At a time when the world is wowed by 3D printing, one man and his team in Singapore are looking ahead. Their target: 4D printing.
Their ambition: turn 3D-printed objects into 4D "Transformers" of the future. This means objects that change shape and form in real time, as they are exposed to different external stimuli.
Professor Chua Chee Kai heads the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, refers to the way objects are "printed" layer by layer by a machine. Materials used can be plastic, polymer wax, liquid or metals, ceramics, combination of different materials, or even living cells.You insert or lay in the desired material, suitably pulverised into filament or sheets, or liquid or powder, form, into silos.
For printers with print heads, a jet spurts out these materials onto a platform. Laser-based printers solidify the powder laid on the print bed, one layer at a time. Sophisticated software controls the movement of the jets or lasers. Layer by layer, the object is built from ground up.
With home-based printers for consumers, you can 3D-print costume jewellery or make mini-figurines of family members.
In industry, many companies tap 3D printing to reform the way products are manufactured. In construction and architecture, 3D printing is used to build prototypes, models or structures which are high cost and complicated to build using traditional manufacturing. In aerospace, says Prof Chua, GE Aviation is using 3D printers to print 85,000 fuel nozzles this year.
In five to 10 years, 3D printing will be mainstream in manufacturing, he predicts.
But not content with that, scientists like him are reaching for the fourth dimension. The key is to 3D-print objects using "stimuli- responsive materials" - or materials that change form, depending on temperature, humidity or human intervention.
Imagine a 3D-printed object, made up of smart materials that change their form when heated or cooled, or pressed upon or at a certain time. Like a compact 3D structure, propelled into space, that can self-assemble into a satellite when it reaches its desired destination.
Says Prof Chua: "4D printing takes customisation to a higher level - imagine, shoes and sofas which can be altered to fit the shapes of human bodies, jewellery which can morph into different shapes, or clothing which can change colour and design under varying conditions. The new applications and possibilities which 4D printing brings forth are fascinating, endless and far surpasses the limits of today's manufacturing."
That's the dream for tomorrow. Today, 4D printing takes place in a nondescript lab in NTU's Jurong West campus.
Ms Joanne Teoh, a petite woman in her early 30s with a sweet smile, is a second-year PhD student at the School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at NTU. First, she uses the printer to print a flower using shape-changing materials. Then, over the next two days, the petals of the flower will unfurl and "bloom" in response to heat and other stimuli.
She explains: "The flower opens at different rates to create a blooming effect and the amazing thing is that the process can be reversible when external stimulus is applied."
She adds: "I am very passionate about industrial design and very excited to be involved in this breakthrough technology of 4D printing. It is just like realising "Transformers" for the future and this could change many things around us."
What is happening at SC3DP is a microcosm of what Singapore is capable of in the future.
Prof Chua's SC3DP, which started in 1990, has secured funding that now totals close to $150 million. He and a colleague, Leong Kah Fai, are the top two most-published and most-cited scholars in this field in the world. The centre has joint labs with top German 3D printing manufacturer SLM Solutions, and Underwriters Laboratories, a top American safety and certification company.
A confluence of generous research funding from the state, dynamic leaders at institutes and a steady pipeline of young talent catalyse future-oriented projects.
Test beds are spouting up all over Singapore. A driverless electric shuttle runs across NTU. At another centre, research scholars model traffic patterns. What if the CBD has a zero-vehicle policy, and people have to park their cars at fringe car parks and enter the CBD using only public transport, or a fleet of autonomous vehicles? Elsewhere, a group is working on an underground goods-mover system to free roads of heavy trucks.
In these circles, the sense of excitement about what future technology and science can do, right here in Singapore, is palpable.
The will to succeed
To write this feature on what the future looks like for Singapore, I spent a couple of days talking to scientists and attending a conference on sustainability organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in July.
And this being a year of stock taking as Singapore celebrates its 50th year of independence and looks towards the future, I had also spent time commissioning and editing a series of 20 essays in The Straits Times on Future Trends 2065. And just last week, a new volume, titled Singapore 2065, was published, edited by economics professor Euston Quah. (Disclosure: I was among the book's contributors.)
I had begun with a slightly jaundiced view of the future, coloured by too domestic a lens. From that standpoint, the future looks troubled for the Singapore city-state. Singapore'slabour constraints will become more pronounced, especially if domestic discontent forces policies to be closed to migrant talent. Social cohesion is frayed. Income and wealth inequality are rising. Political strife is emerging, yet there are few signs that the opposition is able to improve its administration or the ruling party better able to accommodate the desire for political plurality.
Meanwhile, a new generation has come of age, viewed askance by older generations as one with a strong sense of entitlement to the Good Life, with an unproven work ethic, and who appear to lack a proper awareness of the Republic's existential realities.
But if we look at the future through a longer-term, and more macro lens, the future looks bright.
Singapore has many things going for it. We have a competent, highly organised public administration system that is attuned to the future. In the pithy words of Neo Boon Siong who wrote Dynamic Governance, the civil service has the ability to "think ahead, think across (domains) and think again".
The Singapore Spirit contains a strong dose of Nietschean "will to power": We have the drive to succeed, the ambition to excel.
That can be seen in the way Singapore constantly tries to shape circumstances and the environment to its own favour. It will be a strong asset as we enter an uncertain future.
It is our will to power that will help us cope with one of the big driving forces of the future: climate change, and the threat that it brings, of extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels.
In the past, thirsting for water, Singapore came up with desalination and Newater. Worried about water pollution and flooding, it created a canal and barrage system, redirecting riverine flows.
In the face of rising sea levels, commentators like Lim Say Boon and Peter Schwartz all expect that Singapore will build dykes to keep out the waters. If the weather becomes inhospitable, there are options to go underground, build climate-controlled domes, and even a project to build vast floating platforms. The overall thrust is this: Singapore will environmentally engineer its landscape to thrive.
