By Jason Pomeroy

SOUTHEAST ASIA has historically been a complex antithesis of colonial trade hubs alongside rural agriculture that supported villages and its communities. When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967, the vast majority of the countries in the region were still involved in farming. Today, a different picture exists. While farming is still a mainstay in many ASEAN countries, rapid urbanization has taken over the region — often morphing from those original trading “entrepots.” By 2050, 75 percent of the global population are expected to live in urban city areas. With such a huge number of people set to migrate to the cities, new innovations need to be in place to support such a huge transformation in the region. Following are some ideas that may have the ability to help shape our cities:

Since 2007, half of the world’s population has been residing in cities and this will rise to 75% by 2050. In the past, the physical fabric of cities — namely the street and square, used to be the foci for our social interactions. However, with technological advancement, we have increasingly withdrawn from public life to find refuge in our personal tech and mobile gadgets. In order to not lose sight of the simplest of social skills, we should re-embrace the great outdoors and foster a greater connection with the world. One example where we are trying to do this is the rejuvenation of the Kallang Precinct in Singapore where we are aiming to foster an appreciation for the outdoors through the sport, recreational programs and happenings in both public and semi-public spaces under, over and above ground, that will combine the old school “analogue” with the new world “digital.”

Current world population density is 51 people per square kilometer. By 2050, it is projected to be 66 people to per square kilometer. This means more space is required per person. However, the heightened costs of land and real estate is making inner city living prohibitive to many. One idea is to use water as an alternative surface for urbanization. Water accounts for an unexploited 70% of the Earth’s surface, and with sea levels rising all over the world, there is an opportunity to address both the issue of both land prices and climate change related disaster. We could embrace water as a surface to allow communities, residents and cities to grow whilst rising with sea levels. The floating homes in the docks of Ijberg, Amsterdam, are a good example of water being used an affordable alternative to inner city Amsterdam living that can adapt to rising sea levels. Pomeroy Studio’s research project “Pod Off Grid” further explores this concept as self-sustaining zero carbon floating communities.

Cities cover only 2% of the World’s land area, and yet account for an astonishing 70% of greenhouse-gas emissions. Our daily fossil fuel consumption in the modern world is equivalent to filling 5 pyramids of Giza on a daily basis and then draining them every day. If we are to fight the consequences of our fossil fuel-burning past, we need to shape a carbon negative future and go beyond simply offsetting our everyday energy consumption to generating surplus clean energy by renewable sources. This is imperative if we are to sustain broader communities and have back up power for those times when Nature calls. The B House which we designed in Singapore is such an example of a Super Low energy eco-home which embraces renewable energy sources and generates such surplus to act like a power station. Such an ethos has been applied at a community scale in our affordable housing projects in the Philippines and Sweden also.

Culture is slowly being eradicated through globalization and technological advancement. Whilst we move forward in a modern world where disruption is the order of the day, we need to take into consideration preserving the core elements of what makes us a people and a society with a history. What used to make up traditions and time-tested rituals has now been overtaken by global consumer brands. We need to ensure that the built environment is adaptable to social-cultural change, which seeks to remind us of who we are, and what we stand for. The Brick Lane Mosque is one proponent of this concept — having been home to successive protestant, Jewish and now Muslim religious communities. The layers of these cultures have been impregnated in the bricks and mortar and tell a tale of cultural appropriation in East London. Our concept for restoring the British colonial Secretariat Building in Yangon similarly seeks to tell a story to present and future generations of both a colonial past but a resolutely forward-looking Myanmarese art and culture scene.

We have witnessed a global shift over the last 200 years from industrial to technological and now digital driven economies. Such a shift has implications on the way we work and the places we work in. The hallowed grounds of Oxbridge colleges that espoused knowledge sharing are arguably models for the new digital workplace “campuses” that we see companies like amazon, Google and Facebook appropriate. Knowledge sharing, flexible working environments, co-working and collaboration are just some of the edicts to be found in the new digital workplace. Pomeroy Studio’s “Alice” green office building is such an example that forms a closed loop workplace eco system — fostering the talent of young Techno entrepreneurs and nurturing them to be the eventual Tech masters who will undoubtedly pass on their knowledge to the next generation within the state-of-the-art vertical campus.

In today’s world, it is easy to get caught up in technology; but how can we use technology to enhance our lives as opposed to it taking over our lives? If we want to continue enjoying life in cities and not live in dysfunctional urban habitats, then cities have to embrace technology in a more sustainable way that can enhance the “human experience” and not create an emotional disconnect. In my “Smart Cities” tv series, I found that successful smart cities aren’t necessarily about government-enabled technologies that do not engage its people; rather they are the cities that provide a platform for citizens to express their needs and desires, whereby technologies can be co-created between civil society, state, academia and the private sector for the greater good of the city and its people. We are delighted to be part of such a movement through our smart city research with various governments and private sector bodies (such as in BSD City, Indonesia).

Ultimately, these ideas may not succeed if they are driven through a top-down government-led approach, for fear of alienating civil society. Neither will they succeed if they are unqualified machinations of civil society’s wish list. But a balanced collaboration between top-down (state) and bottom-up (civil society) interests can work — as we see in smart and sustainable models like Amsterdam. It embodies a system where civil society can express thoughts and ideas; innovations can be tested by academic institutions to establish “proof of concepts”; concepts can be partially funded by the private sector, and governments may ratify and roll out programs that could provide the base from which smarter, greener built environments can be created. The spheres of influence held by Government, academia, civil society and the private sector should be free to collectively conjoin with a singular ambition to implement sustainable transformations in our cities.


Jason Pomeroy is an award-winning architect, academic, author and TV personality at the forefront of the sustainable built environment agenda. He graduated with Bachelor and Post-Graduate degrees with distinction from the Canterbury School of Architecture; received his Masters degree from Cambridge University, and his PhD from the University of Westminster.