Archive for the ‘Vision’ Category

Why some Ideas take a long time to be taken up?

In Beauty, Design, History, Leadership, Nature, Strategy, Vision on 2010/09/10 at 10:43 pm

I don’t know.

Roof gardens and “sky rise” landscaping is now a rage in many cities such as New York and Singapore.  It’s like, “why didn’t we think of this before?”

Le Corbusier in his 1926 manifesto, Five Points toward a New Architecture” said this:

“The roof gardens. The flat roof demands in the first place systematic utilization for domestic purposes: roof terrace, roof garden. On the other hand, the reinforced concrete demands protection against changing temperatures. Overactivity on the part of the reinforced concrete is prevented by the maintenance of a constant humidity on the roof concrete. The roof terrace satisfies both demands (a rain- dampened layer of sand covered with concrete slabs with lawns in the interstices; the earth of the flowerbeds in direct contact with the layer of sand). In this way the rain water will flow off extremely slowly. Waste pipes in the interior of the building. Thus a latent humidity will remain continually on the roof skin. The roof gardens will display highly luxuriant vegetation. Shrubs and even small trees up to 3 or 4 metres tall can be planted.

In this way the roof garden will become the most favoured place in the building. In general, roof gardens mean to a city the recovery of all the built- up area.”

[Le Corbusier/Pierre Jeanneret: Five Points towards a new architecture. Originally published in Almanach de l’Architecture moderne, Paris 1926.]

Almost 85 years ago, Le Corbusier had figured out, at least in part, the need for landscape to balance the harshness of the urban landscape of the high density “cities of tomorrow”, and had carefully argued for freeing up the ground plane by lifting all building on piloties (stilts) and maintaining ground footprint by cultivating vegetation on all rooftops.

This is a reminder to know our history, our pioneers and institutional memory.


Devoting Money to Culture and Creativity

In Creative Culture, Uncategorized, Vision on 2010/08/04 at 1:45 am

Monocle’s July/August 2010 issue commented on Singapore’s global ranking of the world’s most liveable cities (p 19): “Dropping from 18 last year, small-scale Singapore could do with devoting some money to culture and creativity instead of casinos and shopping malls“.

The comment opens up the old wound of funding culture, the arts and especially that enigmatic thing called creativity. It also propagates the stereotypical view that Singapore is dominated by casinos and shopping malls.  Lets take a quick look at these issues and why it leaves us less than satisfied.

First the two casinos are, by planning decree, less than 10% of the total built-up area of the two respective multi-billion “integrated resorts” and are not allowed to predominate the development; ie no Las-Vegas-style neon signs, and no lavish entrances.  The Marina Sands Integrated Resort, designed by Moshe Safdie, has a 2,560-room hotel, a 120,000 sq.m. convention-exhibition center, an Art & Science museum, two Theatres, six “celebrity chef” restaurants, two floating pavilions and a 340m-long “SkyPark”.  The Resorts World Integrated Resort, designed by Michael Graves, has 6 hotels, a Universal Studios theme park and Marine Life Park, which includes the world’s largest oceanarium. The casino parts are not conspicuous, contrary to sensationalisation by the media. In any case both IRs have been developed by private business consortia.

Second, the shopping malls are private developments in response to market demands and business opportunities of the local and global retail trade. Like the IRs, malls are not in a zero-sum game with promoting culture and creativity; they are separate and independent issues.

Third, contrary to the impression made by the Monocle comment, Singapore has one of the world’s highest public funding for the arts and design. For example, public funding for the annual Singapore Arts Festival is about S$8m which approximates S$2 (US$1.50) per capita of population. The global survey by Cambridge University for the UK Design Council reported in 2009 that Singapore has the highest level of funding for design worldwide after correcting for size.  Not many cities have anything close to these. Moreover, the Singapore government has consistently devoted its prized building to the arts and culture; the old Parliament House as an arts centre, the City Hall and Supreme Court as the new National Arts Gallery. Perhaps the Monocle comment is about non-government devotion of money to culture and creativity?

