How Singapore is creating liveable and loveable cities by design

By Jaz Low

Dawn Lim, Executive Director of DesignSingapore Council shares how the organisation is unleashing the power of design to bring people together and improve lives.

“Singapore is a nation by design. Nothing we have today is natural, or happened by itself,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said. In transforming a motley nation of low-skilled labourers into a global business hub of high-value employees, design was a quintessential chapter of the Singapore story.

And design continues to play a central part in Singapore’s progress today. To maximise the sector’s potential, DesignSingapore Council was established as the national agency that promotes this powerful tool.

Dawn Lim, Executive Director of DesignSingapore Council, shares how the organisation is defining the country’s brand of design. She also highlights case studies of design thinking in the public sector and community.

Embracing feedback in design

The Singapore Design brand is modern, Asian, and multicultural, Lim says. At the same time, it strives toward open collaboration by consolidating feedback from the design community and non-designers alike, whilst not compromising pragmatism.

For an example of collaboration in design, look no further than Singapore’s Government Technology Agency.

They designed a national digital check-in system during the initial stages of the pandemic in just ten days. This reduced the need for businesses to manually log the entry and exit of each and every visitor.

The SafeEntry app was further revised with real-time feedback from users and went on to provide effective contact tracing for more than six million people over the past two years. “Covid-19 was a real test of infusing design with digitalisation for the agency,” Lim notes.

The National Library Board is another organisation that kickstarted the process of redesign by inviting staff to provide input and respond actively to their observations on the ground.

With e-books and audiobooks becoming more prevalent, as well as users relying on search engines as opposed to books for information, the relevance of a public library came into question.

To this end, weekly feedback sessions allow staff to pitch ideas and initiatives for the library without the need for lengthy approval processes. While most public agencies operate within bureaucratic structures, leaders at the National Library Board are taking down the red tape.

The story of the Singapore design brand

“Singapore Design has one eye on what will make a splashing impact in the future, and the other on how our history and heritage have shaped our values and beliefs,” Lim shares.

Looking back, the city-state certainly wrote its playbook on national development through design, she adds. The country’s world-class water sanitation system originated from humble roots of the Singapore River clean-up, while high-rise public housing buildings stand tall in the place of rudimentary kampongs.

“Our pioneers solved problems by turning constraints into possibilities, a spirit that continues to burn brightly today,” Lim highlights.

The country faces the contemporaneous concerns of urban density, climate change, an ageing population, and national security. These complex issues demand, even more so, an empathetic design approach because of the impact it will have on the surrounding community, she quips.

Empathy as part of Singapore Design

Emphasis on the human-centric slant toward design thinking can also be observed through the council’s President*s Design Award, which recognises the achievements of local talents and the sensibility of their design to the community’s needs.

GoodLife! Makan, an innovative community kitchen for stay-alone seniors, was the 2020 recipient of this award.

To help old folks avoid social isolation, designers transformed the empty spaces below public housing blocks into a community kitchen and living room space. Recognising the important role that food plays in bringing Singaporeans together, this was a good strategy to draw the elderly out of their homes, Lim says.

In addition, the ingredient preparation, cooking, and dish-washing zones were segmented by bright colours and icons. These visual markers helped residents of different linguistic and ethnic backgrounds to better recognise each other’s roles when they were working on the meals.

“The project not only promoted bonding between seniors but also transformed them from recipients of charity into stewards of their neighbourhood,” Lim highlights.

A school for design thinking

Aside from the award, DesignSingapore Council created the School of X, an in-house learning platform and consultancy effort, to help the community and government solve challenges by building their abilities in human-centered design.

First, the School of X teaches organisations how to undertake human-centered research and draw insights from the findings so they can better understand their real-world challenge.

Second, the institution guides participants to develop creative problem-solving and design skills so they can ideate and prototype concepts. This is also the time when facilitators coach them to identify any areas for iteration.

The Singapore Toursim Board recently concluded its Wellness Festival, which was borne from a series of School of X workshops. A multi-sensory experience at nature park Gardens by the Bay offered experiential zones like a spin orchestra, where members triggered interactive lights and music performances while riding on stationary bicycles.

On the other side of the island, Singapore’s iconic leisure destination, Sentosa, was transformed into a wellness village. Meditation, breathwork, and sound bathing sessions were a stark contrast to the usual hustle and bustle of the tourist hotspot, while sports workshops and outdoor performances ushered in a pleasant retreat.

Previously, School of X helped Centre For Fathering, a non-profit organisation that struggled with maintaining beneficiary outreach during Singapore’s lockdown period.

At the end of the programme, one of the solutions proposed was a field pack to support first-time fathers in embracing their newborns. The field pack contained tips for raising a child, in addition to items like a photo album to document memories and a bib.

Singapore is a city by design, Lim emphasises. The council hopes to infuse this powerful tool as a skillset and attitude into every aspect of Singapore’s economy and society, driving the country’s future as an innovative and competitive global hub.