This June, I had the pleasure of attending the Design Futures Council World Design Forum in Singapore with 12 peers and fellow travellers from the international design community. I have lost count of the number of World Design Forum meeings I have attended over the years.They have all been enlightening. Each is filled with new perspectives and gems of information I find inspiring when planning new horizons throughout my year. I eagerly awaited this adventure to roll around on the calendar and Singapore certainly didn’t disappoint.

From our very first informal conversations it was apparent that the growth boom and opportunity for design in Southeast Asia is far from over. While it may not be as unstructured and opportunistic as it was perhaps ten years ago, ample opportunities still abound for individuals and firms willing to invest time on the ground to understand the unique cultures in Southeast Asia.

A presentation by our friends at BCI Economics documented that construction starts are forecast to increase across Southeast Asia. Known collectively, and politically, as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, when combined with China, accounted for 40% of global growth in 2012.

The ASEAN nations feature a combined population of more than 600 million people. ASEAN offers designers considerable opportunities to implement sustainable solutions to balance massive urban density and economic opportunity in the region. The driver for this economic growth seems to be an expansion of the sweet spot in China and India south into the ASEAN nations. It’s not that Chinese and Indian development is flagging significantly. Rather this is a natural expansion of Indo/China development into relatively untapped markets offering new potential for growth. Both multinationals and Chinese and Indian developers are turning to Southeast Asia for investment opportunity.

There also is a second wave of development being driven by corporations in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. These entities, which have experienced success with the growth and development of the ASEAN countries, are now looking to diversify and the markets of India and China are initial targets for investment. Simply put, there is a lot going on in Singapore and other ASEAN nations.

My time in Singapore was enlightening. It is a unique urban and political environment, massively dense, yet modern and engaging. It is an overly easy to fall in love with the city. The people are incredibly welcoming. Diversity is everywhere in culture and language and food - which is fantastically varied and incredibly fresh. It is stylish and modern, yet a historic city with a wonderfully eclectic mix of design styles. Singapore is safe and not the least bit intimidating, as so many big urban centers can at first seem. Be wary, once you visit you may never want to come home.

As always, the Design Futures staff arranged a fantastic tour for attendees to experience the design of Singapore. The tour was wonderful, insightful, and full of sensory impressions. An iconic new Phillipe Stark hotel rises within the new South Beach Development by Foster + Partners. This development is near one of the world’s oldest and most iconic city landmarks, the Colonial Raffles Hotel.

This is typical of the synergies you find all over Singapore. Beside tranquil temples rise modern monuments like PARKROYAL Hotel, a multi-tower hotel development designed by WOHA Architects. Both are very different in scale and purpose yet equally breathtaking and separated by hundreds of years of history. The Marina Bay area is filled with new iconic structures. Moshe Safdie’s towering Marina Bay Sands hotel, the Gardens by the Bay planning by Grant Associates + Gustafson Porter, and an amazing new climate controlled conservatory complex designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects. These may be the city’s most obvious iconic design experiences of the moment, but connecting to the history of the city with visits to the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, a classic example of Hindu culture, or Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown all helped paint a picture of Singapore’s diverse cultural and economic legacy.

In between the emotions of awe and contemplation that filled my days in Singapore, I found myself continually asking a question, “How can I evaluate the impact of design in Singapore?” 5.5 million people live on 5,600 acres in one of the most culturally diverse cities on the planet. It’s also one of the cleanest and safest cities you will ever visit. What can we learn from this city and the insightful lectures and presentations shared with us to inform the designs we do in other locations? Certainly this is a big question and one perhaps from my own point of view that has a myriad of different components. I filtered it down into these digestible points:

  1. Celebrating and capturing diversity of cultures and scale brings a richness and quality to a city.
  2. Dream big - the horizon after all is a moving target.
  3. A sustainable city, in so many definitions, is a SMART city.

I believe it’s crucial for design professionals to travel to events like the World Design Forum in Singapore. To see, smell, touch and hear our world in action. It provides the opportunity to listen to different perspectives from different cultures. To debate our common future. It is inspiring, invigorating, it enhances your thinking and impacts your firm in a positive manner.

Some of my closest professional relationships, and indeed friendships, have come from reaching out and experiencing our profession in a different platform such as those provided by the Design Futures Council. These events are both professionally and personally fulfilling and each reinforces the reality that the world is shrinking. That phrase is uttered by global business leaders, think tanks, and political figures with great regularity and repurposed in the media seemingly daily. But the phrase “the world is shrinking” is a concept I often consider and one I feel that all designers should ponder.

What does that really mean? What is the impact of a connected global culture? Singapore is one of, if not the most culturally diverse cities on the planet. In many ways it provides a snapshot of the design future for cities around the globe. What can we learn from Singapore and begin to apply to other metropolitan areas that are developing as convergence zones for diverse populations? How do we connect these potential global gateways and what opportunities does this present us to create a sustainable future?

These are the questions that are discussed and debated at global events sponsored by the Design Futures Council. I encourage you to participate in a Design Futures Council event overseas to observe and experience this type of design dialogue firsthand. It’s an investment that pays immediate dividends and perhaps next year, at a yet to be undisclosed and closely guarded secret location (come now Mr Cramer, you can tell us) we may tackle this, and perhaps one of your burning questions.

This article by DLR Group Senior Principal Steve McKay, Associate AIA originally appeared in the October issue of Design Inteligence.

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