When Shirin binte Rafie and Liz Liu were stuck with packets of mouldy blueberries, they decided to mash and strain them to create their first bottle of natural ink. This kitchen experiment kick-started the duo’s research to extract colour pigments found across Singapore’s repositories of nature.
They found that Singapore has a significant amount of horticultural waste generated from roadside tree maintenance and local production practices. In addition, they felt that the environmental impact of store-bought synthetic paint is “underdiscussed” as many are non-biodegradable. For instance, the micro plastics from petroleum-based acrylic paint could enter waterways and cause environmental pollution.
Hence, they used a traditional technique called lake pigmentation to extract the dye from kitchen scraps, as well as material from forests, community gardens and industrial waste yards before it gets burnt for energy production. This was the journey of how they co-founded Wild Dot, a botanical ink making studio.
“We want to get more people to join in the movement of creating colours and art with natural material around us in a sustainable manner. It is a way of observing and looking at available material and thinking of how we can use what we already have, rather than buying more,” said the duo.
In Singapore, there has been a growing social consciousness to design for good. Wild Dot’s Upcycled Tree Project was among the eight projects selected for DesignSingapore Council’s third open call, under its Good Design Research (GDR) initiative.
Last December, the organisation raised its funding support to up to $50,000 – up from $35,000 when the GDR initiative was first launched – in hopes of spurring more Singapore-based design firms and designers to solve real-world problems and create positive impact through research and experimentation.
Since its launch in March 2020 during the pandemic, the GDR has received over 120 submissions for its three open calls.
Another company whose practice is rooted in biophilic design principles is bioSEA, which – in finding ways to beat Singapore’s tropical heat in the built environment – draws lessons from nature. Here, founding director and ecologist Anuj Jain and his team reference everything from plant stomata to cactus plants, algae hydrogel, elephant skin and earthworms.
Currently, the modern environment is heavily dependent on energy-consuming and carbon emitting technologies to keep buildings cool.
This challenge inspired them to come up with the Biomimicry Design Toolkit, which compiles global best practices of biomimetic solutions to solve for ventilation, dissipate heat, dehumidify, shade and purify water on building facades in tropical climates. It is also developing at least three design ideas which might be prototyped.
Already, the team has created termite mound inspired walls with holes for ventilation.
It is also looking to develop a better cooling system for building facades and roofs, by studying how elephants divert warm blood from their bodies to their ears and flap them in cooler environments. They are collaborating with by Lidia Badarnah, a UK architect and researcher in biomimetics, to prototype elephant skin inspired wall tiles and test them in Singapore’s humid climate.
And to maximise water capture on building facades and roofs in tropical climates, the team looked at how the exoskeletons of Namib desert beetles capture fog and dew from cool desert air. It is currently in discussion with fluid mechanics and material scientists to understand which material is most suitable for such applications.
“We hope to inspire architects and designers so that biomimcry and nature-inspired innovation become mainstream in Singapore’s built environment by showcasing design ideas that have worked globally.”
“If mimicked properly, it will be more efficient and can lead to considerable savings of our carbon emissions,” said Jain, whose company has also advised on projects including Oasia Hotel Downtown and Neom City Saudi Arabia.
Putting people at the heart of design
Inclusive design is also fast gaining traction in Singapore’s design scene.
Another selected GDR project is Will and Well, an inclusive fashion label that aims to provide comfort, dignity and independence for people with diverse needs. Their clothes span from adjustable shorts, to easy-to-wear midi dresses and long-sleeved shirts with front zippers and magnetic buttons.
Founder Elisa Lim recalls a beneficiary with cerebral palsy, who was then looking for a suitable outfit to wear for job interviews. They decided to customise a smart casual outfit that he could easily dress himself in, which helped boost his confidence. He managed to land the job.
“It’s the reason why we do what we do, knowing that our designs are able to empower someone so that he can become financially independent,” said Lim.
Other designers are also looking to revive ageing malls as lively and resilient community spaces, as they form part of Singapore’s social fabric. Even before the pandemic, there was an urgent need for malls to evolve due to changing retail patterns.
According to Spatial Anatomy’s founder Calvin Chua, malls of the future could include a more diverse slate of unique independent shops, embrace the concept of the 15-minute city – in which most daily necessities can be accomplished by either walking or cycling from residents’ homes – or look at emerging development financing models to upgrade strata malls.
The latter, he explains, include fractional financing as it is challenging for collectively-owned strata malls to have the financial mechanism to fund a major infrastructure overhaul. He added that sustainability performance could also be attributed as part of the valuation.
Chua cites how Peninsula Plaza and Sim Lim Square have been used as sites of experimentation for small start-ups and artists. Chua muses, “How can we turn malls from passive consumption parks into truly public spaces that celebrate and empower the community?”
In addition to funding and mentorship, GDR applicants can take on the challenge to design solutions for digital services giant Grab, non-profit organisation Tsao Foundation and early childhood education provider Busy Bees Asia.
They will create solutions for sustainable packaging in food deliveries; age-friendly environments for the elderly in Whampoa and educational infrastructure and playscapes that integrate and promote sustainability respectively.