I spent last week in Singapore, speaking at a conference on RFID in Asia, and visiting with various futures groups in the Singaporean government. But the thing I was really looking forward to doing in my free time was not shopping (though the shopping is very good), nor the food (which was excellent): rather, it was the chance to see Biopolis.


biopolis sky bridge, via flickr

Biopolis is one of the cornerstones in the Singaporean government’s effort to turn the city-state into a regional (indeed, global) center for biotech research. Novartis and SKB already occupy parts of two buildings; five others are mainly occupied by labs run by A*Star; and two more are under construction. Over the long run, they want to build more local talent in the basic sciences underlying biotech, and support the development of a native biotech companies.


map of biopolis, via flickr

Not only is it architecturally very exciting– the best contemporary Singaporean architecture is all post-Rem Koolhaus and Zaha Hadid swooping lines and glass, Biopolis also beautifully exemplifies a couple trends in the design of spaces for science that Anthony Townsend and I wrote about in the 2006 Ten Year Forecast (warning: it’s a huge PDF– 24MB).

Thirty years ago, if you were going to build a Biopolis, you probably would have chosen a tract of land on the edge of a city, or in some bucolic setting. Land was cheaper out there, and zoning laws were often more negotiable. You’d give your researchers quiet, so they could think seriously; they’d also be easier to protect from industrial spies.

Today, all of those assumptions have been rethought. In many cases, an urban setting is more attractive. For one thing, cities are more aggressive about pursuing R&D facilities, often as cornerstones of urban redevelopment projects. Biopolis is a 5-minute walk to the Ministry of Education (important because of the need to bring more of a biological emphasis in the school curriculum), and short bus rides to National University of Singapore.



via flickr

Companies are also less likely to assume that research will somehow find its way into new products; today’s spaces mix research, product development, and other functions, with the aim of making research more applications-minded, and getting new discoveries to market more quickly. There’s also an assumption that mixing together different functional lines, or researchers in related areas, will encourage more intellectual cross-pollination.



biopolis sky bridge, via flickr

Cities are also attractive for quality of life reasons: today’s young, hip researcher doesn’t want to be in the middle of nowhere, but in a Richard Florida-certified creative zone.

In the center of Biopolis is a pedestrian axis imaginatively named “Epicentre.” (All the buildings have cool-sounding, somewhat scientific-yet-ancient, names: Nanos, Chronos, Centros, Genome, Proteos, Matrix, Helios. At first I thought the names were kind of a stretch– the sorts of names you’d assign to extras in a movie that was an evil combination of Blade Runner and 300— but they’re not so bad.) It’s got several very nice restaurants, a food court (a ubiquitous feature of urban life in Singapore), a cafe, dry cleaners, bank, and hair stylist. (There’s also child care on-site, but it’s elsewhere.)

water sculpture, epicentre, via flickr

Partly this is an attempt to create a little urban microcosm, and make it easy for people to never leave, but it’s also an effort to create a public space where people from different labs can meet up.



water sculpture, epicentre, via flickr

The Bioinformatics Institute is another central meeting-place, as a 2003 Nature article remarked:

Walkways join the… A*Star institutes to one that is central — both literally and figuratively — to them all, the BII, which will provide informatics support to all of the surrounding institutes. Emphasizing the BII’s importance, its building also houses the Biopolis cafeteria and lecture halls. “Everyone has to come to the BII for the seminars and the meals,” says Gunaretnam Rajagopal, the institute’s acting executive director.



via flickr

Finally, new science spaces take advantage of the city as an experimental subject. Lots of computer science and wireless researchers are locating in downtowns, or urban redevelopments, because they want to be able to prototype new technologies in urban environments, get easy access to beta-testers, or watch how people use and interact with technologies.

The relationship between Biopolis and Singapore is a little different, but arguably more profound. Biopolis is both a microcosm– a city within the city– and a space to develop the skills that Singapore sees as important for its future economic growth. The design of Biopolis is intended to attract and inspire world-class scientists; those scientists and facilities will foster the growth of a national biotech community; and that community will help drive the next phase of Singapore’s economic growth. Urban space, innovation, and the future all play off each other: the science city becomes the template for the science-driven city of the future.

(Many more pictures are available on Flickr.)