Crash Landing — How I Rapidly Analyze New Contexts in Global Urban Design Projects

Darrel Ronald
11 min readAug 23, 2019
Clouds over Vietnam. Copyright Klaus Leidorf.

While I started working as an architect in Montreal, Canada (and later had a practice there for 4 years) most of my career has involved working on large-scale, complex urban design projects around the globe. Looking back at 14 years of work experience, almost all of which was as a project leader role, I have worked in 19 countries:

Belgium, Canada, China, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Kazakhstan, Korea, Lebanon, Morocco, Myanmar, Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, Tajikistan, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States

What exactly is working globally? There are different ways of working globally, so let me be clear on my experience: I especially mean that every year you can have a project in 1 or 2 new countries that you’ve potentially never travelled to and have very little situational knowledge of. In some ways it sounds unreasonable that a foreign consultant should come to a new city and make a new proposal for the extension or transformation of the city, however it is common and also has its benefits, depending on your approach.

Practically speaking, to work in a totally new country you will almost always need a local consultant (office) on the consultant team — they serve as the local expert that helps guide your work. I have worked with many, and while great, there are countless ways in which this local role is complicated: they probably don’t know the business culture from where you come and cannot easily do the necessary translations (misunderstandings); they can feel intimidated to speak-up against certain decisions that will cause local problems (lost time); and they can become unfairly trapped between the client and foreign consultant (lost motivation). You will always need to watch carefully for the moment that the local consultant gets squeamish from feeling uncomfortably boxed-in.

Even with a local consultant, you will always need your own instincts to really get at the core of the project you’re working on, that is why you are the expert. For the rest, I explain below my main strategies for rapid anthropological analysis when starting a project in a new urban context. I do all of these things immediately when starting a project and either deepen or refine the process throughout a project. Depending on the scale, importance and timeframe of a project I will go deeper into all these analyses. When I go really deep — as was the case on the Jurong Lake District project I lead at KCAP — then I fall in love with the place and it sustains a long-term relationship that continues far beyond the project at hand. To support the abstract ideas, I will give examples of my rapid analysis techniques for Singapore below.

Public art in La Défence, Paris. Photo by author.

…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. — Donald Rumsfeld

So what exactly are the challenges of working globally? The biggest problem by far is to identify as quickly as possible, what are the unknown unknowns. There are so many difficulties already with known unknowns, that I’ll just list a few which get my attention when starting up an urban design project:

