At TUMCREATE, as we prepare to conclude our research in Phase Two – Towards the Ultimate Public Transport System, we would like to highlight our researchers who continue to make significant contributions to the programme. Through our new series, People behind the Science, we talk to our researchers to discover more about them and their stories.
Our first interviewee is Dr Henriette Cornet from the team Design for Autonomous Mobility (DAM).
Even though she grew up in France, Henriette considers herself a bit of a German after having lived in Germany, Bavaria, for 10 years. That makes working in TUMCREATE the ideal environment for her since she is able to practice her German with our German colleagues while discovering new cultures in Singapore. Yes, that also makes her a trilingual who speaks 3 different languages – French, German and English!
Q: Tell us about yourself and what you do...
I am the Principal Investigator (PI) of DAM. This includes supervising the research activities of the team, seeking new collaborations, and coordinating the integration of our findings in the research programme. In the team, we focus a lot on human factors such as the interactions between autonomous mobility system and the users, and we often find ourselves asking questions like “How can we increase the acceptability of new technologies?” and “How can we make sure that no user, such as people with physical or cognitive disabilities, is overlooked in our considerations?”. So essentially, what we do is to find answers to these questions, using empirical and theoretical research.
Q: What made you come to Singapore and how has it been like living here?
I heard about the TUMCREATE project when I was living in Munich and found the project very exciting. I found the design activities led by Professor Fritz Frenkler, from Technical University of Munich (TUM), especially interesting and that was why I accepted the offer to lead his team on his behalf in Singapore.
Since I have moved from France to Germany before, I am quite used to adapting to a different place, so I adapted to Singapore quite quickly. The only thing I still can’t get used to is the hot and humid climate! As French, after feeling, sorry to say, a bit frustrated with the food options in Germany, I enjoyed the gastronomy of Singapore very much as well. The diversity of food here is impressive. I guess that is something that Singaporeans have in common with us French, we love food!
Q: Who or what inspired you to be in your field of research?
I was first inspired when I was studying Material Engineering at the University of Technology of Troyes, France. I took an optional class about “Industrial Ecology”, taught by the philosopher Dominique Bourg, and it was awakening. We were taught to think on much higher levels than we were used to as engineers and to think globally about our responsibility in the development of sustainable innovations. This was probably one of the reasons why I enrolled as a PhD student at TUM, where I discovered the field of urban mobility. Several years later, Professor Frenkler introduced me to design and expanded my views on what design is and can be. He made me realized that design is not only about products and services but also about technology, ergonomics, sociology, ecology, psychology, and even philosophy!
I’d also like to mention two Singaporean female scientists who had influenced me recently. First, Associate Professor Lynette Cheah who leads the Sustainable Urban Mobility research group at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). Her research on understanding values and influences affecting public expectations of future urban mobility in Singapore was very insightful. Then, Dr Cheryl Chung from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She mentioned in one of her talks that researchers and decision-makers should not forget, when collecting data, that there is a unique and individual experience behind each number. I try to keep this in mind in my everyday work!
Q: What are some of the challenges for you in your field of research?
The topic of public transport itself is a challenge because of the many layers that are involved in its development and improvement. In cities like Singapore, it is like the “blood system” of the society. On the surface, it is about maintaining the flow of people with their daily activities, but going deeper, there are emotions involved that need to be considered. These emotions influence the travel experience of people within public transport and therefore, their quality of life. This is, by the way, the topic of one of my PhD students, Penny Kong!
I would also say this field is challenging because of the numerous stakeholders involved and you need to speak the language of different disciplines to understand the system and have a positive impact on it. In TUMCREATE, transport planners, computer scientists, engineers and designers all work together and, from my experience, it entails some communication challenges! On top of that, to have your research be meaningful for the society, you will want to include the citizens and the policy makers, who have very different interests, and be able to understand their needs and communicate with them too.
Q: Tell us about your work and journey in TUMCREATE...
Working at TUMCREATE has been an incredible opportunity to broaden my horizons. I was unfamiliar with the field of industrial design when I started, and I learned a lot from Professor Frenkler and my team. We started the research activities from scratch and the team grew and expanded. Over time, a strong trust was developed in my team and I really enjoy working with them. Their enthusiasm for our projects motivates me a lot in my everyday work life!
I also appreciate the freedom I have as PI to start new projects and collaborations. I got the opportunity to learn and work with researchers from other disciplines such as the Future Cities Laboratory of Singapore-ETH Centre (SEC-FCL), the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) and SUTD. I could even connect my team members with researchers from French institutes like IRT-SystemX, STRATE School of Design and ENSAM, and conduct insightful cross-cultural studies. Beside our research, I got to work on side projects like participating in the festival, Pint of Science, that encourages science communication to the public, which is of major importance to me. My team and I also organized a meet-up for the community of researchers working with Virtual Reality in SEC-FCL. All these exchanges came with a great deal of fun!
All in all, I would say that the past 3 years had been intense but also intensely fruitful, not just on gaining knowledge but also on personal growth.
Q: What are some of your plans in the future?
My experience in TUMCREATE is ending soon and I have accepted a new position at UITP, the International Union of Public Transport, in Brussels, Belgium. I will be involved in the coordination of European Projects on Autonomous Vehicles for public transport, so it is a continuation of my activities from TUMCREATE! On a long-term perspective, I hope that I will be able to further contribute positively on societal challenges linked with urban mobility and liveability in a city.
(To end off the interview, we asked a 'fun fact' question about her.)
Q: If you could, which scientist would you like to have the opportunity to have a lunch with and why?
I recently enjoyed a podcast from the French paleo-anthropologist, Pascal Picq, who talked about his vision comparing three different intelligences: the one of the apes, the humans and the robots! He described how these intelligences should be combined for a better society. Over lunch, I would be happy to discuss with him his views, as anthropologist, about AI and how it will impact humanity. Though I’m not sure if the lunch will be long enough!
We would like to thank Henriette for giving us her time for this interview. We wish her all the best and hope the lunch opportunity comes true!