1 May 2017
Funded by the Chen Tianqiao Programme on Urban Innovation and Yale-NUS College Tier One Grant

Partner: Housing and Development Board

PI: Prof Jane M Jacobs (Division of Social Sciences, Yale-NUS College)
Co-PI: Dr Belinda Yuen (LKYCIC, SUTD)
Team: Ms Selene Yap, Dr Špela Močnik (LKYCIC, SUTD)

This is an historical study of building technology R&D in Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB), 1960-1995. It seeks to uncover how the HDB produces and sustains innovation within its building and production processes and systems. While much has been written about the HDB’s achievement in “housing a nation”, little is known of the everyday work cultures of experimentation, problem solving and innovation. This hidden history is important because it provides the foundational expertise for Singapore’s contemporary reputation as an innovator of globally marketable “urban solutions”. Our approach uses five key lenses to trace innovation. The first four of these are technological components central to the high-rise typology: prefabricated walls, lifts, waste management systems, and clothes drying poles. The last lens focuses on what might best be considered a software technique – learning loops linked to the cultures of learning and knowledge transfer associated with the housing project. These selected technologies deliberately range from the large-scale and complex (the obvious example being prefabrication) through to the small-scale and domestic (such as clothes drying poles).

Publications and Presentations

  • Yuen B and Jacobs JM. (2022, Apr) Down the Vertical Refuse Chutes in Singapore High-rise Living. Journal of Planning History. doi:1177/15385132221085948  
  • Jacobs, J.M. and Yuen, B. (2020, Feb). Edges and Eddies: Learning to be high-rise in post-independence Singapore. 2020 Australasian Urban History Planning History Conference, University of Tasmania, Tasmania, Australia (Keynote Address, invited) 
  • Jacobs, J.M. and Yuen, B. (2019). Socio-technical Transition of Singapore Public Housing Building Technology Innovation, 1960–1995. LKYCIC Working Paper Series, No. 3. LKYCIC: Singapore 
  • Jacobs, J.M. and Yuen, B. (2018, Dec). The social science of infrastructure: The role of “social facts” in Singapore’s high-rise housing system, 1960-1995. Conference on Measuring Futures: Politics of Expertise in Asia. Wenner-Gren Foundation and The University of Chicago Centre in Delhi, Delhi, India (invited) 
  • Jacobs, J.M. and Yuen, B. (2018, Sep). Engineering high-rise living: An historical perspective on infrastructure experimentation and learning. Annual Conference of the Society for the Social Studies of Science, Sydney, Australia 
  • Jacobs, J.M. (2018, Jun). A history of innovation: Building technology in Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, 1960-1995. LKYCIC Public Lecture, SUTD, Singapore 
  • Jacobs, J.M. (2017, Nov). Engineering home. Situating Domesticities In Architecture Workshop, Department of Architecture, NUS, Singapore (invited)