The relativity argument of the Monocle comment — of malls and casinos in lieu of culture and creativity — is weak. The implied case of Singapore’s lack of culture and creativity is a different matter. let alone if they can be improved by “devoting” more money — a subject for a future blog.

Alternative Value Propositions

In adaptability, Change, Creativity, Design, Leadership, Process, Strategy, Technology, Value, Vision on 2010/05/11 at 2:06 pm

Designers can do better than offer “professional services for a fee”. They can lead by alternative value propositions.

Many creative projects get axed prematurely by key performance indicators (KPI). KPIs are typically controlled by ‘creative’ bean counters (oxymoron?) who are clients or their agents.  They typically shun change and collaboration. Their standard tool is divide-and-rule. eg train stations are transport engineering infrastructure, whilst art and sculpture is culture; therefore there is no budget for the arts as part of station development. That is somebody else’s core business. Familiar?

Designers are in a good position to propose alternative value propositions. But they need to be laterally creative and not be so naive about how bureaucrats and bean-counters work. A creative win-win is often the only way.

Take the task of designing an Expo exhibition pavilion. The no-brainer is to put up a building simply for the duration of the Expo — closing both eyes to what happens after the show is over, and visitor-ship KPI is history. Better still, have the pavilion built by somebody else and “leased back” for only the exhibition season; this way it shows up in the books as rental and not a capital-intensive inventory item!

What if the Expo building is designed in the first place for a permanent use, even if it means designing a kit of parts to have the pavilion become a school building or library where it is needed badly, say in an isolated rural location or disaster-relief area.

The challenge for designers is to find a way to collaborate with the initial client to include stakeholders who can take over the kit of parts. In return, the emotional and social benefits of the cause can be a powerful differentiating feature of the pavilion’s presentation. In Expos such as the one in Shanghai now concerned with “better cities, better life”, such an action will speak louder than the words and demos so typical of those who only think of the Expo as only a glorified sales pitch.

Some things don’t change

In adaptability, Beating the Odds, Change, Design, Technology, Transformation, Vision on 2010/04/27 at 4:51 pm

Change can be extremely slow and surprisingly resilient. This of course can be a good or bad or indifferent thing. Apparently, the extinction of dinosaurs was due largely on their inability to change in time.

Take car design for instance. Consumer expectations on one hand and tough laws and regulations on the other have kept the car not that much different in the last 50-60 years. Practically all have ‘eyes’ (headlights) and ‘mouth’ (grille) even when new lighting and air intake technologies are available. They all have license plates, usually unceremoniously screwed into the bodywork. (I once saw the license plate of a Royce Royce fastened with a pair of rusting screws like those of everybody else!) . They all have wing mirrors and wind-shield wipers — the last frontier of innovation!  And they all have an assortment of disks and stickers on the wind-shield for road tax, club membership, season parking, etc.  All these are not about to change.  At the rate we are going, they may all be still around even when cars go air borne.

Some things don't change

Some things don't change

What about the house? When cars go air borne, the house will likely to be still brick-n-mortar, concrete-steel-glass.  Chairs will be chairs and tables will be tables. Why?

I was once on a construction site when the builders laughed at the oversized calculator that our Quantity Surveyor was using. “Surely you can afford a more compact calculator”, they said.  He replied, “but my fingers are not getting smaller!”

So, why is change so tough?  Perhaps because we are fundamentally conservative human; full of terrible as well as wonderful ‘flaws’.  For better or worse, get over it!

