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Preparing youth for real-world challenges and future disruptions with a design-centric education

Unburdened by academic silos, SUTD is a pioneer in interdisciplinary education to nurture design innovators to develop human-centric solutions that better the world

Capstone projects, where final-year students from different degree programmes come together and use their respective expertise and skills to design innovative solutions to real-world challenges, are just one of the many programmes designed to encoura
Capstone projects, where final-year students from different degree programmes come together and use their respective expertise and skills to design innovative solutions to real-world challenges, are just one of the many programmes designed to encourage student collaboration across disciplines. PHOTO: SINGAPORE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY AND DESIGN

There are some things artificial intelligence (AI) does better than humans. For instance, it can recognise patterns that are too subtle for the human eye to detect. 

Harnessing AI’s potential, a team of final-year students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) developed an AI-augmented histopathology platform to make cancer research more efficient so that scientists can spend more of their time on making meaningful discoveries about the second deadliest killer in the world. 


As part of their Capstone project, Mr Krishna Sanjeeva Murthy Penukonda (left), Mr Safafisalam Bohari Jaon (right) and their team developed an AI-augmented histopathology platform to make cancer research more efficient. PHOTO: SINGAPORE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY AND DESIGN

This is one of the many interdisciplinary solutions SUTD students have created for their Capstone projects, where final-year students from different degree programmes come together and use their respective expertise and skills to design innovations that solve real-world challenges.

“That’s the good thing about being here in SUTD,” Mr Safafisalam Bohari Jaon, one of the members behind the histopathology platform, says. “As we have this inter-pillar, interdisciplinary kind of interaction going on, some of us already know each other, and have worked together before,” he says.


The brains behind the AI-augmented histopathology platform, from left to right: Mr Loh Jian An Lionell, Mr Krishna Sanjeeva Murthy Penukonda, Mr Safafisalam Bohari Jaon, Ms Ashlyn Goh Er Xuan, Mr Ng Jun Yan Kenneth, Ms Beverley Emma Mok Shiying and Mr Tay Tzu Shieh (not in photo). PHOTO: SINGAPORE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY AND DESIGN

Their prior interactions helped them build their dream team with different capabilities in AI, front-end and back-end development, user interface and design, project management and product management. “That way, we don’t have to be limited by what we could build. With our range of expertise, we could explore so many more options.”

Working in diverse teams – and with industry partners – means students get to be exposed to various disciplines and understand industry perspectives. Understanding the purpose of their learning and its relevance to the real world also makes for greater student motivation.


The Fabrication Lab (Fab Lab) is where students can design and build virtually “almost anything”, supporting the university’s strong, interdisciplinary design-focused pedagogy that emphasises both theory and practical work. PHOTO: SINGAPORE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY AND DESIGN

Working on the AI-driven Capstone project was an eye-opener for Mr Safafisalam. “It’s really unlike most school projects where you complete the task and then that’s it,” he says.

His and many other innovative solutions developed under SUTD’s Capstone programme have been endorsed and commercialised by the mentor companies. 

Design-centric solutions to solve wicked problems

The hands-on learning by doing approach allows students to acquire tacit knowledge to tackle complex and interconnected problems holistically. In a world of accelerating change and complexity, one such problem that has emerged is the Covid-19 pandemic.

SUTD faculty members, researchers, alumni and students have been contributing their problem-solving skills, honed through a design-centric, interdisciplinary education, to the unprecedented disruptions wrought by this wicked problem.

Take GovTech software engineer Janice Tan, who graduated from the Information Systems Technology and Design (ISTD) programme in 2016. She was part of the pioneering team, and one of the lead iOS engineers, behind the TraceTogether app built for faster contract tracing, to curb the spread of Covid-19. The app is the world’s first digital contact-tracing solution deployed nation-wide and has been downloaded by more than 4.2 million users since it was launched in March 2020.

Ms Tan tells Singapore Global Network (SGN) she was intrigued by the idea that technology could play a part in stopping the spread of Covid-19. But technology alone, she explains, cannot solve problems if the people working on it focus only on specific silos and don’t work together.

Breaking down silos, academically and physically  

In a speech delivered at SUTD in 2018, Mr Peter Ho, Senior Advisor at the Centre for Strategic Futures, highlighted the importance of tearing down silos to achieve interdisciplinary learning. “In the lived experience of such interdisciplinary problem-solving, you acquire the tacit knowledge of tackling complex problems holistically. In other words, you learn to work across academic silos. This cannot be taught in the classroom,” he said.

That was how Singapore’s fourth public university started, with no traditional departments or schools – but a new degree and curricular structure. It ditched large lectures in favour of cohort-based active learning communities; it fostered interdisciplinarity from ground zero – from its approaches to education and research, to how the facilities and spaces at its campus, which opened in 2015, are designed and built. 


