Smart & Sustainable Urban Development

Sherwin Lau
End of the 4-day Inca Trail, ending with a sweeping view over Machu Picchu, Peru

Desiring to be an urban planner, Sherwin Lau, 28, set out to study liberal arts at the University of California, Berkeley. His career plans quickly changed when he found himself drawn to his electives in STEM instead. His pivot proved to be in his favour as the organisation began embracing a data-driven approach in its planning processes. In his current role as a property market analyst, Sherwin monitors trends and advises on policies to ensure that the private housing market remains stable and sustainable.

I did not always think I wanted to – or could – be an analyst.

While cities fascinate me and were the motivating factor behind my application to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), I did so thinking that I would be a planner. I had a keen interest in why cities differ in their landscapes, and how those landscapes, in turn, affect lifestyles. I wanted to have a hand in moulding the urban landscape of Singapore and learning about how managing resources and societal needs is integral to that process. That line of reasoning led me to the University of California, Berkeley, where I set out to study all things related to urban development, specifically urban economics and human geography.

However, plans quickly changed! At Berkeley, I discovered a world of opportunities which came along with the option to tailor my degree in the spirit of a liberal arts education. In particular, the emphasis on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields at Berkeley – set in the dynamic San Francisco Bay Area and in close proximity to the Silicon Valley – piqued my interest to explore some of these course electives. One thing led to another, and I found myself especially interested in the intersection of economics, city planning, as well as, industrial engineering and operations research. I saw the vast potential in applying quantitative techniques to smart and sustainable urban development, and proceeded to curate my course of study with that in mind. At the same time, URA was (and still is) moving towards a data-driven approach in its planning processes, and thus supported my pivot towards opting for more quantitative course electives.

This endorsement also encouraged and enabled me to pursue my interest even further, in the form of graduate studies in operations research. What I enjoyed about my graduate program was the emphasis on application, with the option to undertake an internship in lieu of a written thesis at the end of the program. Not only was I able to develop my analytical skill set through courses in mathematical modelling, statistical computing and machine learning, I also had the opportunity to put them into practice by working with a company in the private sector. I worked with an international sustainability consultancy, where I developed a tool to help their clients identify sustainable development priorities based on their business strengths and objectives, using a range of machine learning techniques including cluster analysis and text mining.

Doe Library (with Sather Tower in the background) on the Berkeley campus

“I wanted to have a hand in moulding the urban landscape of Singapore and learning about how managing resources and societal needs is integral to that process.”

In my current role as a property market analyst, I work closely with my team to monitor trends and advise on policies to ensure that the private housing market remains stable and sustainable. This entails analysing vast datasets to study trends in real time, as well as, industry engagement (with developers and real estate consultants) and inter-agency collaboration (with the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Ministry of Finance). In addition to regular market surveillance, I am also able to apply my quantitative training to support various planning functions. For instance, I recently developed a machine learning model to project resident age profiling in each planning area so as to facilitate the agencies’ work in planning for social and community facilities (like childcare centres, hospitals and schools).

All in all, the URA scholarship opened up numerous possibilities for me which have profoundly influenced my personal and professional development. What started out as mere exploration of quantitative course electives has now turned into a career in analytics, with broad applications in URA beyond my immediate portfolio as a property market analyst. Along the way, I have also had the privilege to pursue non-academic interests, be it collegiate gymnastics or travelling through Europe and South America. I am grateful for these opportunities, and look forward to all that is to come.

URA Scholarship
Age: 28
Attained: Master of Science in Operations Research and Analytics, London School of Economics and Political Science, U.K.
Now: Property Market Analyst, Property Research Department
From: Hwa Chong Institution