Written by Gregory Cornelius (2019).

Presented to the Beca Asia leadership Conference at the Carlton Hotel, Singapore, August 2019.

I have huge respect for the discipline of engineering because engineers undertake grand projects that change the world. Some of the greatest scientific innovations have been in the field of engineering. From James Watt and the steam engine powering the industrial revolution; Henry Ford’s interchangeable component parts and moving assembly line; and putting a man on the moon: for all of these things we can thank engineers.

The engineering profession’s on-going contribution to innovation is mission-critical as we find ourselves at this point in history – with the world’s population at 7 billion and on the verge of a climate crisis – and in this geographic place in the world: Asia – where much of the future population growth will occur, so thanks for the opportunity to speak to you today.

Before I talk about Protiotype’s approach to innovation, which I will do, please bare with me while I lay out some macro-environmental information that locates our innovation practice. This information about population growth and cities in Asia provides the rational framework – or problem statements - for decision-making about what we do.

Many of you will be familiar with the late Hans Rosling, a medical doctor and public educator, who did meaningful work with statistics provided by the UN to help us understand the factual state of the world. He came up with this short hand, which he calls ‘the world’s PIN code’, to help us remember where the world’s 7 billion inhabitants currently live: 1, 1, 1, 4.

Rosling's numbers are rounded of course but the short hand means 'roughly one billion people live in the Americas, roughly one billion in Europe, one billion in Africa and four billion in Asia'.

By 2050 the world’s PIN code will be 1, 1, 2, 5.

The Americas and Europe stay much as they are at about one billion people while an extra one billion will be added to both Africa and Asia. The important statistic for us to remember is an extra one billion people will be living in Asia by 2050.

The Urbanocene

Another macro-feature of the world today is urbanization. It’s good to have an historical perspective. 200 years ago 4% of people living in the USA lived in cities. Today 4 out of 5 Americans live in cities.

Today, on average, 55% of the world’s 7 billion people live in cities. By 2050 68% of the world’s 9 billion people will live in cities. That means an extra 2.something billion people living in cities by 2050. Do the math: that translates to 1.5 million people shifting to live in cities every week for the next 30 years. That’s the equivalent of an urban population the size of Singapore created every month for the next 30 years. This is the greatest migration in human history.

Why do people move to live in cities?
Why did I move from Amberley to Ashburton to Christchurch to Auckland then Sydney and Singapore? It’s because cities are the drivers of innovation and economic growth and, the bigger the city the better. How do we know this?

The theoretical physicist Geoffrey West: the former president and distinguished professor of the Santa Fe Institute – is responsible for developing the study of a ‘Science of Cities’ and introducing the term ‘The Urbanocene’. West identified universal laws of scale which apply to organisms, companies and cities. His key finding as it relates to our conversation is that every time you double the size of a city you get an efficiency gain of, an average, about 15%. West’s analyses of data shows that as a function of population size, city infrastructure quantities – such as the length of roads, electrical cables, water pipes, and the number of petrol stations – scales sub-linearly with size, indicating a systematic economy of scale of about 0.85. So, fewer roads and electrical cables are needed per capita the bigger the city. Even more remarkably, West found that socio-economic qualities – such as wages and number of patents produced - also scales with population size but with a super-linear exponent of approximately 1.15.

To put it in simple terms, scaling implies that if a city is twice the size of another city in the same country then its wages, wealth, number of patents, AIDS cases, crime, and educational institutions will all increase by about 15 percent above mere doubling and with similar saving in all of its infrastructure.

Other researchers have found that the bigger the city you are born in the more money you will earn in your lifetime. That’s why people like myself move from smaller towns to big cities. During the twentieth century the drivers of innovation and economic growth were the world’s biggest cities: London, Paris, New York, Tokyo.

In the twenty-first century the drivers of innovation and economic growth will be mega-cites: those above 10 million, 20 million and thirty million: New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai, Lagos and on our doorstep Manila, Jakarta and Bangkok.

It’s interesting to have some historical perspective in order to get a sense of the velocity of change.

In 1822 Bangkok had a population of just 50,000. In 1865 there were no roads in Bangkok. Canals ruled. Today nine million people. Before 2030 Bangkok will be a mega-city.

