Why Singapore's Design Scene Is Thriving

Singapore’s government is pulling out all the stops to promote creative entrepreneurship in the city-nation.

Thanks to funds from the DesignSingapore Council, local studio Supermama was able to collaborate with the Japanese porcelain company Kihara to produce a series of ceramics.

Courtesy Supermama

In addition to studios, exhibition spaces, and a shop, Singapore’s National Design Centre is now home to three of the city’s public makerspaces, offering citizens access to digital fabrication machines, power tools, and electronics. Jeffery Ho, the executive director of the DesignSingapore Council, hopes that such prototyping labs will become as ubiquitous as photocopying shops once were. “If this is a successful model . . . we will go into the housing estates,” he says. “That is very relevant for us because we don’t have garages in Singapore.”

The DesignSingapore Council is an agency set up in 2003 when the nation began developing a creative economy. In just over a decade, it has nurtured a thriving design scene—Singapore was designated a UNESCO Creative City for Design last year—and is now set to forge closer ties with technology and entrepreneurship, in line with the government’s plans to turn the city-state into what it refers to as a “smart nation.”

Along with providing access to hardware, DesignSingapore is cofunding prototypes of local designs to help their creators break out of the traditional consultancy model and instead become intellectual-property owners themselves. Industrial designer Edwin Low received backing for a collaboration in which Japanese craftsmen created porcelain and glassware featuring graphics by Singaporean designers. These works are now among the products featured at his retail store Supermama. “It helped to manage my risks. Instead of producing only five items, I can now produce 10, so the appetite for failure is higher,” explains Low. Once a single store selling only goods from Japan in 2011, Supermama now has two stores stocked with high-quality Singapore-inspired designs.

To encourage designers to venture even further, the government has created platforms such as the recent National Designathon. This inaugural design marathon hothoused some 170 designers, students, tech developers, and health-care specialists for 36 hours in the Design Centre in order to dream up solutions to issues facing Singapore’s aging population. The winning design—a radiolike device that enables the elderly to chat over the Internet with those in their vicinity—showcases what the design and tech communities can achieve when they work together.

A rising number of young Singaporeans are seeking to create instead of finding employment.

It was to encourage more such cross-collaborations that the government’s information technology and telecommunications agency opened the makerspace at the National Design Centre. IDA Labs by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) is one of three in the city that offer spaces to make ideas into prototypes and to connect designers and technologists with mentors and investors.

The local tech scene is dominated by software products, says IDA Labs’ director Lee Wan Sie, who points to the lack of hardware solutions that require design expertise. “One of the key challenges is finding people who are keen to build a product,” she says. “That’s why we said the Designathon does not end on Sunday evening after the prizes are given. If there are people interested in taking it forward, we must create an avenue for them.”

For that, IDA’s investment arm, Infocomm Investments, opened a one-stop facility for Singapore’s tech start-ups last year. BASH (Build Amazing Start-ups Here) houses accelerators, incubators, investors, and entrepreneurs on a single level inside Block 79, one of the facilities at the country’s tech start-up hotbed JTC LaunchPad @ one-north. In addition to Block 79, the development is home to the famous Block 71, where an estimated 750 start-ups will be working by 2017, and there are plans for three additional structures to keep up with the growing demand for office space.

A rising number of young Singaporeans are seeking to create instead of finding employment, says David Toh, a manager at Infocomm Investments. “We’ve been intimately involved in building the Singapore start-up ecosystem and have definitely seen a proliferation of these businesses in the last two years, as evidenced by the steady expansion of JTC LaunchPad @ one-north,” he says. “We are always working towards developing the infrastructural support and community to groom and nurture these entrepreneurs.”

If there is one weakness in Singapore’s comprehensive support for design, it is that it might result in future generations becoming overreliant on the state, says Supermama’s Low. “You might get designers who want to create because they receive support,” he says. “They like the sexy, entrepreneurial part, but they might not be willing to sweat for it.”

There are three IDA Labs in Singapore, each one with a slightly different focus. The one at the National Design Centre is a two-story, 4,300-square-foot facility that brings designers together with tech-industry experts and investors.

Courtesy IDA Labs

The center also hosts programs where students can get hands-on with technology (above and below).

Courtesy K+D Studio

Courtesy K+D Studio

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