Design in Singapore’s Economic Strategies

In Creativity, Design, Policy, Strategy, Transformation, Vision on 2010/02/02 at 6:38 pm

The Singapore government yesterday (1 Feb 2010) accepted and released the report of the high-powered Economic Strategies Committee (ESC). The report called for a “High-Skilled People, Innovative Economy, Distinctive Global City” — nothing particularly earth-shaking at this level, to be sure. Go deeper into the report, beyond the strangely-familiar call for improved productivity (a current embarrassment despite years of nagging) and you will not miss “design”. It is directly and indirectly at practically every turn. Here is a quick guide:

First the overt references. In the fourth Strategy to “make innovation pervasive, and strengthen commercialisation of R&D” (p28) a specific call was made to “leverage on design” and to “emphasise design-driven innovation” through the following action: “instil design thinking“, “intensifying industry collaboration on design innovation“, and “establish an accreditation system to raise professional design standards“. These, taken as a coordinated set of action, is potentially game changing. The last one mentions a “Designed in Singapore” mark. The time has come to prepare for a post-industrial economy when goods and services are proudly designed in Singapore, made in outsourced locations such as China, and sold globally. To get to that point, a creative and sustainable design and innovation culture needs to be in place.

But the ESC report seems to have most of the angles covered on cultivating this new culture. In Para 23, it identified “product development and design” as one of the sectors for retaining more good jobs. In the Priority to “make Singapore a distinctive global city and endearing home” (p11), the report recognised that “we must develop thriving creative and arts clusters” (read: design), and that “we should also develop distinct eco-towns and residential precincts…” (read: through design). The report also recognises a “vibrant climate of innovation…through design…” (Para 40); the need to “step up efforts in the education system to inculcate a mindset for innovation among young Singaporeans”, mentioning the recent establishment of the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) (p30); the “design and production of “mission-critical” components such as those in medical devices” (p21); and even the need for “creative incubators” to “provide affordable spaces and incentives for the creative industries” (p37).

But the trump card for design in the ESC report must go to plans to develop “a whole new waterfront city at Tanjong Pagar” (read: by very creative design — architecture, urban planning, landscape design, etc.) as a key strategy to develop Singapore into a “leading global city” distinctive for its clusters of artistic and creative energy, and for the high quality life (para43, p15). The symbolic significance of Tanjong Pagar (Malay: cape of fishing-stakes) is its current function as the great shipping port of Singapore — the lifeline and symbol of Singapore’s economic success for decades — and the world’s busiest port for many years. Until more recently with a more diversified economy, Singapore used to be branded by Tanjong Pagar port. In future the venerable port will be eclipsed by a post-industrial city which will be as different as flying into Changi airport today compared to sailing into Collier Quay in the past. See URA Masterplan.

Tanjong Pagar port (south-west) from the Pinnicle at Duxton

Tanjong Pagar port (north-west) from the Pinnicle at Duxton

Coincidentally, two of the Design2050 Studios who presented at the Icsid World Design Congress (23-25 Nov 2009) included visions for the Tanjong Pagar area in their 2050 propositions: Fosters and Partners, London, on “the sustainable city 2050” and WOHA Architects, Singapore, on “architects save the world and bring joy to millions. Singapore 2050”. See also my “Singapore Plans for 2050“.

A copy of the ESC Report can be found here:

Virtual Meetings are Virtually Impossible

In Design, Technology, Vision on 2010/02/02 at 12:56 pm

I am what you’d call an Eternal Optimist. Most of the time. I was an “early adopter” of AI (artificial intelligence) in the 80s — I took Marvin Minsky’s “Society of Minds” class at MIT; self-taught myself LISP programming to write a search algorithm for emergent sub-shapes, ie to emulate the creative eye in picking out  implied (‘hidden’) shapes in drawings that did not pre-exist.

One area of technological advancement that I had been optimistic about is virtual meetings — the ability to meet up over distance and time without the need for physical travel (and all the pains and strains that goes with it, not forgetting its CO2 footprint). But, for me, the promise of the perfect virtual meeting took a few steps backwards last Wednesday (27 Jan 2010) when I was in the audience of a dialogue session with Singapore’s Minister Mentor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. This is only the third time I have had the privilege to be in his presence; the first was across the table in his Cabinet Room at the Istana!