I remember during the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s when I first started travelling to Bangkok, I could squeeze in six meetings a day: 3 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. If I wanted to take a breakfast meeting and dinner I could achieve 8 meetings in a single day because cars could navigate around the city pretty quickly. However, during the GFC, the auto industry was in turmoil globally and the Korean and Japanese manufacturers planned to shut-up- shop. In order to keep the manufacturing jobs in Thailand the government incentivised Thai people to borrow money to buy new cars. Today there are millions more cars on the same Bangkok roads and I’m lucky to achieve one meeting in the morning and one in the afternoon. The rest of the time I’m caught in traffic.

Likewise Jakarta is known for having some of the worst traffic in the world. But that’s not all that’s wrong with Jakarta – a city that I love by the way having spent a lot of time there working for an Indonesian company.

It’s not hard to find problems with Jakarta. With next to no sewers, a limited network of reliable piped-in water, the residents have been drilling wells illegally and draining the aquifers.The city is sinking faster than any other city on earth. Half of Jakarta now sits below sea level. And challenged by climate change and rising sea levels it’s predicted that by 2050 ninety percent of North Jakarta could be submerged.

Jakarta is riddled with practical problems that have known solutions which engineers could deliver. The technological solutions are the easy part. But like most problems in the world, and most problems in the workplace, technology is the least of our worries. Most problems ultimately resolve to ‘people problems’.

Political change.

In many nations around the world corruption can prevent the delivery of infrastructure projects from happening for the public good. Yet, I’m optimistic about the prospects for Southeast Asia and for Indonesia in particular. I think there is an underlying ambition to change for the better.

Jakarta opened its first MRT system earlier this year. A symbolic indication that traction is coming from the hundreds of millions of US dollars President Jokowi’s government is investing in infrastructure projects.

Indonesia is a young democracy – just 20 years old – and still finding its feet. It’s a country that could benefit from external advisers in implementing transparency, proper process and proper governance. And the people of New Zealand and Singapore, both positioned at the top of transparency indexes, are well placed to advise them. But many Australasians have a blind-spot for Indonesia, know precious little about it. According to the ABC, 30% of Australians embarrassingly think Bali is an independent country.

One interesting characteristic of Indonesia is that it’s a mobile-first country. Citizens bypassed ownership of desktop computers and went direct to mobile. Of the 150 million internet users in Indonesia, 95% are mobile. It’s possible the same technological leapfrog could happen again in other areas of development, and Indonesia could play catch-up. One such opportunity could be the proposed new capital city of Indonesia which will allegedly be built in Kalimantan. It will be a purpose-built capital city like Washington D.C, Brasilia and Canberra.

And Indonesia’s new capital city isn’t the only new city in the region. China promises to build 300 new cities of 1 million population over the next 20 years. India, promises anywhere from 20 to 100 new cities depending on where you get your information from, and a $500B project is underway in Saudi Arabia. Neom, is a smart mega-city. Neom will be a public listed stock partly financed by $300 billion from the IPO of Saudi Aramco. When we think about doing business in the twenty-first century though, and especially in Asia and Southeast Asia, we should think about cities.

Solid State City

Cities are the hubs of innovation and the engines of wealth creation. That’s why they are magnets for the greatest migration in human history; but is the shape of the cities we have inherited right for the future? How will our Asian cities deal with their swelling populations and climate change?

That’s a question Protiotype stakeholder David Ivory posed in his 2016 paper Solid State City. David’s an Architect, reside in HK and looking for a way out. He tells us cities have been built as a response to the technologies of the time. Thanks to elevators we can utilise skyscrapers. And thanks to cost-effective concrete we have cities with terrible carbon footprints.

Thanks to the motor car we have cities criss-crossed with roads. Today, some 12 percent of Singapore’s landmass is committed to roads. And thanks to vehicle emissions we have problems with air pollution.

Our city infrastructure and buildings are robust too. Prone to catastrophic failure in the event of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami and floods.

