The MIT Senseable City Lab investigates how digital technologies are changing the way people live and their implications at the urban scale. Among their partners is the city of Singapore. Oliver Senn, a young ETH alumnus, is leading a small team in the South-East Asian city-state. Adjacent to his home leave to native Switzerland, we met him at the Deutsche Museum, the world's largest museum of technology and science. This interview happened right after our journey from the Gutenberg revolution to the centre for new technologies.
Lukas: Singapore – what are the three main arguments for this choice of location?
Oliver: As a first requirement, there is funding for the project. Also, we need a lot of data about the city for our projects. In the case of Singapore, we are able to access these data streams. Maybe the third point is that Singapore is a very small, self-contained island. It’s almost like a little lab in itself.
Regarding the second point, how are privacy issues in conflict with your research?
There are two things that are absolutely crucial. All data is, of course, anonimised! For some of it, this doesn’t go far enough and it is still possible to track people. We cannot have the illusion that anonimisation is sufficient. Therefore, the second point is crucial. By nature, the research we do is never about individuals. We are interested in aggregate behaviour. In the end, our analysis aims to improve systems in the city.
Is the radical and bold mind-set of city-design in Singapore particularly supportive to this approach?
Yes, absolutely. It is a city-state with a single government level that does all the planning of the island. We have contact with various agencies from the urban redevelopment agency, which basically does the masterplanning, down to the transport authority. There is very close collaboration and their interest in our data analysis is remarkable.
Is Singapore the perfect gateway to Asia?
For instance, the public transport in Singapore is world-class. If you travel 2 hours by plane to Jakarta, the situation is totally different. Travelling 30 km to the airport can take you three hours. There the problems are much larger in a sense. We increasingly look to also do projects with cities like that. Not just the high-tech cities where everything is in place.
The top-down governance of the city, which enables your research, seems very practical but does it reflect how other cities are: human, informal, less orchestrated? Is there any informality left in Singapore?
I think there is a lot left, still. But it is true, too, that the city is run very top-down. With our current project LIVE Singapore, we aim to build a platform to give all that real-time data back to the citizens. By this, we provide an interface where anyone can just take that data to do whatever they want.