Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: Singapore

Night thoughts in Singapore

I made it to Singapore in one piece, with all my stuff– I love Singapore Airlines, I truly do– and am now in my dad’s apartment. After 20 hours flying, I cannot begin to describe the psychic dislocation that comes from being in a gated community called the Caribbean that is popular with expat Australians and Americans.

On the other hand, I hear that the Olympic-sized pool and weight rooms are world class, and the steam bath is not to be missed. So I plan to stretch and lift and cardio all the food that the flight attendants kept trying to serve me. I said no to a lot, but the problem is, when you’re being offered things like tuna sashimi, chilean sea bass, and lamb satay, it’s easy to rationalize having just one. And maybe just another one.

I’m not used to flying business class

As I mentioned, I got a business class ticket for this trip. Singapore Air’s economy service is pretty notoriously good, and the business class is outrageous. This is my seat (and yes, I did have to use Photo Stitch to capture the whole thing):

My seat on SG 0015

However, much as I appreciate the luxury, I find myself a bit disquieted. The crew seems much-better mannered, and more knowledgeable about etiquette, than me. Whenever they serve something, they rearrange my tray, put things back in their place, and generally return everything to the Approved Ground State.

As a result, I approach every interaction with them with a little anxiety. Will I live up to the steward’s expectations? Will I put the dinner roll on the wrong plate?

Hello from Incheon Airport

Stopping in Incheon to refuel and change crews. I’m hanging out in the Asiana lounge, which is very nice. Naturally I was drawn to the “library.”

The wonderful Asiana lounge
via flickr

The hilarious thing about it is that the entire library consists of these three books:

Asiana lounge library
via flickr

Not that I’m complaining. I mean, the logic of repeatable elements and mass production is adopted in lots of good interior design, why not book titles?

Back on to the plane in a few minutes, thence to Singapore!

On my way to Asia

I’m in the Singapore Air lounge at SFO, on my way to Singapore and Malaysia. I’m spending a day with my dad and stepmother in Singapore (after 40 years as a professor in the US, Pop decided it was time for a new career challenge, and so took a gig in Asia), then on to Malaysia, where I’ll speak at a futures conference. I wrote an article [pdf] about the futures scene in Malaysia a year ago (it’s one of the most forward-looking countries in the world), and some of what I talked about is starting to brew. It’ll be interesting to see it first-hand.

This is an insane trip. My wife had to get up at 4:30 for the San Francisco Marathon, and the kids and I ran the 5K this morning, so we all bundled into the car before dawn, and fought out way to the Embarcadero. Miraculously I found street parking.


The kids enjoyed the 5k, though I think for them it’s not the running that they’ll remember but the number and variety of snacks, samples, juices, and smoothies that they were able to try at the end. When you’re 8 pain is temporary, but the memory of getting a Jamba Juice from a guy in a banana suit is forever.


Then it was back in the minivan, across town to Golden Gate Park, and to the finish line for the half marathon. We got there a minute after she finished, got some food, then headed back to the car and to SFO. Dropped me off, into the loving embrace of Singapore Air.

There are times when you’re made very aware of just how much your family makes your life possible. Exactly two months ago I was in London and Cambridge; now I’m headed to the other side of the world. Most spouses who have to deal with such schedules or who find themselves married to travel addicts take to drink. Next time, she comes with me. The kids have also adjusted well to having a parent away (heaven knows they’ve had plenty of experience), but I think it’s time to take it to the next level. They can find us on Facebook if they need instructions about how to use the stove.

I’ll be in Malaysia until Friday, then I fly back here, and the next day turn around and head for another gig in the Rockies. When it rains it pours.

Naturally I’ve got the mobile version of my life set up. And now that I have a 500 gb hard drive, I can carry pretty much my entire movie collection with me. Not like I need the distraction. It’s just nice to have. I think many travelers have one indulgence of this sort: my dad carries five times as many ties as he could possibly need, other people carry books, yet others pack extra clothes.

In many ways I love Singapore Air, but the one complaint I have about them is the absence of common space: on SAS or United you can get up and stand, which is essential for my sanity; Singapore doesn’t really have any public space, and they’re happiest if you’re just confined to your seat the whole 20 hours. This time, my patrons have put me in business class, which means I essentially have my own cabin. My hope is I can do some calisthenics in it without disturbing other passengers. Seriously.

Of course, as always, the main attraction for this kind of trip is the chance to get some serious thinking and writing done. I need to work more on my talk, but I’m also going to try to finish “Paper Spaces 2: Revenge of the Fallen” before I return home. I’ve really got all the material I need to get it done, and I can only re-watch Mission Impossible 3 so many times in one 24-hour period.

[To the tune of Pat Metheny, “Holding Us,” from the album A Map Of The World (a 3-star song, imo).]

Giant babies

This is the kind of thing lifeblogging and Flickr make possible: comparative studies of giant babies!

changi airport, singapore, 2008, via flickr

times square, new york, 2009, via flickr

Phase Z.Ro

As I was walking down the hill from Biopolis, I saw a little development between the Ministry of Education and the subway stop: several yellow buildings that announced themselves as the Phase Z.Ro, a “technopreneur park.”

via flickr

If Biopolis seemed familiar, an attempt to outdo Western scientific facilities on their own terms, Z.Ro (get it?) struck me as something potentially quite different.

For one thing, the place makes your average Silicon Valley tilt-up look like Versailles. Each three two-story building is made of prefabricated panels, making them look like cargo containers that have been painted yellow, had windows and doors punched in them, and wired with AC and Cat-6 cable.

cargo container chic, via flickr

It’s easy to dismiss such a modest place, but maybe this is the social equivalent of a disruptive innovation. Maybe the real future of innovation isn’t in glittering science cities like Biopolis, but in grittier places like this?

in the shadow of biopolis (that’s helios in the background), via flickr

Biopolis and the new urban science

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.)

© 2019 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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