In Asia, like New Zealand, natural disasters are a fact of life. Earthquakes, tsunami and also human made disasters: political unrest like we are seeing in Hong Kong now, and war. Doing business in Asia is not without risk. Anyway, David asks how our cities got to be like this, he defines some of the things wrong with cities generally and then hands the problems over to the group to solve. Asking open-ended questions is part of our innovation process.

We started asking these open questions after the first Protiotype project back in 2014. This exhibition, which I curated for the Sydney Design festival was an investigation of how technology has impacted the design process. It was hosted at the Jean-Nouvel-designed Fraser's-Property-developed Central Park in Sydney's Chinatown. The exhibition was sponsored by Twitter and attended by more than 3000 people.

We put all kinds of emerging technology in to the exhibition space: QR, NFC, BLE – this stimulated conversations about smart spaces. At the conclusion of that project, back in Singapore, we started having meet ups to continue the discussions. Our community grew from those discussions.

The first question we asked – what is a smart space - what is an Intelligent Interior? After much debate we resolved to focus on the workplace of the future. This topic has had outcomes such as our ‘Connected workplace of the (near) future’ project with Singapore Polytech and influenced smart office projects delivered by some of Protiotype’s partner companies; and it has become a series of annual events called ‘Augmented Spaces’ with our agency partner Publicis Sapient.

Questions about emerging technology's control of intelligent interiors lead us to small scale projects we could build. The conversation logically progressed to questions about technology to control entire buildings – smart sustainable buildings - and then to a discussion of precincts and cities.

I should mention that Protiotype is not a business entity. It’s more like a special interest group. It’s a loosely knit organisation of people and companies who share common interests. We have a core leadership group but our activities are confined to meet ups, make-a-thons, workshops – UX workshops and the like - exhibitions, pop up events – and its been a virtual organisation without a physical home except where we have helped Singapore Poly's School of Architecture and Built Environment to build a Smart Facilities Management Lab. This gave us a venue for regular events and a smart sustainable building showcase where we integrated our partner companies products and services to create a prototype smart building.

We built an AR application for training students how to operate fire sprinkler systems. We installed Bosch IoT sensors to measure environmental conditions; sensors and software from an algorithmic lighting control start-up, Lumani, which was also integrated with and control the air con system in the building; and smart metering from local start-up Ampotech so we could understand the energy consumption of the building.

$50,000 worth of AV equipment was installed in the Lab by our partner SONY: seen here integrated with a computer vision remote control application from a Indonesian start-up Visimote. The most recent project installed is facial recognition access control; which is currently being tested on a class of Facilities Management students to audit their attendance.

Protiotype champions multi-disciplinary perspectives. As a Design Science community almost half our stakeholders are designers: web designers, UX designers, graphic designers, Architects, urban planners and the other half ‘scientists’, software engineers, computer scientists, data scientists, and also entrepreneurs, writers, and management consultants. Because...

Innovation is a team sport.

An important value of Protiotype is that we are an inclusive organisation. Having wide range of people involved is important to us.

This is not just something I’m saying because it sounds like the right thing to say. Teams that allow difference avoid group-think. They solve problems faster by analogical thinking. It’s been proven by psychologists that if you put together a group of people with the same expertise they will take longer to solve a problem in comparison to a group of people with a range of expertise. And the reason for this is analogical thinking.

Groups with a wide variety of expertise are faster at identifying analogies in one field of knowledge and applying it to another – to break through and solve a problem. If you don’t have a range of experience in your team sometimes you don’t find the solution at all.

For Protiotype it’s important to have an element of discovery. Sometimes we aren’t 100% sure about the business case, or the problem to be solved. Protiotype originally set itself up to create the technology sand box opportunity for curious individuals and companies to explore these topics together (for fun). This is the kind of discovery and learning that customers typically won’t pay for.

To make our approach a little clearer let me ground it in one of our current projects. Because we investigate emerging technologies; and we think about cities and how to make living in them better, so the potential to create new products and services on top of 5G is on our minds at the moment.

We are preparing, and actually pushing, a generative design project with an American software company and Singaporean Telco. This is typical of the unconventional way we approach innovation. Often we are the ones proposing the projects. The 5G problem statement concerns billions of dollars being invested in 5G infrastructure globally while the Return On Investment is unclear. What new services will 5G enable?

