Leadership Lessons from One of Singapore’s Master Planners

Published 1 March 2018

Liu Thai Ker, one of Singapore’s master planners, shares insights into the transferable skills of an architect, the importance of planning and how this has helped Singapore progress rapidly.

When asked what insights leaders could learn from the guidelines of urban planning and his journey, Liu Thai Ker begins by sharing an analogy. He explains that part of a leader’s job is to define scope: “Think of a city as a human body. There is a need to understand and respect the logic and working of ‘anatomy’, both human anatomy and city anatomy.”

Formerly the CEO of Housing and Development Board from 1979-1989 and CEO of Urban Redevelopment Authority from 1989-1992, Liu Thai Ker oversaw the planning that cemented Singapore’s status as a world-class city.

What leaders can learn from urban planners and architects

Urban development requires thoughtful planning. Here are three lessons leaders can glean from the profession:

1. Too much focus on tomorrow can be a negative. “Urban planners must understand the present problems and needs of the inhabitants. Plan for the need, not the capacity,” he advises.

Leaders can reflect and ask themselves if they are as focused on today as they are on tomorrow.

2. Plan long-term and short-term. How far ahead is your strategy planned? When Liu prepared the master plan for Singapore, he created it for the next 100 years, which he admits is a very long time to plan. “An urban plan might be done for today to 2070, but there also needs to be provisions for 2040, 2030, and 2025,” Liu explains.

Today, a company’s strategy needs to address both the current situation as well as make provisions for the future. This requires a balance of being mindful on not focusing too much on the tomorrow scenario at the expense of current needs.

3. Avoid fads. “Words like ‘technology’, ‘future-ready’, and ‘innovation’ are not applicable when it comes to urban planning”, Liu says. “These trends may work in fashion, but they do not for the make-up of the human body. They may work as ‘window dressing’ (examples are transportation systems, smart systems, etc) of the city, but not the design”.

A company’s core plan or purpose needs to be defined and once that happens, buzzwords or fads will become less attractive.

Transforming a nation

Liu shares a retrospective: in the 1960s Singapore was a poor and dilapidated country with a population of 1.65 million, with 1.3 million living in slums. By 1985, everything had changed.

In just 25 short years, Singapore could be described as progressive and prosperous. “By 1991, and with a population of 3.2 million, the vision was towards a unique tropical city of excellence,” he explains.

“Good planning can turn around a country in 25 years,” Liu states. With a current population of 5.61 million, this signals a very healthy economy.

“Imagination is not looking for the new special design, it is identifying the appropriate one,” explains Liu.

This is the mantra he followed when crafting the 1991 vision for Singapore.

He continues by sharing that a well-designed city is an open door and attracts both foreign talent and business. Coupled with transparent laws and government regulations, this illustrates the rapid growth and progression of the city-state.

Liu’s legacy

Liu recently launched his own architecture firm, Morrow. “With all of my experience, I want to spend time training a team of younger architects and planners,” he says. He feels that a leader’s responsibility is, in part, to train future leaders.

Good design is two-fold: it has purpose and it can have a positive impact on the environment.

Even cities that currently have pollution and congestion issues can benefit from thoughtful urban planning.

‘Plant the seed of improvement today and it will slowly improve. But you cannot expect the issue to be corrected overnight,” explains Liu. “If we plan cities well, we can slow and even reverse global warming.” That is quite the legacy to leave behind.

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