History of International Development in Asia

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Many students express the desire to apply their skills overseas in helping less fortunate communities address pressing everyday concerns – from the lack of clean running water to improving a children’s playground. While this impulse to ‘help’ may on the surface seem a good one, engineering and design projects in foreign locations often have deep social and political effects that are not immediately evident. To raise students’ awareness of such issues, Dr Samson Lim developed the elective History of International Development in Asia, which focuses on the critical question: “What part have designers and engineers played in shaping the social, political, and economic transformations that have taken place in Asia during the past 100 years?”

To answer this question, students in the course study the theories that have driven the development projects and analzye the effects of prominent engineering and design initiatives that have been attempted over the past 100 years. Though mainly historical, the course draws on research from the fields of science and technology studies, anthropology, and development studies to introduce key concepts in the theory and practice of international development.

SUTD students in the Philippines interacting with community members through the Opportunity Lab

The defining aspect of the course is that it incorporates practical exercises and cases studies though a collaboration with SUTD’s Opportunity Lab (O-Lab), the Architecture and Sustainable Design (ASD) Pillar and the Engineering Product Development (EPD) Pillar, to help students synthesize historical knowledge with contemporary design and development concerns. History of International Development in Asia radically integrates humanities and social sciences with architecture and product design, thus bringing to life SUTD’s vision of tearing down disciplinary silos and forging collaborative thinking. This elective was run first in 2014, allowing students the opportunity to combine their design and engineering knowledge with the humanities.

The course itself is organized thematically and chronologically. Thematically, the course covers a range of ideas, from markets to human rights, which influence the way people think about international design and development. Dr Samson Lim explains that these themes are presented in terms of their concrete manifestations: design strategies that development professionals commonly employ today, such as participation, data-driven design, comprehensive planning, surveys, and market research. Why did these strategies for design become prominent? What are their historical roots and what is the logic behind their emergence? Are they still valid and if not, what options are there for international development professionals?

Chronologically, the course begins by examining the colonial roots of international development from the late 19th century onwards. It then moves toward the Cold War period, when American involvement in Indo-China brought numerous foreign designers and engineers to countries throughout Southeast and East Asia, shaping not only physical development but also social change. Now, countries like China, Japan, and even Singapore have expanded into places far afield, including especially Africa, to participate in the global development project. In light of these trends, it is critical for students to engage actively with the history of design and development in modern Asia because it can also hold important lessons for the rest of the world.


SUTD students in India with Victoria Gerrard of the Opportunity Lab