UNStudio's principal architect Ben van Berkel, who worked on the campus design, says the compact campus is “a model unique to the world” and is a highly interactive space that stimulates students to interact and be reactive to one another. PHOTO: SINGAPORE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY AND DESIGN, © Hufton+Crow

Unlike the typical design of university buildings, where each faculty is housed separately from each other, SUTD's energy-saving campus is designed to foster collaboration, invention and creativity by connecting academic, housing and recreational facilities through open spaces and plazas. 

Mr Leon Jared Cher, who graduated with a Master of Architecture from the Architecture and Sustainable Design (ASD) programme in 2016, loves how the physical design of the campus facilities fosters a collaborative environment.  

“The labs and classrooms are designed in such a way that you are constantly running into people. And you can see what others are working on, especially when work is exhibited at the Campus Centre. When you mix in the fact that you know people from all the other pillars from Freshmore year, your curiosity is constantly sparked, and you’re not just concerned about your own discipline,” he adds. After working as an architectural associate with DP Architects, one of the world’s top architecture firms, Mr Cher is now working on land acquisitions for future architecture developments at Far East Organization.

Going beyond the classroom 

The founding of Singapore’s fourth public university in 2009 marked a shift away from the traditional academia focus on a single discipline, and towards interdisciplinary collaboration. 

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says SUTD is to provide a different experience for the students – not just in a very high-quality academic environment, but also one which is going to be stimulating the students to go beyond the book knowledge, and to apply it to solving real-world problems.

“This is a place which will stimulate you, which will stretch you, which will take you in unexpected directions which you may not have thought of when you first contemplated going to university, and which will enable you to develop your potential and engage you in the world around. So that you come out not just as an engineer or an architect or a software person, but somebody with passion, with ability, and with dreams to go and do something which is going to change the world,” he adds. 

SUTD’s curriculum is continuously reviewed and updated to ensure that students are equipped with the relevant competencies to strengthen their design thinking skills and digital literacy in preparation for the future economy. Last year, SUTD launched its fifth degree programme, Design and Artificial Intelligence (DAI). As part of its growth plan, SUTD is also developing new programmes and initiatives in AI, healthcare, smart and sustainable cities and aviation to tighten the integration between research, education and industry.  

SUTD President Professor Chong Tow Chong explains that SUTD has built interdisciplinary learning into its curriculum using an “outside-in” approach. “We first asked what the world needs,” he says. The university then designs the curriculum around these needs.

The school’s design thinking approach in which the problem-solvers share the same single-minded focus on the user’s needs binds the different disciplines to provide a truly integrated, interdisciplinary education for students.  

Agile, nimble and having an open mind 

SUTD alumnus Lionell Loh, now a software engineer at Facebook’s US headquarters, says the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) classes at SUTD give students an alternative view of the world, and that having a dose of the alternative helps sharpen critical thinking skills.

“You don’t want to only surround yourself with like-minded people as this essentially forms an echo chamber that will limit your world view. Instead, you’ll want to meet people who are contrarian to your beliefs, and who can challenge you. I believe that by dealing in and with the unfamiliar, you’ll learn and gain new perspectives,” explains the Valedictorian for Class of 2020. He graduated from the ISTD programme last year. 

Besides the selection of majors and electives, students at SUTD can customise their curriculum by taking up minors and specialisations that suit their passions. They can even create a unique focus track to meet their own learning goals. 

Talent pool to power an innovation-driven economy

Mr Joshua Cheong, a pioneer batch graduate and winner of the inaugural Commonwealth Scholarship in Innovation, worked with an academia mentor to customise his learning roadmap. He took finance courses in the Engineering Systems and Design (ESD) programme while majoring in an ISTD programme that included AI-exposure before eventually specialising in computational finance. He is now an assistant vice president at Citibank, where he has been a digital innovation lead for the last two and a half years.

“Being in a relatively new school like SUTD made me comfortable about learning  new things such as machine learning and blockchain development – even after leaving university. In your career, you will face situations where an emerging field of work or research will come up almost suddenly for you to take it as an opportunity. Having the flexibility and confidence to learn and adapt given your experience in SUTD will empower you to take the first steps when others do not,” he adds. 

This can-do spirit is one of the many traits that make SUTD graduates highly sought after by several industries, from the traditional engineering and architecture companies to consultancies and fintech unicorns. A joint graduate employment survey released in 2019 showed that SUTD graduates earned higher starting salaries than their peers from other local autonomous universities.

Their ability to work well in and lead diverse teams is understated, too. “Some universities emphasise putting the right answers on paper, but great projects rely on team effort and leadership. Getting the job done well is a rare quality,” Mr Cheong explains.

As Singapore seeks to strengthen its position as a global hub for innovation, it needs talented design innovators well-versed in design thinking skills and interdisciplinary knowledge to get the job done – well. 

Click here to find out how SUTD nurtures the next generation of design innovators.