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The future is what we make it, says Professor Chan Heng Chee

From urbanisation to ageing, Singapore ambassador-at-large Professor Chan Heng Chee outlined five megatrends that young scientists will have to contend with as 2030 approaches, during a lunchtime talk at the Global Young Scientists Summit 2017.

By Juliana Chan

After a much-decorated 16-year career in Washington, DC as Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, Professor Chan Heng Chee has turned her attention to a possibly even more challenging project—spotting trends that will ‘future-proof’ the city state for decades to come.

It was in this role as chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) that Professor Chan spoke to participants of the Global Young Scientists Summit 2017 (GYSS 2017) on 19 January 2017 at the SUTD campus.

Professor Chan, who is also an ambassador-at-large with the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, discussed five megatrends that will become critical issues by 2030: extreme climate and environmental change, an ageing world, the formation of megacities, accelerated technological change, and the search for new models of governance.

“For the oldest of you in this room, you were just born when John Naisbitt published Megatrends,” said Professor Chan with a laugh, referring to the American futurist’s 1982 bestselling book, which inspired her to name her talk “Megatrends 2030”. But as young scientists, she said, the participants were now in a perfect place to work to address the problems of the future.

Five mega-opportunities for young scientists

First, climate change has brought about extreme environmental risks, said Professor Chan. She pointed out that weather-related disasters have more than tripled since 1960, costing small developing states two percent of their gross domestic product every year.

“Those of you who are scientists, and who are interested in sustainability, I think you will have to come up with the science to help us move things forward a little,” she suggested.

Second, as the world gets greyer, the number of people aged 60 and above is projected to outnumber those under age 14 by 2050, Professor Chan said.

“That is quite a significant shift, and there are implications—dependency, shortage of workers, increased government spending on healthcare, and a growing silver economy,” she said.

Addressing participants who work on ageing issues and medical technology, she asked, “How do we help older people work? What kind of work do we give them?”

Moving swiftly to the third megatrend of urbanisation and the formation of megacities—cities with populations that exceed ten million—she said, “We have this wonderful prediction that, by the year 2035, we would have 30 megacities in Asia. And megacities, I happen to think, are actually a mega mess.”

Urban issues such as housing slums, poor public transport and a lack of access to clean water have become a daily struggle for many. “As scientists, think about what you can do. For example, engineers and planners can help in water purification and in developing good sewage and waste management systems. Social scientists can help in land rights and land management, and in traffic congestion,” she said.

The fourth megatrend—accelerated technological change—has brought into our lexicon words such as robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, said Professor Chan. In this “chilling future”,the singularity—runaway technological growth arising from intelligent machines and robots—may be nearer than we think, she said.

Likening the massive labour force in China and India to “grains of sand on the beach”, Professor Chan asked whether leaders should adopt technology for the sake of productivity alone. “When I think of driverless cars, I think bus drivers and taxi drivers are going to lose their jobs,” she said.

The fifth megatrend Professor Chan discussed was the search for new models of governance in a VUCA world—one that is volatile, unpredictable, chaotic and ambiguous. Disenfranchisement stemming from globalisation, she noted, has led to the social phenomena we are witnessing today in Europe (with Brexit) and in the US (with the election of President Donald Trump).

“I think one of the issues governing elites must deal with now is that technological change has challenged governments enormously for the last two decades,” she said.

A partnership between the hard and social sciences

But even as scientists invent new gizmos to deal with traffic woes, new problems will sprout up as older ones are being solved, she said. Cities that attempt to build a mass rapid transit system to reduce gridlock on the roads will inevitably observe more traffic jams occurring during its construction, for example.

In addition, a little more persuasion may sometimes be required to effect change. “In Singapore, we are trying to go car light,” she said. “You can come up with all kinds of devices—all kinds of bicycles, light vehicles, mass rapid transit systems—but people still hang on to their cars. It is not because of the technology of the new transport, but a question of how you change human behaviour. And that is where the social scientists come in.”

Wrapping up her talk, which covered a wide variety of topics ranging from genetic modification to the advent of automation, Professor Chan said that it was crucial that scientists avoid working in silos—something that she often saw happening in Singapore and across Asia.

“I want to put out the message: hard scientists should talk to social scientists because the solution to the world’s problems now is a multidisciplinary kind of engagement and collaboration,” she urged. “We should really work as a scientific community of social scientists and hard scientists—we can work things out together.”

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