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Smart Urbanism and mental health in Singapore

Aisha Sobey
Department of Architecture

Digital technologies are quickly being embedded in urban processes, yet there has been little investigation into the impact this is having on mental health and wellbeing. The ties between environment and mental health have been demonstrated[1], but the way space and life is conceptualised is being challenged by digitisation. New facets to life such as online communication, surveillance and data collection create new ways of experiencing space which spatial theory must engage with to adequately understand the digitally mediated age. To investigate the role of smart urbanism in mental health outcomes, this research will combine the discursive lens of ‘fourthspace’: “the intersection of the digital, real and imagined worlds”[2] with Lefebvre’s perception of public spaces[3], to offer a way of conceptualising the different dimensions of space and separation between policy aims and lived experience.

In a recent study looking at spatial interventions in NY public schools to improve mental wellbeing, they found that from the fifteen schools that had interventions, those with the most robust community partnerships, engagement and context specific design, resonated best with the community in which they’re situated and had the most impact[4]. It is only with the support of all three of Lefebvre’s dimensions of space that the produced space had the desired outcome. Through applying this understanding of traditional, physical space, to fourthspace - a reconfiguration of space including the digital- the perceived, conceived, and lived experiences of the digitally mediated world can be separated highlighting important divisions between types of technologically mediated space. Policy areas understood through this framework, will then be assessed against the five ways to wellbeing[5], identified by the Institute for Development Studies: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, Give. These offer a way of discerning the positive and negative implications on mental health.

One key area which this research hopes to question, is how technological systems relate to trust, and feelings of autonomy in life which impacts on mental wellbeing. Sensors embedded into all aspects of life in a smart city, also create unimaginably large amounts of data. Where this is stored, who has access and how it is used creates vast asymmetries of information and the rationale behind decisions produced with this information can be exceedingly unclear. The “black box” effect[6] offers the illusion of technological neutrality to obfuscate decisions removing autonomy due to the disambiguation of outcomes, where the internal logic is not available for inspection or review. Caught in this web of unquestionable decisions, creates feelings of powerlessness in citizens and is expected to exacerbate a degeneration of mental wellbeing. Through considering the representational space using surveys and interviews, focussed on the digital natives, it will evidence the way these spaces are impacting on mental health. This research will focus on Singapore as its case study, using the highly advanced smart urbanism employed there, to answer “Will a smart urban future exacerbate mental health issues?”


[1] Goldhagen, Sarah. 2017. Welcome to your world: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. New York: Harper Collins Publishers; Goldhagen, Sarah. 2018. What is Human-Centered Design? Should Anyone Care?. Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health 5(2). Available at: [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019]; Gruebner, Oliver, Rapp, Michael, Adli, Mazda, Kluge, Ulrike, Galea, Sandra. and Heinz, Andreas. 2017. Cities and Mental Health. Deutsches Aerzteblatt International. Available at [accessed 13/09/2019].

[2] Kong, Lily and Woods, Orlando. 2018. The ideological alignment of smart urbanism in Singapore: Critical reflections on a political paradox. Urban Studies 55(4): 679-701.

[3] Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell.

[4] Peterman, Kelli, Jackson, Nivea, Ortiz-Rossi, Monica, Shaff, Jamie, Hernandez, Yianice, White, Takeesha, and Swenson, Theodora. 2018. Mental Health by Design: Fostering student emotional wellness in New York City high schools by improving and enhancing built environments. Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health 5(5). Available at: [Accessed 29/08/2019].

[5] Aked, Jody, Marks, Nic, Cordon, Corrina, & Thompson, Sam. 2008. Five ways to well-being: The evidence. London: Report commissioned by the Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Well-being.

[6] Holzinger, Andreas, Palade, Vasile, Plass, Markus, Holzinger, Katharina, Crisan, Gloria Cerasela and Pintea, Camelia-M. 2017. A glass-box interactive machine learning approach for solving NP-hard problems with the human-in-the-loop. Cornell University Computer Science Lab. Available at: [Accessed 19/09/2019].

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