  • Understand the business culture and what the specific phrases and words mean that are said to you. There is a big difference in approaches to hierarchy, in methods for reaching agreements and taking decisions. Knowing how decisions are taken and agreements are made determine the success of your project. Likewise, a legal contract never really means anything actionable — it is easily circumvented, changed or twisted during the process. The concept of Rule of Law concerning contracts is radically different around the world and it is more valuable to be prudent throughout a project (legal and business wise) than trying to enforce contracts.
  • Understand the current social transformations and how society will accept or reject the urban project. As in all societies, there is ongoing change that needs to be accounted for but that is often invisible to the naked eye. Change is a vector with force and direction and if you can understand this, you can create an urban project that will reflect the future city that society is already heading towards.
  • Understand what the client is really asking for. This is one of the most tricky things with urban projects due to macro-politics. Is the urban development a political stunt that requires only PR material? Is the project concrete with investment capital ready to go, and the stated ambitions of the client executable? Is the project merely a very detailed scenario plan that has no chance of passing local regulations but important nonetheless for dialogue and negotiation? In the case of Singapore, we had to integrate massive international infrastructure investments (high-speed railway line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore); this was just one piece of a multi-layered infrastructure puzzle and the more you have, the more everything can fall down like a house of cards. We have a strategy for isolating risks like this in the urban design and long-term development process.
  • Understand what the necessary deliverables are. You typically discover this by listening carefully to what the client asks for first, regardless of whatever long list of contract deliverables you have agreed upon. For urban projects, this will closely link to common local documents required for urban development projects. The biggest mistake design offices make is to just produce what they always do or because it’s what they want to do. To give an example, on a project in Singapore, of our 650+ page final detailed masterplan book, two key documents are within: 1) land use plan and 2) spreadsheet of programme distribution and FAR (Floor Area Ratio) quantities to show maximum development potential. Almost all else was low-priority for their day-to-day needs. In addition to this, you need to assess what the other stakeholders require; in the case of Singapore we had over 5 other agencies involved and each needed a few key documents for coordination.
  • Understand the tiny details of buildings, public spaces and urban detailing. If you pay attention to all the small things that stand out as different from what you know, likely there is something important. A case in point: in Singapore you will always have height changes from street level to entrance level of any built structure. Look carefully and you will see a difference in heights as well between structures underground (ex. subway entrances) versus structures without links to the underground (ex. office building lobby). These relate to detailed regulations for street flooding and the need to protect interior spaces from water inundation.
  • Understand how outdoor spaces are used. Again it is in the details but also in the big patterns of space use. Here you will see how people really live throughout the day; for example this applies to streetscapes, public parks, privately owned public spaces, residential entrances or balconies, and rooftop gardens. A city’s culture is defined by how we engage with and interact within our shared outdoor spaces. The most important subset of interactions here are the ones that occur in the grey zone between public and private.
  • Understand what day-to-day services are needed by the target demographic groups of the project. This can be tricky but there are ways to source this information. I typically enjoy diving in-and-out of small shops that service everyday transactions related to food, drinks, mobile phones, banking, news, healthcare and so forth. An example in Singapore is the ever present 7-Eleven shops — I love these from my own experience growing up in Winnipeg, Canada where we have them too. As an aside, the supply chain case study of 7-Eleven in Asia is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever discovered, thanks to my studies at IMD in Lausanne.
  • Understand the nature of different urban clusters and sub-centres of the city and what their character is. I typically go to a great cafe in a neighbourhood, hit the local bookshops and retail stores, hang out and watch people and visit a local cultural institution such as museum, institute or library. Inevitably, cities have many such sub-clusters each with its own unique spatial and built typologies. How all these ingredients interact together will tell you about the history and evolution of the urban fabric. In Singapore, you will clearly see the evolution of HDB Housing across the city within the sub-districts and how social policy gave intentional and transformative shape to the current city.
  • Understand what are the cultural preoccupations and anxieties of the city and country. This is especially found in the local news, the discussions surrounding government policy and the social media interactions. In the case of Singapore, the Straits Times is full of articles about small crimes and misdemeanors and has many articles that shame criminals of all types. I kid not, but this screenshot shows the ‘Popular’ articles from the main page of the latest Singapore news today.
Screenshot of latest Singapore news 2019.08.22. Copyright Straits Times.
  • Understand the mobility network inside out. This is the life-blood of any city’s functioning and your ability to correctly interpret how the system works or doesn’t is critical. Knowing how locals perceive and think about the multiple means of transport directly impact what you can achieve in an urban project. In the case of Singapore, they have a very advanced last-mile solution through the use of electric scooters and electric skateboards, or PMDs ‘personal mobility devices’. One of the key reasons?… you don’t sweat in the typical climate: wind-still, +34c heat and 85% humidity.
  • Understand the history. This is both desk research, conversations with the local consultant, interviews with the client team and reading books on local history. This first applies at different scales of the city, region and country. Second, it applies directly to the project at hand and the history of the site and the previous studies on the project. Often the important details are hidden from the consulting team by chance — not by malice but because it is perceived as ‘common knowledge’. So no question is dumb, ever. In the case of JLD Singapore, IBM had carried out a Smarter Cities study of the Jurong Lake District, but it was never presented to us. It was already taken for granted and no longer relevant context, even though ideas from the previous work clearly influenced our task at hand.
  • Understand the commercial context of real estate, both commercial and residential. To achieve any type of high-quality, sustainable and socially-inclusive urban developement you need to work the market in your favour. This means exploiting all possible leverage in the financial strategy, funding models and business plan for the development. You need to master the building codes that drive architectural form in order to prescribe a coherent set of (new) design guidelines. In the case of Singapore, the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) is a highly competent urban development agency that uses policy to positively stimulate urban and architectural form. They are a very good client and regularly work with developers to push policy evolution.
  • Understand the publishing industry and how media is distributed. In any new city I visit, I analyze the health of the newspaper and magazine publishing industry. Everyday easy access to international publications tells you about the intellectual and cultural openness of a city. If you can only get your Financial Times at the airport, there is a problem. I likewise check out all the independent bookshops and national mega-bookstores. I always fill up on local histories that I devour on the plane rides. In the case of Singapore, it is hard to find media around the city which is a problem. The publishing industry isn’t fully open in the country, but you will find great bookshops such as Books Actually and Basheer Graphic Books. What is shocking is that at the Popular Books within the incredible Bras Basah Complex, the prime shelving is given to study books for school children — another sign of society anxiety and preoccupation.
  • Understand the typologies of design. As designers this is the most fun and easy since we’re always thinking about this. But often the real lessons are not in the things we’re looking at. In the context of Singapore, you need to look at the iconic buildings and the evolution of HDB Housing to start with, because they’re pervasive. But the more interesting innovation is actually happening in industrial and logistics areas. Probably nowhere else in the world will you get mixed-programme industrial/logistics zones as you do in Singapore. And the logistics areas are stacked vertically with all sorts of surprising innovations for loading bays.
Artwork from a Zurich exhibition. Artist unknown. Photo by author.

There are two main approaches to running projects while hopping across the globe, either you crush or you adapt. It’s pretty clear that crushing the local context and just working with a business-as-usual mentality won’t work; this has been proven by the many urban disasters of the Modernist movement — and yet it still happens today in some forms, especially by large design firms that treat urban design primarily as a technocrat task. Adapting is far more difficult in fact because as humans — with our own ignorances, perceptual limitations, stress and behavioural biases — cannot rapidly adapt. Adaptation to local context is also more expensive from a business point-of-view and makes doing design work on-budget even more difficult. It requires you to learn and absorb unique situations in the local context and adapt your typical design solutions to the local context and it’s eccentricities. By adapting you learn and become a better design, a more versatile designer; you inevitably invent better design solutions that can then be imported to other urban projects.

So how can I quickly and simply summarize my methodologies for rapid anthropological analysis of a new context?

  • Build the right team, the local consultant can change everything. They must be a trusted and experienced cultural interpreter.
  • Read, read, read. News, books, personal research, academic articles, etc.
  • Pattern recognition in all the tiny details of how the city works day-to-day.
  • Deep questioning. At least 5 layers of why?
  • Play dumb. You probably are dumb.
  • Test every assumption you have about the context with different people on the team. Inevitably most of your assumptions or interpretations are incomplete or wrong all together.
  • Listen very clearly and openly to the client. Ask follow-up questions again and again.
Some of my favourite books from the Singapore trips. Photo by author.

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Darrel Ronald

Founder of Spatiomatics. Creator of the SIMO App for Urban Development. Architect, Urban Designer, Technologist, Entrepreneur.