Speech by Mr Peter Ho, Senior Advisor, Centre for Strategic Futures

08 Sep 2018

Chancellor, Singapore University of Technology & Design, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam
Members, SUTD Board of Trustees
President, SUTD, Prof Chong Tow Chong
Graduates and family members
Distinguished guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

I congratulate all graduates, and your family and friends, who have supported you over the years, especially through your stint in university.

Today marks the end of one phase of your life, and the start of another.  In a sense, you have spent your whole life preparing for this moment.  

You are now about to enter an exciting world.  It is a world of change.  But it is not garden-variety change.  Instead it is change that is exciting because it has the feel and thrill – or maybe the lurch – of an acceleration.

Tom Friedman, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, refers to the “simultaneous accelerations in technology, globalization, and climate change all interacting with one another.”

Indeed, the period after the Second World War is sometimes referred to as the “Great Acceleration”.  From then up to the present, the pace and scale of human activity has been increasing significantly, if not exponentially.  We see it in technology, and in society as a whole.  It is even impacting on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, and arguably the cause of climate change. 

In the Great Acceleration, a potent mix of booming population growth, surging urbanisation, and expanding economic activity, are leading to growing demand for water, food and energy.  In tandem, the production of greenhouse gases is increasing, surface temperatures are rising, and much more.  The implications are enormous, and not just for climate change and the environment.  

New knowledge is also being generated, and at a breath-taking pace.  As a result, what you learn in university needs to be constantly updated.  But I am not here to make the argument for life-long learning, which is self-evident.

Instead, I am making the observation that in the Great Acceleration, we have less and less time to adjust to these changes because they are occurring so fast.  Our decision and planning cycles are getting shorter and shorter.  And as a result, the propensity for unintended consequences also increases.

Just look at the advent of the internet in the 1980s.  Combined with mobile telephony, it soon led to smart phones.  The result is the digital eco-system that we know today, and upon which we depend.

The social media is now a flagship of this digital world and profoundly shapes our lives today. Social media like Facebook and Twitter, which are today an integral part of modern living, were designed with the best of intentions in order to build social communities.  But the very networks that they create are now also being used to split communities, and exploited for pernicious influence, the unintended consequences of rapid – and perhaps unmanageable – advances in technology and parallel changes in society.

Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, who has made the case that we are now in a Fourth Industrial Revolution – the digital revolution – wrote that: “When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth … is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.” 

Klaus Schwab is making an important observation about how interconnected the world is today.  This is a fundamental insight.  Of course, it is nothing new.  Not that long ago, Lenin wrote, “Everything is connected with everything else”.  He might even have been aware that the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, said much the same thing some one and a half thousand years earlier, that “everything is connected and everything relates to each other”.  But what has changed is that globalisation is increasing interconnectivity, as is the internet and urbanisation, all phenomena of the Great Acceleration.

A consequence of this interconnectivity is the “butterfly effect”.  In a somewhat polemical way, it postulates that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas.  It is a vivid way of describing how small changes or disturbances can have disproportionate effects in complex interconnected systems.  

Of course, a butterfly fluttering its wings in some remote corner of the world does not really cause storms – at least I do not think so.  But changes in the weather – climate change – is certainly the cumulative effect of many linked activities and actions around the world – carbon emissions, air pollution, and the like –interacting in complex ways with global weather systems.  

For a very long time, efforts to understand such complexities relied on an approach called reductionism – that what is complex can be reduced to simpler subsets that are easier to analyse or model, and that when re-aggregated will produce results that approximate the real world.  

Reductionism has been central to the revolution in scientific thinking.  That is why there are academic silos.  And that is why biology developed into microbiology, and physics into quantum physics.

Despite the enormous importance of this approach, and its incalculable contributions to human progress, many of the big and wicked problems of the modern world cannot be studied in silos – such as climate change.  Indeed, outside the realm of science, reductionism has not been as effective in tackling complex problems in such areas as ecology and economics. 

Instead, people with different expertise and knowledge have to work together to solve such big challenges of today, in society, in the economy, in urbanisation, and in the environment.

So, engineers do not just solve “engineering” problems.  They have to look at how these problems connect to other problems.  Very often, they have to look at the larger system, and work with others to address even social and behavioural aspects of these problems.  

For example, architects can design houses.  But they must work with the M&E engineers to ensure that the water and power supply are properly integrated into the design.  Civil engineers are brought in to make sure that the structures are strong enough.  This is easy enough to understand.

But larger and more complex systems – for example, towns or cities –these will need more than just architects and engineers.  Other needs have to be addressed.  For example, a transport system must be developed.  And this is not just an engineering problem.

We are familiar with the problem of overcrowding on the MRT during morning peak hours.  The engineering solution might be to build more trains and increase the frequency of the trains.  But this will not only push up the cost, but the MRT lines may also not have the capacity to cope with the increase.

So, the engineering solution must be combined with non-engineering approaches.  One such approach would be to persuade commuters to take the MRT during off-peak hours.  But this requires skill-sets and knowledge that the engineers do not have.  Instead, sociologists and behavioural economists will be needed to provide non-engineering insights and solutions to complement those produced by the engineers.  The question is whether the engineers have the instinct and inclination to work with others from disciplines that may be totally outside the engineering domain.

Such interdisciplinary collaboration does not come naturally, in part because of the deeply-rooted academic culture that developed over centuries of reductionism.  Academic silos reflect this culture.

Moreover, deriving insights and producing solutions from such interdisciplinary collaboration is not something that is easily learnt, because it is tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge stands in contrast to explicit knowledge, which is formalised and codified.  Explicit knowledge is written in books, and we can also find it in notes and databases.  In school and at university, explicit knowledge is transmitted in the classroom through textbooks and lectures, and even through self-learning or online courses.  

Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, has to be acquired in other ways.  This is because it is embedded in complex systems and situations, in which technologies interact with roles, emotions, and behaviours, in dynamic and unpredictable ways that are almost impossible to codify.  

Often, tacit knowledge can only be acquired through “learning by doing”.  It is lived reality and experience that build tacit knowledge. 

In SUTD, it does not matter whether you are from an engineering pillar, or from the architecture pillar.  You work with students from other pillars such as Humanities and the Social Sciences to solve real world problems.

In the lived experience of such interdisciplinary problem-solving, you acquire the tacit knowledge of tackling complex problems holistically.  In other words, you learn to work across academic silos.  This cannot be taught in the classroom.  

This approach is an acknowledgement that to prepare students for the real world of accelerating change and of enormous complexity, a shift away from the deep instinct in academia to focus on a single discipline is required.  Instead, the balance must shift towards interdisciplinary collaboration.  

I suspect that the older universities which have been organised in vertical silos for decades if not for centuries will reach the inevitable conclusion that they must make the shift.  But they will find it harder, because they are steeped in tradition.  After all, there is a Nobel Prize for chemistry, physics, economics and medicine, but none that recognises interdisciplinary collaboration – yet.  

As a young university, unburdened by the weight of tradition, SUTD is better able to systematically bridge technology and creativity, science and art.  Indeed, I see SUTD at the vanguard of a major development in how universities should be organised in future.  

You, as graduates of SUTD, will benefit from this bold venture.  You are now better armed against unintended consequences, and better prepared for the inevitable disruptions created by rapid change.  The tacit knowledge that you have gained from the experience of interdisciplinary learning and collaboration will stand you in good stead in the world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Great Acceleration.

Congratulations once again, and best wishes for the future.  You have every reason to feel excited, optimistic and confident.