Clever inventions from Singapore

24 Jun 2022

Straits Times, 24 Jun 2022, Clever inventions from Singapore
Ms Rinkoo Bhowmik has been developing her idea for flat-pack homes for pavement dwellers along Chatawallah Gullee or Umbrella Lane, a neglected street in Kolkata's Chinatown precinct, since 2014 and is finally seeing her passion project take shape.

The founder of The Cha Project, an urban design and place-making studio in Singapore, started her company so that she could help provide transient abodes for the homeless while they make a living and save up for formal housing options.

The Kolkata-born Singapore permanent resident collaborated with home-grown designer Jackie Lai and inventor of lightweight pop-up structures Samuel Vedanaigam to come up with a flat-pack home unit called Doonya Shop+Home. It can be set up in about eight hours by four people using just one allen key to secure it.

"What makes Doonya exciting is that it is both a living and livelihood solution for the under-served in society, and is inspired by the iconic Singapore shophouse," says Ms Bhowmik, 57, whose idea includes a single-storey home with a loft, which can also be used as a place for business.

Her idea comes at a time when United Nations Habitat, which operates in more than 90 countries, has reported that about 40 per cent of the world's population will need access to adequate housing by 2030.

A slew of other Singapore-based inventions are also getting ready for the market.

These include a high-tech film developed by the National University of Singapore (NUS). It lowers the perceived temperature inside personal protection gear, keeping health workers cool over long hours.

Another innovation is the Virtual Reality in Agitation Management (VRAM) curriculum developed by the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine for medical and nursing students to manage patients who show potential signs of aggression in the hospital ward, which also creates a safer learning environment for the students.

Mr Isaac Soh, 22, a second-year NUS nursing student, found the VRAM approach helpful, saying it gave him an opportunity to work within certain scenarios "without any fear of making mistakes that could be dangerous to both the patient and myself".

He adds: "It also helps me create a mental image of what I should do in such situations, which we may not always have the chance to experience during our clinical attachments."

There are also recent releases of products for the home from Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), such as advanced air sanitisers and low-glycaemic index (GI) cookies.

Taking an innovation from concept to market is a lengthy process. Ms Bhowmik's Doonya Shop+Home idea took almost a decade to get off the ground.

Mr Pan Yi Cheng runs the only architecture and design group in Singapore that incorporates a laboratory that produces prototypes to help convert an idea into reality. He says the development process takes time.

"Most products need to go through multiple stages of testing and refinement before they can be robust enough to be market-ready, not to mention the myriad complex safety and quality certifications one has to navigate and achieve," says Mr Pan, 42, who is a co-founder of three companies: Type0 Architecture, Produce and Superstructure.

Type0 Architecture, set up in 2018, focuses on the development and transformation of building types and typologies that are relevant and critical to the city.

Superstructure, which started in 2017, aims to be at the forefront of technological production. It is where the group develops computational tools and processes for fabrication and assembly, as well as investigates novel and smart systems for construction.

Produce, which was set up in 2013, is a design studio with a prototyping workshop that delivers customised design solutions from concept to construction.

Since its inception, Produce has bagged several awards, including the World Architectural Festival awards in 2012 and Golden Pin Design Awards in 2018.

Mr Pan stresses that each failure in the course of certification poses a setback to the whole process and may require more follow-up research and development.

"Each of these developmental steps requires funding, from salary and machine-running to maintenance costs and raw materials."

He adds that most funding models for inventions are done through reimbursements, which means that the product developer has to first raise the initial capital to realise a working prototype.

"Funding is applied only when the product is essentially 'market-ready', contrary to the concept of applying for funding to accelerate the development of a product towards market readiness," he says.

Even after an invention is produced, it can be refined and improved with further upgrades.

Ms Bhowmik is working with Dr Christine Yogiaman, Assistant Professor of Architecture and Sustainable Design at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

She says that SUTD joined the Doonya Home+Shop team at the time the first Doonya prototype was made in 2021, when two students from the architecture and sustainable design department used the Doonya housing unit to study social and community spaces.

A team of four students from the faculty is now working in Kolkata's Chinatown to adapt Doonya to the needs of the poor.

Ms Bhowmik says the research by SUTD's students has been an eye-opening experience for the Doonya team, which includes professionals, students, academics and ordinary citizens.

She is also working with Singapore's Ecolabs Centre of Innovation for Energy to add plug-and-play low-tech solutions that include energy, water and sanitation to further refine the Doonya Home+Shop template, in order to create a self-sustaining prototype that can be used even in off-grid areas around the city.

EcoLabs is jointly established by Nanyang Technological University, Enterprise Singapore and the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore as an innovation cluster that supports the energy sector.

After digging in her heels through the years and fending off naysayers, Ms Bhowmik feels it has all been worth it.

"It's been a long, sometimes circuitous but often frustrating, journey, but my team and I keep going because we believe it's a problem that can be solved only when we all come together."