels on the rooftops of HDB blocks.

The $31-million trial will see solar panels attached to the rooftops of 28 existing HDB precincts and two new areas by 2015 in the biggest trial of its kind in Singapore.

Public housing, as managed by the HDB since the 1960s, has been one of Singapore’s greatest success stories. And after talking to Dr Beh and his team at the EDB, I cannot wait to see what the future holds for the next generation of affordable accommodation.

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