It turns out 5G radio antennas need to be installed in urban environments in greater density than earlier generations of telco infrastructure and, have suffered bad-press from a campaign of mis-information which has citizens in some countries protesting about potential cancer-causing- radiation. And 5G radio antennas are ugly. One solution has been to camouflage the antennas as palm trees.

We think there is an opportunity for a better design solution here and, a speculative investigation of potential new business models. It’s time to speculate to innovate. We have begun working on a re-design of the 5G radio antenna housing, using generative design to generate different design options.

Generative design has traditionally meant algorithms optimising for weight and strength. A well known example being this component aircraft wall which was designed stronger and lighter by Autodesk’s algorithms. So far generative design has resulted in a lot of same-same solutions which all seem to share a unifying biomorphic aesthetic which I don’t like so we are proposing something different. This project serves a function to help us understand how to use a new tool well in advance of applying it to a mission critical client project.

We want the housing to double-up as an Augmented Reality marker so that citizens can point their phones, or smart glasses, at the housing to access 5G enabled AR media and, an access an architecture of third-party digital services.

When it comes to the design of markers – which are essentially bar codes - humans come up with black and white boxes. Let’s see what the algorithms come up with once we programme the necessary parameters in Python and run that through Project Refinery, Autodesk’s generative design betaware.

Once we have the designs we’ll ask our human committee to decide which ones we should build as prototypes, and then we’ll install one or two of them at the Telco's 5G Garage for testing. Yes. Testing. We usually have an hypothesis to test.

We call ourselves a design science community. That’s slightly different to design thinking. Our innovation projects are de-facto science experiments. But we don’t test with the same rigour you might find in hard research. It’s not real science. We loosen the hand-break so we can move forward more quickly.

Actually real innovation is getting harder to achieve. We think we live in a time of unprecendented change, but that’s possibly just a perception bought about a steady of march of smart phone applications. The time taken between major scientific breakthroughs is actually growing longer as evidenced by the average age of Nobel prize winners getting older. But there is one field where the scientific breakthroughs are profound world-changing and new to the 21C. I think it’s worth talking briefly about one of these important fields of scientific breakthrough, because I think the process unfolding in that field is hugely interesting and holds clues for solving problems in other fields of work. Knowing about this, we’ll be better equipped for analogical thinking when the time comes. The field I want to talk about is synthetic biology.

Synthetic Biology

This guy here, J Craig Venter, was the person who lead the project to decode and publish the first human genome sequence in 2007. It was Craig Venter’s genome that was decoded.

Another well-known advancement in the field of genomics is CrispR and Cas9 - which together create genetic scissors. We’ve gone from blunt genetic instruments – think of splicing two varieties of apple together on a tree to create a hybrid variety - to cutting and pasting sequences of human DNA. Exactly. That’s pretty amazing. And while we are getting our heads around the potential of that, synthetic biology has leaped forward again.

In the wild cells run DNA sequences to create the building blocks of life. In the same way that all code-we-write in our computers resolves to binary - zeros and ones - DNA can now be written as CTAG, as a line of code, and passed in to cells to run. Science fiction? Science fact.

Human written genetic code offers potential solutions for many of the world’s problems including renewable energy – and hundreds of millions has been invested in Craig Venter’s genetic biofuel company - but it also offers the potential to grow building blocks for the built environment. At the edges of Architecture and materials science academic researchers are already experimenting with new biological materials for the built environment.

There is talk of growing buildings from living materials which should, in theory, be better for the natural environment. Researchers have the ability to additively print wood molecules, and utilise mycelium, a yeast which grows on contact with water – set in concrete - when the concrete cracks, water leaks in and activates the mycelium which grows and expands to fill the cracks thus protecting the internal steel structure from rusting and extending the life of concrete buildings.

At Protiotype we discuss emergent technologies – we share information with one another about these things (primarily through active WhatsApp groups and at events) and we try to imagine what might come of these technologies, how they might work together with products and services that are already in-market, and we prototype those building blocks of future systems to see what we can do with them.

Part of what we do is practical, hands-on making things. Part of what we do is theoretical.

