Urban living harnesses both human and capital resources to create business and employment opportunities, while making the provision of public goods more economical and accessible. However, urban growth brings about new problems despite easing developmental issues.
For example, high urban density places a strain on transport networks and public services, making city planning more complex than ever. Likewise, resource scarcity has made efficient resource management and technological advances such as clean energy and green buildings vital to usage optimisation and wastage reduction.
Backed by strong research and field-tested technology, the Singapore Management University (SMU) is tackling resource management issues in varied and innovative ways. From urban mobility to closed loop supply chains to the provision of intelligent personalised services, its researchers are developing practical and sustainable solutions to manage limited resources. Their work underpins SMU’s Area of Excellence in Urban Management & Sustainability.
Efficient and sustainable at every level
Resolving the challenges of urban growth entails different perspectives across different levels. With their big-picture vantage point and mandate to balance competing needs, governments have specific information requirements when carrying out city planning. One of the most pertinent issues they need to address is that of urban mobility. In many places, city life has become synonymous with congestion. With transport networks being the lifeblood of any city, poor planning can leave commuters and goods stuck in standstill traffic for hours.
Governments also have the onus to ensure national safety and security. Citizens depend on them to have robust crisis management plans in place should a disaster strike. Similar to urban mobility, urban safety and security pose issues of resource flow, namely deployment of security resources to maximise citizenry protection.
Businesses, on the other hand, are concerned about operating within the situational and contextual parameters of each country. For example, what is the best way to ensure seamless urban operations, logistics and supply chains given the existing infrastructure? Companies need to work out the most efficient means of delivering goods to dense city centres, and distributing them to dispersed retail outlets.
Businesses also stand to benefit from an improved understanding of people flow in densely populated cities. In particular, theme parks and other players in the entertainment industry would benefit from the ability to enhance their crowd and experience management capabilities.
Apart from the movement of people and goods, cities also rely on transportation of raw materials and waste. Rapid decline of raw materials supplies and landfill capacities has accelerated the need for new solutions to waste and pollution management. Many environmentally minded businesses now strive to minimise waste production and reduce their environmental footprint.
As individuals represent the most fundamental strata of urban cities, urban planning and development must take into account their current and future demands. This calls for a citizen-centric approach that not only focuses on the needs of individuals, but also value-inspired designs for their benefit. In line with growing urbanisation, demographic shifts towards smaller families will have a tremendous impact on individuals. Similarly, a rising elderly population will warrant greater mobilisation of resources for eldercare. Such developments call for intelligent personalised services to cater for changing needs.
Innovative technological solutions at SMU
By pushing the boundaries of cutting-edge technology, SMU researchers are creating innovative solutions to overcome these challenges at every scale (see Figure 1).
Professor Lau Hoong Chuin from the School of Information Systems (SIS) studies urban flow and congestion analytics to develop ways of reducing congestion in both logistics and public transport. He has developed a collaboration model that works within an e-market platform where shippers can bid for last-mile delivery slots, while carriers collaborate through order and capacity sharing. Such coordination lessens congestion and environmental pollution in city centres, while ensuring timely delivery of goods to retailers. On urban safety and security, Professor Lau and his team have created models for predicting demands and optimising the scheduling of patrols and emergency services. Discussions are currently underway for potential project collaborations with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Singapore Civil Defence Force.
Another aspect of SMU’s research efforts on urban management and sustainability is to address the business demand for environmentally friendly logistics. One promising answer to this is urban data-sensing and mining, which are closed loop supply chains involving the recovery of municipal waste. This type of supply chain cuts down landfill accumulation, resulting in cost savings and a smaller environmental footprint. The recycled materials are re-introduced into the supply chain through local manufacturing, a resource-efficient method that also creates economic activities.
Associate Professor Demeester Lieven of the Lee Kong Chian School of Business discovers that such urban mining practices benefit businesses, especially when responsible investments support sustainable solutions that have cities recycling a large percentage of aluminium, steel, paper-board and plastic waste. The recovered materials are then supplied to city plants that manufacture products to meet local demand.
Concomitantly, other researchers at SMU are tackling the need for intelligent personalised services. To address this, SIS adjunct faculty Alfred Wu and his team at the SMU- TCS iCity Lab have created a citizen-centric service delivery framework called City Process Management, under which end-to-end city services are designed to revolve around citizens’ needs and life events (e.g., ageing or chronic disease management).
An example is iCity Lab’s collaboration with Eastern Health Alliance (EHA) in EHA’s “Neighbours for Active Living” project, which involves the development of information technology platforms to connect neighbourhood volunteers with the EHA Community Care Team. These volunteers help to monitor the elderly in their home environment. Software applications for tablet PCs are created to allow the volunteers to collect information from their visits and transmit it to the EHA Community Care Team, who can then identify and carry out the necessary action plans.
Turning spatial data into knowledge
Underlying these diverse means of resource deployment are large datasets, analytical tools and advanced simulations. Decision makers need to have a detailed understanding of the physical space in which they operate. However, simply possessing data is insufficient. It needs to be transformed into knowledge.
SIS Associate Professor Kam Tin Seong specialises in data visualisation, modelling and simulation with a focus on geospatial databases. His software tools allow multidimensional data to be integrated and deciphered for the purpose of enhancing decision makers’ ability to resolve problems. In addition, his research in urban geospatial analytics has helped to enhance business advertising strategies. Using their visualisation tools, Professor Kam and his students are able to map all the bus stops and routes throughout Singapore, accurately pinpointing the bus stops that have a higher proportion of commuters, including their demographic data such as age group. This allows their industry partners to decide where to place their bus ads for the maximum impact.
Vast repositories of location information, spatial databases have traditionally been used to address issues involving distance and proximity. Motivated by real world needs, researchers at SMU develop optimisation and resource allocation applications that tap on such databases. Their integration of spatial databases with traditional resource allocation formulations gives rise to spatial optimisation research that can be applied widely to commercial operations. An example is the optimisation of branch locations, which ensures that the average distance from each branch to its catchment area is minimised.
Unlike existing algorithms that typically handle several hundreds or thousands of data points at best, the spatial optimisation work produced by SIS Associate Professor Kyriakos Mouratidis targets databases that contain millions of data points. The fact that these data points may be mobile and dynamic in real applications poses an additional challenge. In order to generate solutions that are scalable, he uses novel search-space reduction strategies, which exploit the geometric properties of the problems studied.
Building cities that last
As cities grow and flourish, they also face increasingly complex challenges. Researchers at SMU’s Area of Excellence in Urban Management & Sustainability are collaborating across disciplines to understand and solve these challenges. The results are evident in the form of practical solutions to last-mile problems and waste management, as well as the distillation of useful insights from large geospatial datasets. By working together with governments, businesses and individuals on urban management and sustainability issues, SMU researchers are building cities that can withstand the test of time.