Singapore: Planning, building and the people

Small in area and large in urban thinking the island and city state of Singapore relies on digitization as its top priority. Architects and urban planners are transforming the Tiger State, setting new landmarks in the form of futuristic buildings and sustainable infrastructure projects. A prerequisite for the success of modern urban dreams is thorough planning and monitoring of complete construction projects in order to implement the goal of the "Smart Nation Singapore" formulated by the government. How urban dreams are realised, what added value BIM delivers and what makes a Smart City an intelligent city – these are the answers from two experts. Andreas Eicher, editor of gis.Business, met Andy Brahney and Pedro Santa from the engineering and planning company Ramboll in Singapore. His impression: "Despite all digital solutions, people are not forgotten, but are always the starting point and goal of what we do.

The Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore: Re-naturalized thanks to optimal planning and implementation (Image: Andreas Eicher)

The Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore: Re-naturalized thanks to optimal planning and implementation (Image: Andreas Eicher)

Author: Andreas Eicher

Mr. Santa, quite in the heart of Singapore, you have implemented a water and re-naturalization project. Can you briefly outline the main features of the project to our readers?

P. Santa: At the beginning of 2007 we started to re-naturalize the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Among other things, we were faced with the task of transforming the almost three-kilometer-long concrete canal into a natural river. Also, the situation was such that the water simply flowed off through the canal in heavy rain without using the water sustainably. On the other hand, the two halves of the park were separated by the canal and fences as if by an artificial barrier. This meant no access to either side for residents and park visitors. So two separate parking areas, that's what we wanted to change in sum, especially in view of the background, in order to come to an optimal local recreation area for the visitors.

In addition to more green spaces and playgrounds, the element of water as a "meeting place" played a central role in the project.

About Ramboll

Ramboll is a leading engineering, design and consultancy company founded in Denmark in 1945. The company employs 14,000 experts and has a global presence with a strong representation in the Nordics, UK, North America, Middle East and Asia-Pacific. With more than 300 offices in 35 countries, Ramboll combines local experience with a global knowledgebase constantly striving to achieve inspiring and exacting solutions that make a genuine difference to our customers, the end-users, and society as a whole. Ramboll works across the markets: Buildings, Transport, Planning & Urban Design, Water, Environment & Health, Energy, Oil & Gas and Management Consulting.

That sounds successful, especially in terms of sustainable planning and implementation for the people?

A. Brahney: Yes, definitely. The project we are implementing is part of the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme: ABC Waters of the Singapore Government. The ambitious and at the same time long-term initiative aims to transform the country's waters beyond their functions of drainage and water supply into vibrant new spaces for community and recreation. With the project we were able to achieve that goal successfully, and, above all, by taking the needs of the population into account.

P. Santa: The whole thing also has a kind of learning effect for visitors to the park. We foster the awareness for the river as a natural basis for life and thus to the element of water in the mind of the people. While in the past the canal was seen as a pure infrastructure for the draining water, today we have a new situation. People trust the water again, recognise the added value of sustainable resource planning, the children play around the water and with the water. The project also promoted the growth of flora and fauna, including natural cleansing biotopes that remove pollutants from the pond water. Now, for example, animal species that were no longer to be found in this area are settling again. A sign for re-naturalization and at the same time a signal for the future. Because only in the combination of technology and people can such projects be successfully and permanently realized.

Let us turn to the technical framework conditions. What role did Building Information Modeling (BIM) play in the overall process of the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park project?

P. Santa: Well, BIM clearly played a role. This can be explained by the commitment that has existed since 2004. For public construction projects in Singapore documents are to be submitted digitally. Accordingly, Singapore can now boast a certain amount of experience with regard to the digitization of the entire construction process. In addition, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) set the government's path for implementing and using the digital method with the BIM Roadmap in 2010.

It’s important to note that using BIM to design and plan landscapes, waterways and other forms of green infrastructure, is relatively a new thing, and this is very exciting. Now parameters and data can be used to make even more site sensitive and responsive decisions to benefit all forms of urban infrastructures.

