Published: 26.09.13

"ETH made the right choice in coming to Asia"

Gerhard Schmitt, Senior Vice-president ETH Global and Founding Director of the Singapore ETH-Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability (SEC) has spent the last three years in Singapore building up a research hub that focuses on developing sustainable solutions for future cities. Back in Zurich, he shares his insights in an interview.

Interview: Angela Harp and Norbert Staub
Gerhard Schmitt:
Gerhard Schmitt: "Our aim is to firmly establish SEC as a distinct research institution in Asia." (Photo: Norbert Staub / ETH Zurich) (large view)

What impressed you most about Asia in the three years you served as the Director of the Singapore-ETH Centre?
I experienced a completely different Asia from the one I knew twenty years ago. On all levels – society, business, politics through to academia – there was a positive sense of independence, growth and future development in most of the countries. In Asia, we now see the highest urbanization rate in real numbers in human history.

Why do you think academia, in particular, is progressing so quickly?
Economic performance has played a major role in the advancement of academia. Improving economic stability has allowed countries in the region to bring in expertise from around the globe as well as send out people to analyse best practices at renowned institutions worldwide. China brings back its former students as faculty mainly from the US and Europe, while experts from Singapore travel to Switzerland to examine the Swiss educational system at all levels. They see the positive results of a dual system on innovation, employment, value creation, societal inclusion and research excellence. But it is not trivial to implement the same in another context. With regards to the Singapore-ETH Centre, we definitely made the right choice in coming to Asia. Singapore is a prime location to develop relationships with scientific peers and to collaborate in a living lab on exciting projects that could not be done in Switzerland.

What was the biggest achievement during your three-year term ?
We introduced the goal of sustainable and liveable future cities at an early stage, around 2006. This was a time when urban sustainability in that part of the world was not a high priority and we had to be persistent in our efforts to make sustainability a topic of public debate. As for cities –a research area that very few people thought was promising –we were especially early in identifying that this was a crucial future research area, with an enormous economical and environmental impact. Now it is firmly established in the public debate.

Hence the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL)
Yes, sustainability within cities turned out to be a ubiquitous topic that everyone is now talking about. FCL,our transdisciplinary research centre that focuses on urban sustainability in a global frame, has developed into one of the leaders of this discussion – the ETH Future Cities Website now receives up to 7000 hits per hour. A community of over 200 Ph.D. students, design research students, postdoctoral and professorial researchers are intensively working on future cities and environmental sustainability, liveability and societal inclusiveness to understand, design, transform, implement and manage the urban-rural system of the future.

What challenges did you face when starting FCL?
Starting a new research lab as a not for profit company limited by guarantee more than 10,000 kilometre from Switzerland on the equator in a totally different culture without the infrastructure or administrative support that ETH Zurich offers was a great challenge. In September 2010, we were only two people in Singapore with the task of setting up the basic framework. Starting from scratch, we focused on human resources, recruiting, working space and financial aspects – the essentials to get the centre running. Luckily we knew what works best at ETH, so we implemented a similar structure, in the leanest possible way.

What have been some of the findings of the FCL projects?
Most of the findings were not planned as Key Performance Indicators, but are extremely relevant. The Midterm Exhibition this September, for example, showcases synergy projects and plans from researchers of different disciplines: Rochor+, Tropical Town, Cooler Calmer Singapore; a new type of concrete reinforcement based on bamboo fibres, which could revolutionize construction in large areas of the world and reduce its carbon footprint and costs; discoveries in shifting centralities of cities based on the analysis of urban big data; robust evidence of the crucial relation between mobility and mixed use urban planning, just to name a few. These findings are fundamental for the further development of sustainable cities.

What’s in store for the future?
The second SEC programme on Future Resilient Systems is already planned, followed by a programme on Future Food Security. In addition, we plan to launch a new Urban Science Curriculum, supported by design research studios, blended learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on Future Cities for Asia, Africa and South America. In 2014, a second phase of the Future Cities Laboratory will be initiated. Our goal is to firmly establish the ETH Centre in one of Asia’s premier hubs, as a distinct research institution in the region, and as an important ETH science platform and embassy in Asia where students and faculty learn about ETH before they choose to come to Switzerland.

What advice would you give Peter Edwards, your successor?
Singapore, its people and institutions have been very good and supportive to our SEC community, coming from more than 30 nations. The Swiss embassy and Swissnex Singapore are essential. I am happy that Peter Edwards is my successor and my advice is simple: Listen, get involved and push ahead.

Edwards takes over from Schmitt

Gerhard Schmitt has returned to Zurich to resume his roles as Professor of Information Architecture at ETH Zurich and Senior Vice President for ETH Global. He will concentrate on understanding, formalizing and simulating urban-rural systems, based on the definition and design of Information Architecture (IA) as the next level of Computer Aided Architectural Design (CAAD). His goal is to bring inclusive scenario planning tools to the stakeholders of future cities worldwide.

Peter Edwards, Professor of Plant Ecology at ETH and on-going Chairman of the Department of Environmental Systems Science (D-USYS) will take on a three-year term as director of the Singapore-ETH Centre on October 1. Edwards will ramp up the second research programme on Future Resilient Systems, which focuses on predicting and understanding risk and vulnerabilities in interdependent and complex systems that countries like Singapore and Switzerland both critically depend on for success; and increasing the resilience of such systems.

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