MM Lee's 'charged' presence at the International Housing Conference

Last week’s occasion was the International Public Housing Conference in Singapore. The dialogue with members of the audience was moderated by Prof Tommy Koh, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large.  The atmosphere was ‘charged’ from the moment MM Lee entered the auditorium. His presence was gripping. In his usual style, he sketched out the history as well as the issues of the day and the future with great precision and “wow” clarity. At one heart-stopping point he emphatically stressed, “I totally disagree with you!” to a person who spoke up for rental housing as an alternative to costly home ownership. And, like a killer litigation lawyer, went on to demolish any comeback to that idea. He spoke decisively about the way to deal with racial tensions and foreigner enclaves as if he had been into the future and saw their problems first hand.

I pondered why the media reports in the evening news on TV, online and the next day’s newspapers did not capture anything close to the ‘charged’ atmosphere of the auditorium? I think they inherently could not. Here’s maybe why:

It’s not so much the “body language” which can be captured to a large extent by the video camera, especially in HD — the subtle hand and head gestures that syncronised in microseconds to the words spoken. Then there are the words themselves, spoken with clarity, warmth and artistry, and delivered in a way that enables us in the audience to sense the mind behind the man. AI’s long-fought frontier of natural language processing and gesture-based controls has made some progress over the decades, but this occasion with MM Lee shows how intractable this can be. Whilst I am still prepared to be the Eternal Optimist for breakthroughs in body language and natural language processing, the new thing I realised this time is not the body or the mouth, but rather the eyes. Virtual meetings need to replicate eye contact to do the job. I think this is so hard, to the extent that I have resigned to it as virtually impossible. You need to be actually there to see it to believe it.

Singapore Plans for 2050!

In Design, Process, Vision on 2010/01/24 at 5:22 pm

Singapore transformed to a F1 circuit in Nov 09 (Photo: STB)

Yesterday (Sat 23 Jan 10), the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore (URA) launched a public consultation to revise its 2011 masterplan for the whole island-nation of Singapore (about 700 sq km) for the next 40-50 years; see URA Press Release.  The new masterplan will define Singapore’s idea of “quality of life”.  Specifically, it will deal with with economics, demographics and the environment.  This is often referred to as the “triple bottom-line” by planners and economists.

But how is the public to participate in this humongous task?  Will the usual “focus groups” (read: market survey) deliver on an issue that even futurists have trouble?

Perhaps everyone should take a leaf from the recent “Design2050” exercise by the DesignSingapore Council (Dsg) who commissioned nine teams of of top designers and architects in Europe, US, South Africa and Singapore to each make propositions on an aspect of life in the year 2050.  The Foster & Partners team led by Head of Design David Nelson and Stephan Behling looked at “the Sustainable City 2050“; the Philips team led by CEO Stephano Marzano looked at “Healthcare 2050“; Chris Bangle (former director of design at BMW) looked at “Personal Emotional Mobility 2050“; Prof Bill Mitchell and his team at the MIT Media Lab looked at “Reinventing the Automobile 2050“; Ravi Naidoo and the Design Indaba team looked at “Protofarm 2050“; Toshiko Mori and her team in NY looked at “Design Blindspots 2050“; Feng Zhu and his FZD team in Singapore looked at “Entertainment 2050“; Chris Leubkeman and this Arups Foresight and Innovation team looked at “Life @ 1 Planet in 2050…or Naught: drivers of change 2050“; and WOHA Architects Singapore looked at the impact of rising sealevel on Singapore in “Architects Save the World and Bring Joy to Millions 2050: Singapore 2050“.

Design2050 begins with the premise that it not possible to predict 40-50 years into the future.  Futurists — such as Ged Davis, Chris Leubkeman and William Halal, who spoke at the presentation of Design2050 Studios — agree. But design is generally about propositions for a better future, and less interesting as problem solving, although it can do that too. So, why not get design to make propositions of normative futures which are beyond the reach of technological and other forecasting? The 9 propositions presented in November 2009 by the Design2050 Studios were awe-inspiring. Take a look, below for WOHA’s presentation. Watch out for a DVD/TV series later this year. Most importantly, be a part of this growing Design2050 community who subscribe to PARC Alan Kay’s dictum, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”.