It’s time for some trash talk.

For Singapore’s public housing agency, it takes on new meaning—especially when smart pneumatic refuse systems can effectively “reduce manpower by 70%”. The agency is currently trialling the use of an automated refuse collecting system for public housing blocks, says Dr Cheong Koon Hean, CEO of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB).

“Why do we want to use the pneumatic refuse system? Because of a labour shortage—we cannot rely on foreign labour, so we have to use technology to overcome this,” says Cheong, speaking at a panel discussion on smart cities at the 2017 ULI Asia Pacific Summit on 7 June 2017.


“We cannot rely on foreign labour, so we have to use technology to overcome this.”

The gamification of trash

The pneumatic refuse systems allow HDB to collect waste smarter. In Singapore, trash is collected from each housing block everyday. With the systems’ sensors, HDB can monitor the amount of waste that has accumulated, and the truck can come around when “the waste has reached say, 80% volume”, Cheong explains. “Then you can optimise manpower and labour.”

The systems are automated, and use a vacuum-type underground pipe network to collect waste from households. Importantly, the “environmental and sanitary issues associated with open refuse collection methods are reduced”—which means less pests and smell. 38 residential blocks in Yuhua, a housing estate in west Singapore, are the first to be fitted out with these systems, the website said.

Having a smart refuse system is all well and good, but residents have a role to play in reducing chute blockage too. “People shove things inside and it gets stuck, right?” says Cheong. HDB will use persuasive technologies to ‘nudge’ behaviours, and introduce gamification to create more incentives for residents, she continues. “The block that performs the best, no blockage for that month, they all get vouchers to go and buy something.”

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Old estate meets new technology

Similar to Yuhua, which is a “very old” estate, HDB is also running test beds in Punggol, a residential area now under construction. The new Punggol town will “have a lot of these smart applications being brought in”, according to Cheong. Homes in Punggol will be fitted out with “smart sockets” which can ‘speak’ to Internet of Things devices, for one.

But despite a lack of the right infrastructure, even old estates can be made smart, Cheong believes. “Even in the old estates, you can go back and retrofit,” she says. HDB has installed solar panels and “a lot of sensors” into Yuhua, and can even monitor if residents “are urinating in the lifts”. “It’s a very common problem in mass housing, right?” Cheong points out.

HDB is now building the “enabling infrastructure” that will go a long way towards creating “liveable, efficient, sustainable and safe towns”, Cheong adds.

The smart city enabler

Sustainability is big on the agenda for the agency, and better planning is key to this. “We use a lot of computer models to help us to design and plan our towns, so that their environmental performance is very good and we can meet our sustainability objectives,” Cheong explains.

The end goal is to save energy, water, and have “much more cost-effective maintenance, lifts, parks, lighting solar panels, etcetera”, says Cheong. HDB oversees one million flats housing 80% of the population, and “we really need to manage them well,” she notes.

Here, data is essential and “very important for the planner”, says Cheong. Data can give HDB a better picture of the demographics and makeup of a town, for example. “You can do a heat map and you know where the ageing population is, and then we can develop all the facilities. We’re now using some of these tools,” she adds.

Ultimately, HDB’s goals are “about people: convenience, safety of the elderly, reliable services, lower utility costs, a better environment for them, and they would be better served by facilities,” Cheong says.

And that is a future Singapore that residents can’t refuse.

Diagram from HDB