We’ve just arrived in Singapore and the local fixer suggests that we head off to film in a city centre food court. We’re here to shoot a series about the cities of the future, but as we all know, cities are made up of people, and people like to gather around food. It’s the perfect start to our shoot, especially as one of our aims is to bring out the human story in these programmes, and that means filming some of the locals going about their daily lives. The mix of races and cultures is extraordinary, a true melting pot that very few cities have, and the atmosphere is buzzing as we come towards the end of office lunchtime, with groups of Indian IT workers gobbling up handfuls of rice and curry next to families of Singaporeans threading their chopsticks around bowls of noodles. We’re allowed to film – we’d been worried about security, but the guard turns out to be friendly enough – and so we capture some of the action as steaming rice and dumplings are ladled onto plates by Chinese chefs. We try some sweet and sour fish that’s full of ginger and garlic, and some large, plump dumplings of spicy pork meat. One of the reasons we’re here is to talk about energy usage, and energy efficiency, and it’s interesting to note that this hugely popular, old open-sided food market is not air-conditioned. There are fans blowing powerful shots of hot air around the hall, and in fact the temperature seems quite acceptable, with the air constantly flowing around us, blending the aromas of food flowing from left and right.
Fans are part of a seemingly old-fashioned approach to cooling that was echoed in our interview later in the day. Overlooking Marina Bay we spoke to Gerhard Schmitt from Swiss university ETH Zurich, who lives and works in Singapore, studying sustainable cities as part of an international research effort. As he pointed out in our interview, Singapore survived for many decades as an economic powerhouse without air conditioning, and although it would be very difficult to wean the current population off artificially-cooled air, the idea of learning to live in more energy efficient ways in harmony with your climate should be reconsidered in tropical cities like this. There are many ways to do arrive at the same result, and better mapping and monitoring of air-conditioning would make significant efficiency gains possible here. What’s more, if Singapore and cities like it use their air conditioning less then the whole city would be cooler – Schmitt told me that he believed the ambient temperature would drop by an average of up to 3 degrees if the skyscrapers and office blocks were not emitting so much heat from their cooling systems. The best way forward, of course, is compromise, to use cooling where it’s most needed, to raise the temperature in over-cooled offices and malls, and to use the natural cooling technologies we already know, such as evaporation and ventilation systems, to make life more comfortable.
Overall Schmitt believes Singapore is relatively unique in Asia for its ambition to boost efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and introduce smarter, more sustainable approaches to living. But he still sees many lost opportunities, especially in solar power, not only photovolatics, but also solar powered cooling systems. And, of course, there is the question of attitudes – promoting the concept that our everyday actions and their impact on energy use and the environment can really make a very significant difference to the reality of our energy consumption. Changing people’s minds about energy and their responsibility for how they use it must be one of the biggest challenges facing cities over the course of the next century.
Shooting Tomorrow’s city
Filming the sunset over Marina Bay. The key thing is to set up the camera position carefully, then tighten everything up and stand clear of the tripod to avoid any unwanted vibration in the picture. Wait for 25 minutes and the shot is done.
Soaking up the atmosphere in Singapore’s Little India
Reflecting on water
Fabian Welther filming reflections in puddles of water at the SingSpring desalination plant.
Singapore’s water world
Today we were focusing on Singapore’s water policy and some of the interesting ways the country is meeting the challenge of exploiting its water resources to the best. We were keen to see the country’s desalination activities, and were able to film at the SingSpring plant, the largest of its kind in this part of Asia.
Here enormous amounts of raw seawater are taken in every day, processed and pumped out the other side as drinking water. The company that runs the site, Hyflux, has built a successful business around its reverse osmosis know-how, and is now exporting the technology to north Africa, Arabia and parts of China.
Then we travelled to Marina Barrage, a dam across the mouth of the river into the sea that has three uses – keeping fresh water in for use by the city, keeping high tides out to prevent flooding, and providing a nice place for the local people to spend time outdoors. As it was the end of the school holidays there were scores of people on the grassy eco-rooftop of the pumping station mucking about with kites, playing music on their radios, and in the case of a few infants and newlyweds, mucking about in the fountains.