The idea of public transport may trigger stressful associations with rush hour commutes for many people, but for Agnes Kwek, trains and buses filled with people from all walks of life are fascinating spaces full of potential. In fact, this career civil servant and mother of two has never owned a car in Singapore.
“Even when my children were very young, we went everywhere by public transport,” Agnes shares. The high cost of car ownership in Singapore aside, this choice was also a useful way to teach her kids about the environmental benefits of public transport, and immerse them in the instructive experience of rubbing shoulders with fellow commuters. “Public transport is a shared space, and it can bring out the best and the worst in people. How we behave in this space is a reflection of our shared values, a barometer of how far we have progressed as a gracious society,” she believes. “And we can nudge these things through the way the environment is designed. We shouldn’t leave this up to chance.”
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As the head of the Corporate Transformation & Futures Division at the Land Transport Authority (LTA) from 2014 to 2016, her goal was nothing less than to make public transport a space where commuters could build shared experiences as a country. The question she sought to answer: “Can we make people happier through design?”
For a trial project in 2014, her team worked with SMRT to launch a single football-themed train cabin that was put into service for two days. Design elements such as artificial turf were used to encourage courteous commuter behaviour. The 400‑odd commuters who rode in this cabin were then surveyed, and 80 per cent of them said the experience had made them smile. “The worst fear of any civil servant is that when you try something different, the social media reaction will be very critical. But these might come from people who did not experience the experiment,” Agnes explains. “That’s why the data from our surveys was so important. That gave us the courage and confidence to continue.” Because of this experiment, there are now specially designed event‑focused trains developed in conjunction with community partners.
Agnes’ approach in this case was very much influenced by her year-long work attachment with global design consultancy firm IDEO in 2013. Before that, she had been with the PS21 Office in the Public Service Division, where she set up the first design thinking lab in the Singapore government, to bring design methodologies to policymaking and service delivery. When she was awarded a post-graduate scholarship in 2012, she persuaded her bosses to let her do a work attachment with IDEO instead.
“That experience changed everything,” she says. For her, the key difference between the world of public policy and the world of design is their respective starting points. In government, it’s typical to begin with quantifiable targets, then formulate operational processes to achieve that goal. In contrast, “design starts by asking: what’s the experience I want the consumer to have? Then it asks, how do I deliver that through my operations?” says Agnes. “For me, trying to integrate these two very different worlds is always a subject of fascination.” One key difference in her approach to work now is the emphasis she places on stakeholder engagement. “We don’t have a monopoly of wisdom, and a diversity of input makes us stronger,” she believes. “That’s something inherent in the design process of prototyping—you don’t have to make something perfect before you put it out into the world. Keep putting out different versions, get user feedback, and iterate along the way. You can do that with products, and I firmly believe you can definitely do that with policy.”
In 2016, she became the executive director of the DesignSingapore Council, which supports businesses, designers, industry associations, educational institutions and students in the use of design for economic growth and better lives. For example, its Innovation by Design programme was developed in alignment with the Design 2025 recommendation of expanding the role of design in businesses and the government, and helps to match design experts with public and private sector organisations.
Has Singapore become more loveable in the year since the Design 2025 report was released? Agnes points to the growing vibrancy of the design scene as an encouraging sign—the four-year-old Singapore Design Week now has over a hundred partners, and events such as Singapasar and the Design, Make & Craft Fair are pulling in the crowds. “There are also more business intermediaries willing to provide platforms for our local designers. That’s a real difference compared to five years ago.” That can only bode well for the long‑term affair of shaping a loveable city, because creating loveability is design’s fundamental purpose, she believes. “Design is about finding that emotional resonance, that connection with the human spirit. It can meet needs that we cannot articulate, and find answers through oblique methods. Design is the X factor for Singapore going forward.”
Photography (Agnes Kwek) Darren Gabriel Leow, assisted by Eric Tan
Fashion direction Desmond Lim, assisted by Joey Tan
Hair Grego/Indigo Artisans, using Glamour Salon System
Make-up Cheryl Ow/Indigo Artisans, using Parfums Christian Dior