Innovation & Design

Singapore's One North


Singapore is building a research district called One North, where research in biotech and more will be conducted in the newly liberalized city

Yeoh Keat Chuan readily admits that Singapore doesn't have the world's hippest reputation. "The concept used to be that if you are an expatriate with a family, go to Singapore because it is safe for your kids," says Yeoh, executive director of the biomedical sector for the nation's Economic Development Board. "But if you are single and want to have fun, go to Hong Kong."

The straitlaced Lion State is working hard, and spending big, to dispel that image. It will need to if Singapore is to achieve its goal of becoming an international capital of the 21st century. With a national population of just 4.6 million, Singapore knows it must lure lots of foreign talent. These days, in-demand twentysomethings tend to flock to places that appeal to their lifestyle, rather than just offer jobs.

Clusters of Innovation

The showcase of Singapore's future ambitions is One North, a 500-acre district close to the National University of Singapore, National University Hospital, and Singapore Polytechnic. It is expected to cost some $7 billion over 20 years.

One North houses several interconnected research "clusters," for biosciences, interactive media, physical sciences, and health care. The idea is to create an environment where a company developing a new technology for home-assisted medical care, say, can draw upon talent in the IT and biotech clusters.

To ensure that One North is also a real community, it will be filled with restaurants, cultural facilities, and housing. "The concept of the suburban real estate play is outdated," says Yeoh. "One North was conceived as a location where people will live, work, and play."

Biopolis and Fusionopolis

The Biopolis cluster is the furthest along. The complex was influenced by America's National Institutes of Health, where government researchers work side by side with those from private pharmaceutical companies. Since construction began in 2001, the first two phases of Biopolis are booked with 1,000 scientists from seven public research institutes and 20 companies. Eli Lilly (LLY) has 150 researchers focusing on cancer and metabolic disease, while the R&D staff at Novartis (NVS) is delving into tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

By the time the third phase opens next year, Biopolis is projected to have 4.5 million square feet of space and 5,000 scientists. Yeoh figures that would make Biopolis as big as any biomedical cluster in the U.S., except for San Diego. It offers low-cost, state-of-the-art lab facilities equipped with everything from electron microscopes to animal-testing facilities. "We're here to lower the entry barriers for new companies," says Yeoh.

Five minutes away is Fusionoplis. A soaring, 24-story structure designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, Fusionopolis is aimed at spurring collaborations in media, communications, and IT. Besides having 2 million square feet of office and lab space, it boasts retail shops, international restaurants, and recreation facilities.

Singapore doesn't want inventors to conduct R&D only in their labs. It wants them to test their prototypes in the real world. For example, Fusionopolis includes apartments that Yeoh describes as "living laboratories" equipped with experimental networked appliances, for example.

A Lab for 21st Century Life

Yeoh says Singapore can be an important proving ground for technologies for densely packed cities. He notes that around 80% of Singaporeans live in urban settings. And much bigger megacities are emerging in neighboring nations. China alone expects to have 10 to 15 cities that each have more than 15 million people. These cities will need seamless information technology, GPS-enabled devices, and mobile phones that communicate with cars and kitchen appliances. "We want to provide a window of what an Asian city of the future will look like," he says.

Singapore also is investing lavishly in its own talent pool. The government is providing full scholarships worth 1 million Singapore dollars (about $700,000) to 1,000 PhD candidates. In return, the graduates must commit to working in Singapore for 10 years, moving back and forth between the public and private sectors. "They will be the future research core of Singapore," Yeoh says.

Still, Singapore needs foreigners. Yeoh notes that the 70 researchers at Novartis' Singapore lab hail from 19 nations. To increase its appeal, the city-state has added international cultural events, a Formula One race, and two casinos. And what about young singles who want to party? "We are making the city less restrictive," Yeoh says. Bars in Singapore used to close at 11 p.m. Now they are open until 6 a.m.

Engardio is an international senior writer for BusinessWeek .

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