In such large-scale projects, BIM as a digital method means a noticeable support for us, however, despite all the guidelines and specifications. Not only the amount of data but their processing to different flow velocities, simulations and 3D terrain models pose challenges for our cooperation. At this point, BIM offers an indispensable method for facilitating end-to-end processes in internal and external collaboration with the help of digital working methods. The mapping of work processes via a database enables interdisciplinary cooperation throughout the entire planning and construction process. As an engineering and planning company, we clearly benefit from BIM. This also applies to important data management with a uniform data basis. Because clear structures, transparency, maintenance as well as configurations and further developments of work processes and interfaces are indispensable. BIM should therefore be understood as an integral planning method in which all participants work together.

In Asia and in Singapore specifically. What role do cultural differences play in the approach to building projects and in dealing with digitisation in general and BIM in particular?

A. Brahney: Basically, the Singapore government is the driving force and investor and massively promotes the expansion of adoption of BIM. Accordingly, processes are also decided and implemented "top down". This has been executed in Europe also with the British government’s drive for BIM Level 2. This means that Singapore has given a clear direction to "Smart Nation". This also includes construction and other infrastructure projects. Compared to Europe, the issue of digitisation and thus new methods such as BIM is perceived more as enrichment than as risk. While in Berlin, London or Paris we have many doubters, here we have a different way of thinking. Digital change processes are evaluated more positively in Singapore and the opportunities of technological progress are recognized. Quite apart from the fact that digital disruption cannot be stopped in Germany or England either. We should therefore take a more forward-looking and, above all, positive view of digitisation on the European continent. Opportunities are enormous, not only for urban planners and architects but for other responsible persons in the context of the search for urban solutions. And that includes BIM. As already mentioned above, the method enables us to implement projects more effectively throughout the entire planning, implementation and operating process. In all my remarks, however, I would also like to emphasise that there is indeed a need for action with regard to digitised processes. Data privacy and security are key factors, that need to be considered, when implementing SMART cities. These aspects have high priority in all our projects and should be taken into account in the public discourse about all digital technologies.

The next question arises: Singapore's great goal is the "smart" nation. What does smart mean in this context?

A. Brahney: A good question because smart is not limited to Singapore, basically. Many countries and their cities consider themselves as intelligent. But I would like to say one thing straight away: offering free W-LAN does not make you as a city smart per se. An overall understanding is needed of how all the good digital solutions and proposals can be sorted, prioritised and transferred to the city.
There's no magic formula. It must always be a question of ensuring that those responsible in cities know what the people's needs are. I like to compare the whole thing to a neural system in which all impulses converge. Later, these impulses are used to make appropriate adjustments. The neural system in this case is the city and the people give impulses. After all, how smart is a city if its citizens do not accept the offers? Therefore, a clear analysis of the requirements and needs must always be carried out in order not to run into emptiness with intelligent urban planning. Moreover, cities are different. Challenges but also wishes and needs of citizens must be questioned again and again. This also means that what works and is desired as a smart solution in Singapore cannot simply be transferred one-to-one to every other city. There is no blueprint. Rather, I would like to conclude by quoting a sentence that I think is quite accurate: "The truly smart society is about people." 

Andy Brahney

Andy Brahney, Senior Technician, Ramboll UK. Andy's responsibilities include site surveys, preparation of plans and checking designs against given specifications. Andy uses a variety of standard engineering methods and liaises with other disciplines when necessary. Having graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in Civil Engineering and 7 years’ industry experience, Andy also has an in-depth understanding of Engineering concepts and design principles. Andy incorporates this knowledge when producing models & drawings on CAD and Revit.

Petro Santa
Pedro Santa (Associate Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl) specializes in resilience planning & sustainable water management in the urban context. He has over 11+ years of professional experience in landscape practice, planning and urban design. His experience covers interdisciplinary design and leadership, coordinating blue-green masterplans, watershed management plans and water sensitive urban design guidelines; with a focus on public realm strategies that increase livability. During his studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Pedro focused his studies on the intersection between landscape, water and urbanism.

Keywords: Singapore, BIM, sustainable planning