Singapore's smart city strategy: can the construction industry keep up?

Singapore’s vibrant tech-led economy is a magnet for multinationals and home to some of the region’s most exciting new projects. But to maintain construction momentum, local contractors urgently need to embrace smarter ways of working.

Since gaining independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has been catapulted from a fishing village into one of the world’s most successful economies.

What is the 'Singapore Smart City' initiative?

The Singapore Smart City initiative was launched in 2014 when Singapore began a series of strategic national projects using technology and digital innovation to improve living standards and sustainability. Singapore was voted the sixth top smart city in the world at the Smart City Expo World Congress 2018 after being recognised for its government's investment in technology and infrastructure.

Challenges and goals of Singapore's smart initiatives

Constrained for space and with limited resources, the government is calling on engineers to tackle some of the island’s most pressing challenges, such as the goal of becoming self-sufficient in water production, creating more efficient transport routes through multiple tier vertical transport corridors or building giant underground substations to service the power networks.

The Singapore government is ahead of many other countries in its construction strategy and smart city initiatives.

It has been mandating that submissions for regulatory planning approval must be filed via 3D building information modelling (BIM) since 2015. Quite rightly, the government sees BIM as the flagship technology that underpins its status as a leading smart nation.

Government planes have also been flying across Singapore with laser scanners, creating a 3D digital model of the entire island, enabling digital master planning that is integrated with BIM.

A growing number of multinationals are using Singapore as a springboard into the region.

Multinational projects and investment - part of Singapore's smart city plan

This includes British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) who officially opened its Asia headquarters in Singapore in 2018. Another example is Facebook, who is building a SGD$1.4bn data centre, its first in the Asian market.

The new projects, together with public sector investment, are expected to create thousands of construction related jobs in Singapore, but this poses a challenge for the local construction market – where traditional procurement and contracting approaches are not suited to the delivery of such precision built facilities.

To address the labour challenge, the country’s Building Construction Authority is exploring ways of increasing productivity through design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) techniques for builders to complete projects faster and to a higher quality.

The Singapore government is also looking to generate lead demand in both private and public sector with new frameworks such as Productivity Gateway Framework and Building Innovation Panel for continual support in innovation.

Widening sector gulf - impacting the future of Singapore as a smart city

World class projects aside, there is still resistance to modern ways of working on many Singapore sites, with some organisations effectively operating in a pre-digital world.

Many are paying lip service to BIM, creating 3D models that still lack inter-operability. The majority of contracts are still traditional lump sum. This creates a hierarchical structure that discourages collaborative working and is poorly suited to the precision-built facilities required by the world’s leading tech companies.

The widening cultural gulf within Singapore’s construction sector risks creating a two-tier system.

Blue chip clients and government will soar ahead; local contractors, unable to keep pace with the technological change, will lack the technical capability and expertise to compensate for their inefficiencies.

Singapore has reached a crossroads in its development, heightening the importance of smart city projects.

The increase in construction activity and the looming labour crisis could be the catalyst that this country needs to take its construction sector to the next level. Local contractors must seize this opportunity to embrace change, or fall behind, damping down Singapore’s potential for growth.