How The Ups And Downs Of Today's Mega Cities Will Shape Tomorrow's Urban Boom

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has just opened a new research center in Singapore dedicated to the study the world's biggest cities in order to better prepare for the urban explosion that is expected to take place by 2030.

The rush is on in Tokyo (Joi Ito)
The rush is on in Tokyo (Joi Ito)
Nicolas Dufour

SINGAPORE - It doesn't always happen, but today at least, the journalist perfectly understands the scientist. The journalist is staying in one of the designer hotels mushrooming in Singapore. The bed is on a mezzanine, and the room is at least four meters high. It's excessively air-conditioned. The scientist is Gerhard Schmitt, the director of the SEC, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's new Singapore lab, where research is focused on the future of cities.

And right now, Schmitt is talking about the huge amount of power wasted by air-conditioning in cities with tropical climates such as Singapore: not only do cooling systems guzzle energy, but they also eject hot air, which increases the ambient temperature. It's a vicious circle.

One of the nine research units of the SEC focuses on low energy consumption can be integrated into building design. The team, which is lead by Hansjürg Leibundgut, has already signed partnerships with companies in the sector. Together, they are hoping to produce "decentralized" ventilation systems that can be remote-controlled – and produce less hot air. They are also developing sensor devices to optimize the use of resources in big buildings such as shopping malls and skyscrapers.

Gerhard Schmitt cites some startling statistics to underline why this research is so important. According to the United Nations, the world's population will top 8,1 billion by 2030. More than half of those people – roughly 5 billion – will live in cities. "I think the importance of these statistics are underestimated: we are talking about the biggest urban growth in history," says Stephen Cairns, the institute's scientific coordinator.

Around the world, numerous scientists are already studying the challenges posed by sprawling cities. But the creators of the SEC (which will employ more than 200 researchers) believe they have a unique take on the issue: its nine very different research units, ranging from engineering to social science, will be working closely together.

Flying robots and cutting-edge bamboo

In a vast room at the top floor of the SEC, scientists are dreaming of improving computer-assisted construction techniques by using, for example, long mechanical arms. Another area of research is bamboo, which was a hot topic in the 1950s and 1960s but proved too problematic as a building material. Today, however, new techniques can make bamboo water resistant, according to Dirk Hebel, one of the SEC researchers. Bamboo has the advantage of growing in abundance in precisely the same areas where urban populations are growing fastest.

SEC researchers are also focusing on gathering and analyzing data to improve the management of water, electricity, road traffic and public transportation flows. One research team is using a small flying robot - a kind of remote-controlled helicopter – to capture detailed maps of Singapore. One of the SEC researchers states that the recorded images are much better quality than the ones obtained by satellite: "You can shoot a tennis ball mid-flight," he says. The robot is German-made, but the software was designed by the Institute, which aims to provide 3D representations which can be used in urban planning. A similar project is in progress in Indonesia to study rainwater.

Another research team was granted access to very detailed data from the Singapore Land Transport Authority. The team is hoping to establish a precise description of each individual movement in the city. In an adjoining office, scientists are scrutinizing the different neighborhoods of the city (housing, business, etc.) and the evolution of such zones. They are also studying the airports of several Asian and European cities: "We are not looking at what's happening inside the airports, but rather at their impact on the surrounding areas, on the local communities," says Kees Christiaanse, who is in charge of this research unit.

Another unit is working at detailing the public policies and the social impact of globalization in nine big cities that are considered "mega-regions," such as Mexico, Shenzhen and Lagos. Other experts are studying favelas and other shantytowns in Brazil and Ethiopia.

There are so many different fields of study and approaches, because the Institute wants to be able to "offer a comprehensive analysis of emerging cities," explains Gerhard Schmitt. Key to all of this is Singapore itself, which serves as the vantage point for researching tomorrow's cities.

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo - Joi Ito

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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