In 2017 I gave a paper to A*Star at a workshop about Mixed Reality and Human Computer Interaction. I spoke about another of Protiotype’s conceptual ideas: an augmented reality operating system for the physical world. That’s where we break free of the tyranny of smart phones, of flat screen computing, to an immersive three dimensional computer interface mapped to the physical world. A practical example of this being AR BIM visualisations at 100% scale on construction sites.

I also described an autonomous system of software and hardware machinery to control the physical assets of the built environment, to achieve humanities collective goals – the desired future state - whatever-that-might-be. I spoke about this system as a process of generative design and robotic construction machinery maintained by engineers to build a computational architecture.

I felt pretty good about myself proposing this notion of an autonomous generative design and robotic construction machinery, but the A*Star researchers seemed non-plussed about it. I liked the idea that IoT data, computer science, would optimise the operation of city services by actuating the physical world. And this system would learn and ultimately run itself. I thought it was interesting because it opens up the potential for disruptive new business models – especially if you owned the system infrastructure - selling service levels agreements to institutions, companies and individual citizens.

Thanks to Bruce’s invitation to speak to you today I’ve had reason to reflect back on that crazy paper and push the boundaries of the concept a little further based on what’s transpired over the last couple of years.

First, the desired future state is more than hardware and software – I think now that the theoretical city apparatus is also biological. Somehow the robotic construction machinery will extend beyond an assembly line of prefabricated component pieces – a la Henry Ford - to additive manufacturing, and writing DNA in to cells to create the building blocks of a sustainable built environment.

Secondly, I think it’s clear that the goal which I had left open – what do we optimise our algorithms towards? - is definitely sustainability. While your customers probably don’t have sustainability at the top of their requirements list today, I think it’s fair to say there is a growing global momentum in that direction.

As our macro-situations play out – a billion extra people in Asia, 1.5M people moving in to cities every week, mega-cities - it’s clear the apparatus we have in place today for managing our cities, energy production, traffic management, waste management, water management and so on, will come under increasing pressure.

The more we explore answers to sustainability problems in our innovation practice now, the better equipped we’ll be to answer our customers questions when they start to ask them, which inevitably they all will.

Finally, I think the desired future state has to be future proof.

By future proof I mean the built environment needs to be flexible enough to adapt and accommodate new technological advances as they arrive. We’ll want to upgrade even our new cities with improved technologies. Modularity ought to be a feature of the design so that our autonomous robotic building maintenance machinery can cut and paste new technology in to place – like genetic scissors.

There is a precedent in Architecture: Metabolism. A post-war Japanese architectural movement that fused ideas about architectural megastructures and organic biological growth. A famous example is the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. Built in the 1970s the capsules were supposed to be individually upgraded over time such that the building was entirely renewed every 25 years. The upgrades never happened and the Tower is now the subject of a struggle between heritage groups and developers.

Anyway, the system Protiotype is proposing isn’t entirely new, nor is it a crazy idea. In fact it’s similar to the way software is developed. In an agile development process we build functional software quickly and then iterate to improve it as we work towards a goal. I think management of the built environment, which has traditionally been a waterfall-like project management process ought to find a way to become more agile, and more resilient, and more like software.

I know we upgrade our buildings and cities now, of course we do, but the process is akin to a blunt instrument splicing apple varieties together and not enough like the precise systematic genetic scissors or computational synthetic biology.

So that’s our project, to conceptualise and to prototype towards the world’s desired future state. But we are only part-timers. We play a tiny part. Engineers on-the-other-hand are responsible for delivering grand projects. Engineers change the world. That’s why it gives me great pleasure to be here with you all today in Singapore – a city which is a magnet of innovation and a driver of economic growth - to speak to a group of people in the right place: Asia, at the right time: now.

Thank you.

Gregory Cornelius (2019)


FACTFULNESS, Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Hans Rosling, (2018)

EXACTLY, How Precision Engineers Changed the Modern World. Simon Winchester, (2018)

TEAM OF TEAMS, New Rules of Engagement For a Complex World. General Stanley McChrystal (2015).

SCALE, The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies. Geoffrey West, (2017)

LIFE AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT, From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life. J Craig Venter,(2013)

Solid State City. David Ivory, (Protiotype, 2016)