The second external driving force affecting our future is geopolitics. Here, it is our adaptable stance that will help steer the nation.
The next few decades will almost certainly see increased tension, conflict incidents, and likely military skirmishes around the East and South China Seas as the incumbent maritime power America copes with a rising challenger in China. It is for this reason that geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer last year told me he considered this the most dangerous region in the world. What everyone fears is that a conflict incident escalates into military action. If China goes to battle with Japan, the US as the latter's treaty ally will be pulled in, sparking an all-out war.
However, the optimistic scenario says that even if military action ensues, both China and the US have vested interests in ensuring that maritime traffic and trade are not blocked. And Singapore is not a rival claimant, just a neutral city reliant on open trade.
The question of sovereignty
Will Singapore be able to function as a sovereign city-state in a region of rising hostilities? After all, as is often noted, few small city-states have survived for long. When I asked a few people to address this in their essays in The Straits Times, I was struck by their answers. Singaporeans like Bilahari Kausikan and Ho Kwon Ping take it as a given that we can, and will, remain sovereign, a view shared by Tommy Koh. The will to sovereignty remains strong.
Foreign commentators are more open to considering otherwise. One argument goes that in a globalised world, cities - not nations - matter. London matters more than Britain. Singapore the global city is then more important than whatever political entity it belongs to.
David Skilling, a thoughtful consultant on small countries' strategies, imagines a future where Singapore remains a global city, but might be in some kind of larger confederation where it is not quite an independent city-state.
In the end, sovereignty depends on Singaporeans' will and whether future generations find it worth their while to be self-determining in all fields, including defence and security, and are prepared to pay the price for it. If it continues to adopt a posture of openness and neutrality, Singapore can find sufficient diplomatic and strategic space to function independently.
Apart from climate change and geopolitics, it is economic and sociopolitical factors that will drive the future. Economically, the Republic in 2015 starts on a very strong foundation. Unlike in geopolitical contest where it is just a neutral bystander, in technology and innovation - the drivers of tomorrow's economies - Singapore wants to be, and is, a keen player. Whether it is in the areas of autonomous vehicles, robotics, 3D printing, smart sensors or big data analytics, there is a research centre within Singapore Inc, and people young and old, local and foreign, beavering away at unleashing its potential.
Singapore is seventh worldwide, and top in Asia, in the Global Innovation Index 2014 co-published by Cornell University, Insead and the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations.
It is advantageously positioned in the heart of Asia at a time when the economic centre of gravity is tilting eastwards. And as the Asean Economic Community gains steam, Singapore's economy will become more regional-focused.
Being plugged into the Asian hinterland can help us overcome traditional constraints. Ravi Menon, in an essay in Singapore 2065, imagines a future where Singapore has expanded its hinterland, tapping the economic potential of the Iskandar region in Johor through seamless links.
If Iskandar Johor - and Riau Indonesia - become an economic and residential hinterland, and land and sea links improve, then Singapore can overcome land and labour constraints, dissipating fears of congestion and high housing prices.
The lull before the storm
While so much is abuzz at the tech and economic frontier in Singapore, political change lags.
Singapore has a political system with an incumbent party that has ruled since 1959, for 56 years, but with an electorate that hankers for more elected opposition, as the People's Action Party's declining vote share shows.
Long used to consensus, we have not yet mustered, let alone mastered, the art of political compromise or of disagreeing agreeably, a skill Kishore Mahbubani considers critical for Singapore's future.
Political scientists theorise that monolithic or authoritarian states need to go through a period of instability before they transit into stable democracies with political parties that alternate in power peacefully.
The PAP may want to defy all odds to remain in power through 2065. But it is far more likely that in 2015, Singapore is in an interlude between the status quo and reform. This is a lull, with forces of change gathering, which might be unleashed someday.
What happens after?
Optimists like Yeoh Lam Keong, in his essay for Singapore 2065, predicts that the next two decades will see "an unprecedented period of reforms" in social protection and democratic development. Such a process could result, as it did in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, in a "more mature and vibrant society, as well as a level of social and cultural well-being and richness well beyond our current norms or imagination".
It is also possible that a politically divided Singapore, in a volatile region, will begin its downward slide from global city of today, to regional backwater tomorrow, as Peter Schwartz put it when he framed Singapore's options.
Today's hot-button issues over income inequality, immigration and cost of living, all centre around the tension inherent in being both a global city and a nation-state. We are a city open to the global and swift flows of ideas, people and money, a dynamic city that woos the energetic and talented; but we are also a nation many of whose people are struggling, retiring, or just insecure, who want to shutter their home from the gales of globalisation.
Which Singapore will emerge, after the lull? What kind of leadership will we have? What political compact will be made?
In 1965, Singapore's pioneering leaders and its gritty people forged an unbreakable bond and made the existential choice to go it alone.
In 2015, we face another choice: to power ahead as a global city as though we were a nimble craft shooting the rapids, or to pause to care for those struggling to hold on to a too-fast-moving skiff.
I am hopeful we will find a middle ground. What political party is in power in 2065 is not important, although Singapore will still need exceptional leaders who can win the trust of the people.
Nor is the precise form of the political system all that material. The notion that we can succeed as a city, within some other political arrangement as yet unthought of, expands the frontier of possibility.
Singapore's first-generation leaders did not shy away from independence when it was thrust upon the nation; their preferred option was to negotiate the best possible exit. The future may bring Singapore back to such existential choices one day.
What matters is that the people of Singapore do not lose the Singapore Spirit, the will to shape our future, the best way we can, depending on the circumstances of the day.
Then, the future is ours to seize.