SINGAPORE: Good design thinking was a key reason for Singapore’s successful journey from third world to first, and it will be critical in the country's future transformation, for it to remain an outstanding city in the world, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday (Apr 5).
Speaking at the Singapore University of Technology and Design’s (SUTD) first Ministerial Forum, he explained that design is a core element of Singapore’s nation-building, and “nothing we have today is natural, or happened by itself”.
This is the first time Mr Lee is addressing SUTD, which is Singapore’s fourth autonomous university, since he opened the campus in 2015.
Citing examples of how Singapore’s founding fathers had to solve issues like attracting foreign investments and housing the population, Mr Lee pointed out that with each of these major policies, they had to understand the issues, define the problem, come up with creative ideas and solutions, prototype the idea, test out the innovations and constantly review the thinking and solutions.
“That is the essence of design thinking,” he said.
Mr Lee said that it is time to rebuild and reimagine Singapore, by freeing up new parcels of land, and enabling already developed parts of Singapore to be redeveloped, modernised and improved.
For example, the shifting of Paya Lebar Airbase to Changi, which he described as a “transformative move”, could take more than 15 years, but will free up more than 800 hectares of land for redevelopment, bigger than Ang Mo Kio town.
Furthermore, once the airbase is moved, building height limits that currently cover the eastern part of Singapore can be lifted, and the whole region can be progressively redeveloped, he added.
“It will take another 50 years or more, but it offers enormous possibilities,” he said. “There will literally be no limit to the heights of our imagination.”
Mr Lee also stressed the importance of thinking boldly, and long-term, and develop a “visionary plan” that takes Singapore from SG50 to SG100 and beyond.
“Take full advantage of the experience we have gained, the resources we have accumulated, the imagination and skills of our people, and the vibrancy of the region around us,” he said. “We should create an outstanding living environment, a well-planned, technologically advanced, green and sustainable city.”
This, he added, is not only about having well-designed buildings, structures and infrastructure, but also having “good, fine-grained urban design”, which includes things like adaptable public spaces and people-friendly walkways that are well-integrated into the neighbourhood.
But Singapore, he pointed out, is not starting with a blank slate.
“We are enriched by what previous generations have built, by the history that we have accumulated,” he explained. “We should preserve the most important parts from the past, to maintain a sense of history and continuity, and add on the ideas and contributions of a new generation.”
'MANY DESIGN ISSUES TO THINK ABOUT’ WHEN REIMAGINING SINGAPORE
But Mr Lee also noted that when reimagining and rebuilding Singapore, there are “many design issues” to think about.
It will, he said, involve “many major infrastructure and policy pieces”, which each have to be conceived, designed and implemented with the “same attention to detail” and “same sense of its relationship as part of the whole”.
In the case of public transport, for example, he pointed out that at one level, it is an engineering problem, where the network has to be mapped out to have the right connections and coverage, and designed for easy and effective maintenance.
But at another level, he said, it is also an economic problem, where the various players like operators, asset owners, Government and commuters will have the right incentives to do the right things.
And at an even more difficult level, public transport is a sociopolitical problem.
Describing it as an economic mobiliser and social equaliser, Mr Lee said it is part of the shared experience of living in Singapore, and becoming Singaporean.
“None of us like it when fares go up,” he said. “So how do we give the public the assurance that the system is fair, that it is well run, and that when fares have to go up, the increases are necessary and justified?”
“There are no simple answers to these questions,” he added. “We have to evaluate the trade-offs carefully and holistically, to decide what will work best, on the whole, for Singapore.”
Good design, he stressed, is “not done in a vacuum”.
“We need to amalgamate experiences and views across various disciplines,” he said. “Not just the hardware aspects of engineering and architecture but the software as well.”
He added that this goes beyond the application of technology, economics and sociology, and requires a “deep understanding” of human beings, their emotions and psychology, including how individuals behave and how society works.
To that end, he commended SUTD for dedicating more than 20 per cent of its design and technology curriculum to the humanities, arts and social sciences.
“It is not a surprise that SUTD students are highly sought after in the job market,” he said.
"It will be your turn to paint the canvas, to sketch out the next blueprint and masterplan, to create a new roadmap and skyline for Singapore," he said. "I hope that amongst your generation, you will together master the range of skills and disciplines to design, build and run tomorrow’s Singapore."