​Speech by NTU President at the 6th Singapore Sustainability Symposium

Published on: 08-May-2019

​Welcome Address by

Professor Subra Suresh
President, Nanyang Technological University


Wednesday, 8 May 2019
Grand Hyatt Singapore

Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Professor Sascha Zehnder

NTU Trustees Chin Hwee Tan

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you so much for being here, especially to our overseas guests who have travelled far and wide to participate in this sixth Singapore Sustainability Symposium. This symposium addresses themes that are very much part and parcel of many of the things that we want to do as a university at NTU, not only in our education, research, and innovation, but the campus itself as a living test bed, so that we can showcase our commitment to sustainability in many different ways.

This symposium, during the course of the next two days, will focus on at least three pillars: technology and innovation, law and governance, economics and financial incentives, all in the context of sustainability and one of the focal areas in Singapore, a city that not only aspires to emerge as one of the world’s early smart nations, and equally a city that is committed to sustainability in so many different dimensions. 

Cities are going to play a very important role. In about 11 years from now, by 2030, 5 billion people on the planet will be living in cities of different sizes. And most of the megacities will be in Asia. Cities occupy only 3 per cent of the land on earth, but they account for 65 to 80 per cent of energy consumption, and 75 per cent of carbon emissions. So focus on cities can be very, very important, especially in developing Asia, for the future of sustainability in general. 

Now, the three themes that are the focus of this conference this week happen to be very closely watched aligned with a new institute that we launched about a year ago but inaugurated formally just a couple of months ago at NTU. Peter Ho, who is here, is the chair of the advisory board of the NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity (NISTH), and Minister Tharman participated in the official launch of this just a couple of months ago. And this institute was launched with a clear vision and notion that it’s not just technological advance and technological progress that is going to dictate the course of human achievements or limitations during the course of the coming decades. It’s equally how humans interface with technology intentionally or unintentionally; use, misuse and abuse that technology; how does human behavior intersect with technology. 

It’s exactly the same for sustainability as well. Human behaviour also involves laws and regulations and practice etc which are going to play a very important role as well. So I’m very pleased to see the emphasis on laws and governance as one of the themes in the sustainability area.

As the moderator mentioned, having spent 32 years of my life in the northeast in US, between Boston and Washington DC, I often wondered where would the US be today in terms of sustainability had a few things evolved differently. If the taxation for gasoline or petrol was somewhat comparable to what it is in Singapore, Europe, or Japan, what would have been the evolution of the automobile industry, pollution and congestion in the different parts of the US?

If only we had public transportation just between Boston and Washington DC - high speed trains - the corridor in that region, which is the most congested in the US, would behave very differently. It’s the most congested, even in the summer time, winter time. Weather issues make it even worse. So policies and regulations and human behaviour play a very important role.

The role of NISTH - we have three initial focus areas: first is responsible innovation, the second is ethics and governance in the age of the fourth industrial revolution, and the third is new urban Asia. And all three overlap with the theme and mission of the S3 conference, especially this particular conference.

I just want to close with one thought which I think is very relevant to the discussions that will take place in this forum. In the year 2000 - and I mentioned this at other venues before - the US National Academy of Engineering, which is an august body of leading engineers in the US, commissioned a report at the turn of the century, at the turn of the millennium, to ask the question: what are some of the greatest engineering or technological achievements of the 20th century? 

So they came up with a list - it's on an open website and anyone can look it up - of 20 greatest engineering achievements in the 20th century that included things like electrification, commercial aviation, creating nuclear power, creation of the Internet, advance materials science and microelectronics, World Wide Web, air conditioning - which is so critical to Singapore - and many other things that we take for granted. And these are brilliant achievements on a global scale which really pushed the boundaries of human intellect. 

Just three years after that, the same US National Academy of Engineering formed a committee that came up with another list: the 14 grand challenges of the 21st century facing humanity. And there you can see: carbon sequestration was one of them; containing nuclear terror; securing cyberspace etc. And there is a grandchallenges.org website that you can go to see the 14 grand challenges of the 21st century.

Now, if you put the two lists - the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century and the 14 grand challenges of the 21st century according to the US National Academy of Engineering - there is something that jumps out of this. Many of the 14 grand challenges of the 21st century are a direct consequence of some of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, unbeknownst to us, unintentionally. 

So if that is the case, it immediately begs the question: if we were so smart as engineers or as a human race to solve so many of these difficult challenges and create engineering and technological solutions in the 20th century, and in the process unintentionally created grand challenges for our children and grandchildren, how likely is it that just in a short span of a few years, we are likely to be that much smarter to not only be able to solve these grand challenges that we did not anticipate, but equally not end up creating many more grand challenges for the 22nd century while we create new technologies in the 21st century?

So what was missing? Nobody knows the answer. I don’t know the answer but I have a hypothesis: that as we were paying attention to technological challenges, we did not pay attention to human behaviour that will use and abuse the technology. We did not pay enough attention to a systems approach. When we look at the price of gasoline, we don’t look at the price of pollution - the cost of pollution, the cost of lost productivity and so forth. 

So I think maybe the lesson learnt from that would be that we pay more attention to that. At the university level, this is a great opportunity for us to integrate economics with engineering, social sciences with natural sciences and technology in ways which we have not done to address this problem. So hopefully we will be smarter from this experience. Now the 14 grand challenges is part of some of the curriculum in many of the American universities so that students can appreciate what technology can do, the enormous benefits of technology, and the process of ending up creating unintended consequences for all of us.

So with that I want to thank Sascha for his leadership in organising this conference series, I want to thank the organising committee. And let me also thank all the international participants for coming here, on behalf of all my colleagues at NTU. And last but not least I would like to thank Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam for being here as our guest of honour. 

Thank you very much.

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