Understanding behaviours to address urban challenges

This year Singapore celebrates 50 years as an independent nation. It’s a time for many to reflect on what’s often referred to as “the Singapore miracle” – the city state’s transformation from an economic backwater to a global financial powerhouse.

But as it looks ahead to the next half century Singapore faces a raft of policy and planning challenges as it charts a path to maintaining growth and competitiveness in the years ahead.

One critical issue: a rapidly ageing demographic. By 2030, according to government figures, the elderly will make up a quarter of the population.

How policymakers cope with this shift and plan the use of limited resources imposed by its small size will be key to ensuring a future of sustainable growth.

sumitFor Professor Sumit Agarwal, Vice Dean of Research at NUS Business School the basis for successful urban planning is understanding how people behave. To do this, he says, we need to unravel the behavioural explanations behind consumer actions.

Agarwal, a behavioral economist, admits he has an inbuilt curiosity about everyday situations that many others would give little thought to. Understanding the motivations behind them and putting them in the context of the bigger, urban picture are at the heart of his research.

In particular he says his research shows that Singaporeans tend to take public goods such as water, power and transportation for granted and overconsume then.

Among his recent areas of study:

  • Why is it so hard to get a taxi at certain times of day? Singapore has one of the highest numbers of cabs per head of the population anywhere in the world. Yet peak times often see many passengers struggling to get a ride.
  • Why are so many bus rides in Singapore just a single stop – distances often less than 250 metres? Currently around 12 percent of all journeys involve these inefficient journeys. Taken cumulatively they slow down the public transport system.
  • And why do many people in office buildings take the elevator to travel just one floor? Why not just take stairs?

“These are little things which we generally don’t pay attention to,” Agarwal told the form. “But as people who care about energy and the environment we should pay attention in designing urban landscapes.”

One study he led found that whenever there are construction projects underway, electricity consumption would rise in nearby public housing blocks.

Taking data from 42 construction projects that occurred within a one kilometre radius of 1,800 public housing blocks from 2009 to 20011, Agarwal found on average a six per cent increase in power use in these residences.

The reason for the rise was due to residents shutting their windows to cut out pollution, and, as a result, turning on their air conditioning.

While the increase amounts to just under $10,000 per year for each block, it might not seem much, Agarwal said; but the study also showed that even after the construction projects ended consumption levels did not revert to previous levels.

ThinkAloud4Cumulatively then the impact is significant and lasting. Understanding why such things happen is the starting point to finding solutions to respond to them.

In this case, Agarwal says, responses might include planting more greenery or other landscaping measures that act as natural barriers against construction pollution.

Agarwal’s interest in sustainable urbanisation is a result of his personal curiosity of everyday situations and a desire to improve living standards.

His efforts have already been recognised by various Singapore government agencies.

For instance, the Land Transport Authority has asked him to analyse commuter habits on bus journeys by providing him relevant data to study.

One of his findings is that 12 percent of the bus trips are single-stop rides. This gave the authorities an insight to managing bus resources especially during peak hours, he said.

By understanding the behaviour of the population and its causal effects, planners are in a better position to formulate policies that are more beneficial to the people. And, Agarwal says, these are not challenges unique to Singapore alone – the same phenomena exist all over the world and he is also doing studies on similar data from India, China and Indonesia.

“We live in a small island which is 700 square kilometres, so we need to think about how to develop a city that is conducive to sustainable living,” Agarwal said.

This means planners need to ensure that all resources from electricity to public transport are utilised in a meaningful manner.

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