It’s mid-March and Kwek, who directs the state-run Design Singapore Council (DSC), is addressing a group of journalists gathered in the city to attend its fifth annual design week. A civil servant and former head of the Corporate Transformation and Futures division at Singapore’s Land Transport Authority, Kwek will soon take up her new role as a Paris-based international ambassador for Singaporean design. For now, though, she is based at Singapore’s National Design Centre, a 139-year-old former convent building which houses the agency’s headquarters.
It’s rare to hear design spoken about in terms of life and death at a commercial design week, but the Singapore government has recently been approaching the sector with the seriousness that other countries reserve for infrastructure, health or education policy. The body that Kwek heads was set up in 2003 to help develop the nation’s design sector, following a government economic review that identified it as an industry that could generate economic growth and social progress.
The DSC will not reveal how much it has spent on promoting and nurturing design, but a 2007 report by the Canadian Design Research Network (CDRN) suggested that 10m Singapore dollars (£5.6m) were being invested annually in the sector for a period of five years, with another five-year plan due to follow. Over 10 years, that adds up to around a third of the £150m lump sum that the UK – with a population roughly 13 times that of Singapore – recently announced it would spend on the creative industries as a whole. It also excludes additional indirect investment happening through government bodies such as the Economic Development Board, Singapore’s trade board, the Standards, Productivity and Innovation Board, Singapore Tourism Board, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, all of which are now placing an emphasis on design.
Generally, it’s very hard to compare exact governmental figures and levels of commitment. Government investment in creative industries varies hugely from country to country, while the design industry is hopelessly entangled with other sectors. However, the CDRN report observed that Singapore’s approach to design stands out for its breadth of focus. “While design strategies in most countries have a strongly supply driven design policy,” it said, “Singapore places equal emphasis on developing a local market for good design. As the figure below shows their programming is wide, ranging from establishing design testbeds to facilitating the use of design by business, hosting and participating in international design festivals, and educating the public.”
In early 2016, the DSC published a report setting out how Singapore could become an “innovation-driven economy and loveable city” by 2025. Its recommendations included infusing design into the national skillset, the business sector, public services and communities, and developing the “Singapore design brand”. The report describes the aspiration using corporate utopian language that suggests that the state views design as being at least as much a tool for image-building and PR as it is a practical policy: “Our people will have an appreciation for the value of design beyond aesthetics. Our community will embrace the use of design and co-create a better living environment; and in so doing, develop a stronger sense of belonging and ownership. Services will be people-centred, delivering better experiences for all. Design will take the Singapore brand to the next level and contribute to our national identity.”
To reach these ends, efforts are seemingly being targeted at every level. There are financial awards to help mid-career professionals develop design skills, scholarships for design-related degrees, grants for businesses to fund design consultancy and innovation, as well as funding provision for events such as Singapore Design Week. “I know that the level of design and technical education at secondary schools and institutes, and the number of schools that offer that, have improved and I think the awareness of design – what it is and how it can add value – has certainly reached the mainstream consciousness,” says Singapore- and New York-based furniture designer Gabriel Tan, who has worked with brands such as The Conran Shop and Ishinomaki Lab, and exhibited around the world. “I have benefitted from the greater awareness and receptivity towards design, as well as grants to help me reach the international market during my earlier years.” Edmund Zhang, who was awarded the title of Next Generation Singapore Designer by Wallpaper* magazine last year, agrees: “Recently, the government has stepped up efforts, initiatives and scholarships to proactively support local designers.”
For those based in countries like the United Kingdom, where public funding for the creative industries is being slashed, it might seem an enviable set of circumstances. Like many countries, Singapore is facing the prospect of technology destroying existing jobs and creating demand for new skills. As a particularly concentrated version of a globalised economy (with its diverse, international population and concentration of multinational companies, it’s ranked among the most open economies in the world), Singapore and its response to these problems could offer lessons for us all.
