How is design thinking reshaping Singapore?

By Charlene Chin

Interview with Jeffrey Ho, Executive Director of the DesignSingapore Council.

Image: Philippe Put, licensed under CC BY 2.0

From hospitals to housing, good design makes government better. It saves lives, cuts costs, and boosts social welfare.

GovInsider caught up with Jeffrey Ho - Executive Director of the DesignSingapore Council, part of the Ministry of Communication and Information - to find out how design-thinking has been used in Singapore.

1. Law and Order


Lawsuits are always tense, but the Family Justice Courts used design-thinking to reduce disputes and anxiety. They understood their users needs, prioritised them, then rebuilt the layout to make life easier - especially for children.

Where possible, the family courts try to solve emotional disputes outside formal hearings. There are counselling and mediation rooms, where in-house specialists are available for consultations with the public. Judges will direct people to use these services; and if amicable solutions can be reached, there won’t be a need to undergo court hearings.

The courts have prepared a play corner for children too, as they aren’t allowed in when hearings take place. Montage of murals drape the walls just before the play corner, setting an upbeat tone in the courts’ otherwise sombre dealings. In the kids’ corner itself, a rocking alligator gets tucked to one side. There’s also a shelf of children’s books and a colourful play area.

Ho explains that as the courts began to understand their users, they infused law and design, and that gave the courts a heart. “That’s very radical”, he says.

2. Health centres and services

Image: Jui-Yong Sim, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Hospitals and clinics have also shaped facilities around their patients needs - ranging from simple chair designs to the planning of an entire ward.

Khoo Teck Puat hospital simplified service delivery for the elderly by placing all geriatric-related specialist care on the fourth floor. This saves the need for older folks to travel to different departments.

In some clinics, management has adopted a new layout to ease mobility. Some of them are planning an “island design”, Ho says. The workstation for both doctors and nurses will be placed in the centre of the clinic. This allows for two changes: it frees up space for more patients, and allows nurses to attend to patients without obstructions.

Other hospitals have also installed new chair designs to ease access for the handicap. Staff worked with designers to build sprung-up flip chairs, borrowing the idea from stadiums. This means that you can now sit next to your grandmother while waiting in queue, whereas with the old layout you would have to park her at the allocated slot and sit separately, he says.

These efforts have a real impact on citizen healthcare. Tan Tock Seng Hospital cut patient waiting times by 40%, just by reorganising the structure of services. Hospital staff reorganised the location of consultation rooms - improving communications between departments and simplifying medical processes for its patients.

The hospital also built electronic queue and appointment systems to improve service efficiency. Patients could use the same queue number across various clinics within the same day.

3. Policy as a design

Image: Brian Evans, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Design is not confined solely to the planning of a building’s layout, however. As Ho says: it’s also “the design of systems and policies”.

Singapore implemented an ethnic quota across its public housing schemes to promote racial integration, he notes. Each race can only occupy a set percentage of a neighbourhood to prevent social enclaves from forming. Ho thinks of the HDB flats as “vertical kampungs”, and says that design of neighborhoods helps ensure social harmony and tolerance.

Design-thinking for the future

The DesignSingapore council works with both the private and public sector to help them understand their users and shape policies around those needs.

His team is also reaching out to communities and schools alike. He’s aiming for a whole nation that brims with creativity, by “infusing design as a national skill set for everyone”. He wants citizens to identify problems and solve these with designers, because “they are the best people” for this task.

But where should the team start? Ho says that the plan is to infuse design-thinking at a young age, aligning it with school curriculums. If you start this way, what really happens is that the council will be working with students, but with one stark difference - they will understand the importance of prioritising users, he explains.

In courts, hospitals and policy-planning, the government has used design to improve lives of its citizens. Now ordinary Singaporeans must start using design to reshape their own city experience.