This article discusses how Singapore is amassing a brain trust to compensate for resources that nature didn’t provide to it. CREATE or “Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise” is one of the most ambitious projects of Singapore’s National Research Foundation. CREATE seeks to unite Singapore’s universities with world-class research institutions to study issues ranging from urban planning to medical treatment. The organization has partnerships with 10 foreign universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Technical University of Munich, Cambridge University, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. There are five research groups in CREATE’s partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The research areas are infectious diseases, environmental sensing and modeling, biosystems and micromechanics, urban mobility, and low-energy electronic systems. The University of California, Berkeley, has two research programs with CREATE. One aims to improve the efficiency of buildings in the tropics, and the other is working on raising the electrical output of photovoltaic devices.
The green is so intense on the campus of the national university of Singapore that it can startle you. Especially when you step out of an air-conditioned cab and smell the humidity in the air.
On reflection, though, that shouldn’t be surprising. The entire city state of Singapore was once a rainforest. There were tigers here in the old days.
The forest and a convenient location for a port were just about the only natural resources enjoyed by this tiny island country that was once part of Malaysia. But so far, Singapore has developed strategies to prosper in spite of its shortage of natural opportunities. This university is one of the key parts of its latest scheme.
The university's roadways wind among buildings, trim lawns, and graceful trees. Every detail seems calculated and carefully tended.
The campus buildings look serious, intended for learning and research. But there is one in particular we came to see—a 17-floor structure capped with photovoltaic panels, the CREATE Tower.
Standing on a terrace outside one of the upper floors of the tower, an observer can peer down on the roofs of three separate buildings, which are referred to as wings. A government agency plans to fill all three wings with research laboratories.
The complex is the home of CREATE, or “Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise.” It is probably the most ambitious project to date of Singapore's National Research Foundation. The agency, which answers directly to the office of the Prime Minister, is one of the primary engines for creating a fundamental resource in the country: an infrastructure—or more appropriately, an industry—based on R&D skills and services.
Chief executive officer of the National Research Foundation, Low Teck Seng, has his office in the CREATE Tower, and sees Singapore's universities as “emerging” research institutions. CREATE is one of the plans in progress to leverage that research capability.
The National Research Foundation oversees programs that offer substantial grants and university positions to Ph.D.s under 40 from anywhere in the world. Another program, Corporate Laboratory @ University, encourages private companies to establish research laboratories at Singapore's universities.
CREATE seeks to unite Singapore's universities with world-class research institutions to study issues ranging from urban planning to medical treatment. The organization has partnerships with 10 foreign universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Technical University of Munich, Cambridge University, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
“We created CREATE,” Low said. As there is with any new and ambitious venture, there is a bit of a gamble about it. But Low aims to make it a key pillar supporting Singapore's goal of establishing itself as the go-to venue for research in southeastern Asia.
The city state, which has a population of 5.5 million, is in the process of spending the equivalent of about $12 billion over five years to make that happen.
Part of the country's research budget passes to sister organizations, the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research, known as A*STAR, and the Ministry of Education.
A*STAR's projects cover a broad range of subjects, as diverse as biomedical sciences, green buildings, and additive manufacturing. The agency's dozens of research partners have included University College London, Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University, Karolinska Institute, and the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory.
Singapore is busy building a brain trust that can bring in research dollars from around the world. One of the natural attractions it will use to compete for clients is its position in the tropics, less than 2 degrees north of the Equator.
According to Low, if a project plans to research diseases commonly found in Asia, such as dengue fever, there would be advantages in doing the work in Singapore rather than in Massachusetts.
He makes a similar argument for studies of urban planning. The differences between cities in the tropics and those in the temperate zones are not only cultural. There are numerous issues to be addressed in the urbanization that is occurring all over the world.
The question of energy use differs between tropical and temperate climates. In the North, for example, heating is a major energy issue in the winter, while cooling is the main issue in the tropics. Singapore could be a natural laboratory for studying solutions for tropical cities, said Low.
A current project of CREATE, in concert with one of its European academic partners, the Technical University of Munich, is to study the implications of introducing the widespread use of electric cars in Singapore.
“It is difficult for a scientist with a post at Cambridge and 2 million pounds a year for research to give it up and come back to Singapore.”
—Low Teck Seng, CEO National Research Foundation
The advantages of doing so include a quieter city, and net fewer emissions. It is easier to control emissions from a central source than from a million tailpipes.
But energy is a big question. The country is powered by imported fossil fuels and has limited wind and no significant hydroelectric resources. In spite of Singapore's equatorial location, its climate is so cloudy that it gets less energy from the sun than Amarillo, Texas. Indeed, technicians told us that the solar panels covering the roof of the CREATE Tower would provide perhaps 1 percent of the building's electricity.