In February, the government’s Committee on the Future Economy – a group of private- and public-sector individuals established in 2015 to make policy recommendations to assist in Singapore’s growth – laid out a vision that hinted at a quasi-religious faith in design as a national saviour: “In the future economy, our people should have deep skills and be inspired to learn throughout their lives; our businesses should be innovative and nimble; our city vibrant, connected to the world, and continually renewing itself; our Government coordinated, inclusive and responsive.” Reinforcing this message, in April 2018 the prime minister Lee Hsien Loong visited the Singapore University of Technology and Design and called for its students to “reimagine and rebuild” Singapore, emphasising that the country had a history of “design thinking” – as seen in the efforts by successive generations to attract foreign investments, house the population and create the flourishing economy the nation has today.
Application of the term “design thinking” in this context by the prime minister is revealing. In recent times, this has become a buzzword – used to describe the application of the methodology employed by designers to identify and solve problems in the corporate and governmental sphere. While many have welcomed the inclusion of creativity in these fields, critics have pointed out the malleability and vacuousness of the term itself – and the inherent flaw in packaging what is an open-ended and exploratory approach as a fixed, goal-orientated process. To apply it, as the prime minister has done, to the context of nation-building seems to validate this critique.
Regardless, there is some truth to the claim that Singapore – since its independence in 1965 – has had to think creatively and that its economic, social and urban condition demonstrates an efficient approach to problem-solving. As a compact island nation with few natural resources, Singapore has long been reliant on human capital. Its economy has been driven primarily by services, which account for 71.3 per cent of its GDP and employ 73.7 per cent of its population, according to a 2017 government survey. Architecture has also thrived. The city itself could be seen as one large design experiment. More than 5.5 million people live on less than 750sqkm of land and, to meet the needs of its population, more than 80 per cent of housing is public. Decentralised urban hubs, well-planned public transport and landscaping mean that Singapore usually ranks high on lists of the world’s most liveable cities. Since the 1960s, its GDP per capita has grown from about US$500 to almost $53,000.
Singapore’s ability to adapt and make large-scale changes is no doubt also a function of a political system often described as “soft authoritarianism”, which means that, what the government wants, the government gets. The same authoritarian political system that allows the government to implement large-scale change relatively easily also has a tempering effect – some designers interviewed for this article told me that political constraints, such as curbs on free speech, have created an inherent culture of caution and an absence of radicalism that manifests itself in a safe approach to art and design. There are other challenges too. Singapore has little room for a manufacturing sector and few natural resources, both of which have been crucial to the success of design industries in places such as Scandinavia and Italy – product and furniture designers in Singapore need to look abroad to get things made.
The city itself is also hamstrung by its own efficiency. There is little affordable space for young creatives (the title of the Singapore pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale is “No More Free Space”); this means that the metropolis is seeking to grow its creative sector at a stage when its urban realm already resembles cities such as London and New York, which are losing their creative communities to cheaper places. Dutch designer Matthijs Rikken, who co-founded Studio Dam with his Singaporean partner Debby Yu, works out of a studio in their home in the city. “In Eindhoven, when we were students, we were renting space in an empty school building for next to nothing,” he says. “Whereas here, space is super expensive, so creating hubs of creative people [in cheaper parts of the city] is nearly impossible.”
There are signs too that the overt focus on the commercial application of design – the result of the explicit link here between design and economic policy – comes at the expense of more experimental work. “There is always this urge or rush to find a way to create something that can be applied to the market and this environment lends itself to designers being very project-driven, rather than thinking more long-term,” says design writer Justin Zhang. In the context of Singapore Design Week, this is illustrated by Singaplural, the main showcase of design installations, which is billed as showing “the best design elements from the multi-faceted creative spectrum” but, in reality, has a heavy emphasis on branded products with commercial potential, and is described by Kwek as being primarily concerned with “IP [intellectual property] creation”.
