For Singaporeans who grew up in the 70s and 80s, an iconic playground in the Toa Payoh neighbourhood evokes the fondest memories.

The designer behind this thoroughly Singaporean landmark had drawn inspiration from the dragon, a mythical creature that features prominently in several Asian cultures. These playgrounds were a way to bring families together during the formative, post-independence years of rapid urbanisation, and they struck a fine balance between form and function.

Fast-forward to 2018. Mark Wee, the newly-appointed Executive Director of the DesignSingapore Council, has one key focus this year: to “expand the narrative of design beyond aesthetics”. “I really believe design could make an impact,” Wee tells GovInsider.

Design thinking 101

Singapore has changed a lot since the 70s, with dramatic skyscrapers and a boat-shaped hotel making their mark on the cityscape. The country looks every bit like the financial and trade hub it is known for – but now, the focus is shifting to the creative industry.

A new master plan published in 2016 said that design is a key driver of innovation and value creation for businesses. User-centric design is crucial to developing services that are invisible, seamless, and a joy to use. “When we create services, it’s for people, which is very different from when you want to create products like water bottles or cups,” Wee notes. “People need to be emotionally engaged.”

“People need to be emotionally engaged.”
He plans to work closely with government agencies and organisations to redesign services. Design thinking “allows us to have a common language on how we need to be conscious of who we are serving, and how we can serve them better”, he explains. “It ultimately connects people to the user.”

Community nurses and ‘frequent flyers’

While the challenges that Singapore faces are not unique, they certainly need creative solutions. Healthcare is one issue that is drawing concern, Wee points out: the population is ageing fast, but the pool of healthcare workers is shrinking.

Now, the health ministry is championing community health to make do with limited resources. “That’s something that needs to happen – how do you bring it back into the community?” he says.

A user-centric approach was key to how Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, for instance, redesigned healthcare delivery. It launched an ageing-in-place programme within months of opening in 2010. The programme team first identified ‘frequent flyers’ – patients with high readmission rates – and soon discovered a key reason for repeated hospital visits: some patients felt isolated at home.

As a solution, the team hired community nurses that make house calls on these patients, tend to their wounds, and encourage them to take their medication. These nurses also work with other caregivers to develop individualised care plans.

In 2014, the initiative reduced readmission rates from an average of 3.5 readmissions per patient to 1.2 – a 67% improvement. That year, it became the first Singapore public service to win the United Nations Public Service Award.

The argument for car-lite

Transport is another area that requires some creativity to address. Roads take up about 12% of land use, almost the same as housing in the small, yet dense country.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) recently announced that the number of private cars owned by Singaporeans will not be allowed to increase from February this year. According to one estimate, 100,000 families who owned a car in 2013 will no longer have one by 2023.

The government wants to build a ‘car-lite’ society, as there is simply no more space to build more roads, says Wee. But cars remain a key status symbol, in a country known as the world’s most expensive place to own one. “How do you wean off people’s aspiration towards owning a car, towards just being able to just rely on public transport or new forms of shared transport?” asks Wee.

Singaporeans are being encouraged to use public transport, cycle, and walk, instead of driving their cars. Comfort and convenience is top on everyone’s list, and the LTA has developed a Walk2Ride Scheme that will build sheltered linkways near major public transport interchanges.

The government has also announced that the upcoming North-South Expressway will have dedicated cycling and express bus lanes. The country has been piloting car-free zones since 2013, and autonomous vehicle trials are ramping up. The goal is that 85% of all trips made by 2050 will be on public transport.

Pragmatism and boldness

Singapore’s design DNA is deeply tied to over 50 years’ worth of nation-building, and how it accelerated to first-world status in a single generation despite size and lack of resources. “Our limitation of resources has forced us to make pragmatic decisions, but because we are so extreme in that we are small in size and so-called fragile, this pragmatism must actually be accompanied by bold decisions or big ideas,” Wee notes.

Over the years, the compact size and small population coupled with robust regulations have created a “closed environment” for agencies to test and pilot new ideas, he continues. “There is a willingness here to actually try to do things differently,” Wee says. These qualities have led to constant reinvention, creativity and risk-taking, according to him.

“There is a willingness here to actually try to do things differently.”

Singapore has ambitions to bring its distinct brand of design to other shores, while at the same time educating the next generation in design sensibilities and expanding the role of design in government and businesses.

With his new role, Wee also wants to bring design closer to Singaporeans, and inspire them to improve their everyday experiences. It is already an innate part of their identity: when the HDB needed to build practical mass housing – and fast – it designed the iconic flats that we see today. True to Singapore’s reputation as a green city, greenery is deliberately designed into urban areas to create beautiful social spaces.

And it was sensible design at work when in 1989, the government implemented an ethnic quota across public housing to create “vertical kampungs”. This prevented social enclaves from forming, and promoted racial integration and tolerance.

Singapore can draw from its post-independence years of pragmatic yet innovative policy-making to influence and inspire the next few decades. “It was a bold move, imagining a future that wasn’t there,” Wee concludes. “We created something from nothing – that’s design in our opinion.”

Main image from DesignSingapore; playground image by Jimmy TanCC BY 2.0; park image from Wikipedia