According to Low, research is needed before any decision can be made to electrify cars in Singapore on a large scale.
The partnership, TUM-CREATE, has developed EVA—a taxi designed specifically for conditions in tropical megacities, where heat and humidity pose challenges to electric vehicles.
Taxis make up about 3 percent of the Singapore's vehicle fleet, but account for 15 percent of the distance covered by motor vehicles in the country.
EVA has four seats and a curb weight of 1,500 kg. Maximum power is electronically limited to 60 kW. It has a range of 200 km after 15 minutes of what TUM-CREATE calls “super-fast charging.” Energy storage consists of 216 lithium polymer cells with a capacity of 50 kWh. According to TUM-CREATE, “Developing the electric taxi in Singapore was a feat in itself, given the country's small automobile industry.”
There are several other projects under the CREATE umbrella. One example is a partnership of the local Nanyang Technological University, the National University of Singapore, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to explore tissue engineering as an approach to cardiac restoration.
The University of California, Berkeley, has two research programs with CREATE. One aims to improve the efficiency of buildings in the tropics, and the other is working on raising the electrical output of photovoltaic devices.
There are five research groups in CREATE's partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The research areas are infectious diseases, environmental sensing and modeling, biosystems and micromechanics, urban mobility, and low-energy electronic systems.
Singapore has become one of three major hubs for Rolls-Royce, along with the U.K. and the U.S.
A separate National Research Foundation initiative, known as the Corporate Laboratory @ University program, has reinforced a relationship that already existed between Rolls-Royce and Singapore. The company has established a corporate laboratory that will combine its resources with the research capabilities of Nanyang Technological University.
According to Kurichi Kumar, director of research and technology for Rolls-Royce in Asia, the company has a history with NTU. In 2003 and ’04, representatives of the company and the university researched fuel cells. A two-year project begun in 2008 considered electrical systems, data management, and analytics.
The new Rolls-Royce @ NTU Corporate Lab will operate under a five-year renewable contract. Initial funding is about $59 million, provided jointly by the company, the university, and the National Research Foundation.
The lab is expected to launch more than 30 projects over the next five years focusing on three core research areas—electrical power and control systems, manufacturing and repair technologies, and computational engineering.
Kumar said the work at the university will develop ideas as far as a lab demonstration. The most promising will move inside Rolls-Royce for possible commercial development.
Rolls-Royce has 31 university technical centers around the world. The lab at Nanyang could involve as many as 300 people, a mix of Rolls-Royce employees, university faculty, Ph.D. candidates, and other students and researchers.
Faculty involved include Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of ERI@N, the Energy Research Institute at the university, and Leong Kah Fai, head of the university's division of systems and engineering management.
According to Kumar, Singapore has become one of three major hubs for Rolls-Royce, along with the U.K. and the U.S.
The company began manufacturing its wide-chord fan blades in Singapore, the first time that the secret proprietary process has been conducted outside the U.K. The company is building Trent 900 and 1000 engines there as well.
Singapore is also accelerating the staffing of its universities through a research fellowship program administered by the National Research Foundation. Fellowships are open to Ph.D. degree holders under the age of 40 who are willing to conduct research in Singapore for at least five years. Singapore will fund successful fellowship candidates and will offer them faculty positions at the university of their choice.
The fellowships are open to candidates in a range of fields and of any nationality, and are intended to offer “independence to pursue path-breaking research.”
A National Research Foundation Fellow since 2009, Hilmi Volkan Demir is an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University and directs his own lab, Luminous! Center of Excellence for Semiconductor Lighting and Displays. The lab focuses on digital lighting and display technologies and has received close to $8 million from the NRF Fellowship and other programs in the past five years.
Demir said he finds feedback one of the advantages of his fellowship. In an e-mail, he wrote: “NRF not only provides funding, but also looks at our annual progress, and we receive periodic feedback from NRF. The quality and impact of our work is evaluated by an International Scientific Advisory Board. Various performance indicators are used, which help measure the success and progress of our research work.”
According to Low, a new program in development aims to bring back Singaporean researchers now working in other countries. How many may choose to return, he can’t predict, but believes as few as 10 would be a satisfactory number.
“It is difficult for a scientist with a post at Cambridge and 2 million pounds a year for research to give it up and come back to Singapore,” Low said.
Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who is chairman of the Research, Innovation, and Enterprise Council, summed up the reason for all this investment during a speech to dedicate the CREATE program in November 2012. According to Lee, “R&D is integral to Singapore's development strategy. It gives us an edge against larger and better-resourced countries.”