Singapore’s design sector is shaped by all these conditions and constraints; yet in its use of “design” as a catch-all term for innovation, reinvention and experimentation in any field, there is a sense of vagueness about what “design” actually is and what specifically it can offer. This problem is not unique to Singapore, but it seems critical at a time when the city-state is positioning design as a central part of its public policy and a “matter of survival”. “I am mainly cautious that ‘design’ does not end up a buzzword, or worse, a fad,” product designer Olivia Lee says. “As more people get excited about the ‘promise of design’, if we fail to deliver on that promise, it could induce cynicism. This would leave the long-time design practitioners in a worse-off position.”
The DSC’s refusal to divulge the amount of money it has invested and its heavily stage-managed approach to Singapore Design Week – where journalists were continuously supervised and provided little opportunity to speak informally to designers or policy-makers or explore events independently – only serves to reinforce the impression of design as PR, rather than substance. Amid this vagueness, what’s clear is that the Singaporean government sees design as a strategic device to be deployed for economic purposes. “So far, design has acted as a supporter. Now, it has come to the forefront of [the state’s] thinking,” says Zhang. “It’s not so different from other countries, where design is associated with innovation, but in Singapore they have really drunk the Kool-Aid – top government officials are very much tuned into design’s potential to change the economy.”
This attitude has prompted a conscious move away from traditional product design and towards “design thinking” in business, education and the public services. It is manifested in the form of more attention to fields such as service design and the employment of designers in nontraditional contexts. The DSC sees its role as expanding the image of design away from craft and image-making towards a viable form of thinking for everyone from doctors to businesspeople. “We’re looking at design as a horizontal process that’s relevant to any industry – a tool for transformation in banks, healthcare, the public sector to transform government services for citizens,” says Kwek. Meanwhile, designers are being deployed at all levels of the public sector to rethink health services, transport and other amenities. “All the groundwork that was laid five years ago has really borne fruit – in 2013, 12 per cent of businesses in Singapore had designers in senior management [positions]. Today that figure is 32 per cent. Companies are starting to think of design as a strategic function,” says Kwek.
Design is also being infused into the education sector. Later this year, the DSC is launching a programme to integrate what Kwek describes as “the basic tools, language and mindset” of design into the traditional school curriculum – not as a distinct field of study but as an added layer to subjects such as science, maths or civics. Edmund Zhang has seen a shift at the level of higher education too: “I graduated last year and, over the four years, there was a gradual shift from product designs to fields like user experience and user interface design. The whole design education climate is subtly moving in that direction.”
Alongside this move towards the intangible there is a simultaneous shift towards the idea of design as brand. “We have started seeing design dovetail with Singapore’s desire to be a global city of arts and culture, and a creative city,” says Justin Zhang. “There is now a hint of, ‘We should use design because it makes us look good.’” As part of its 50th year of independence celebrations in 2015, the Singapore Tourist Board took a large-scale exhibition around the world to showcase creative talent. The DSC has also started funding a series of community initiatives as part of Singapore Design Week – this year, it launched a “district activation” in the affluent Chip Bee Gardens neighbourhood, where a series of empty properties hosted pop-up exhibitions by emerging brands and creative individuals. The nation’s exhibition at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale had a similar focus – on public housing projects and efforts by community groups and NGOs to shape their environment.
Justin Zhang says that, for a long time, there was “really no space for ground-up initiatives” but believes more are now emerging, pointing to an exhibition hosted during Singapore Design Week at Yishun, an outer-city neighbourhood with a bad reputation, in which local artists, designers and musicians organised a series of events to help change the area’s image, engage local residents and demonstrate that design happens in everyday life. “But a lot of these ground-up initiatives get co‑opted very quickly,” says Zhang. “That means they get replicated on a larger scale. But often they are very specific to the context and sometimes it becomes a bit forced if you try to replicate solutions so quickly. [We seem to be] caught up with this idea: designers are the ones who should come up with solutions and citizens should just receive those solutions, when it could be much more empowering if everyone was a designer to some extent.”