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 interview series, People behind the Science, we talk to our researchers to discover more about them and their stories.
We have with us Niklas Forchhammer from the Design for Autonomous Mobility (DAM) team.
Niklas is a researcher and industrial designer from Germany. Just like most of us, it wasn’t apparent to him what he wanted to do when he was growing up. In fact, he was quite a rebellious kid in school and always a troublemaker. Needless to say, academic achievements were not at the top of his mind during his school years. It was only after his apprenticeship when he came to the realisation of his interest in design and started to work towards the goal of being an industrial designer and later, a researcher in this area.
Q: Tell us about yourself and what you do…
I am an industrial designer from the DAM team. In DAM, we create design concepts for TUMCREATE’s research on the mobility system DART, a concept for future public transport system. This involves the vehicle and infrastructural elements of the mobility system. We consider every touchpoint the user has with the system, which is not limited to physical elements but also extends to all interfaces such as guidance systems. Subsequently, we come up with solutions to improve usability and travel experience for all users.
Good design concepts are created based on comprehensive research and analysis to holistically discover the topic and define a problem. Therefore, I also conduct various research, especially user research and user testing for future mobility, and translate the outcomes into design concepts.
Q: What made you come to Singapore, and how has it been like living here?
During my master’s thesis, I chose to come to TUMCREATE in Singapore to get an impression of future mobility and use its mobility system research as a case study for my thesis. Throughout my four-weeks stay here, I was very impressed by Singapore’s vivid multiculturism and applied technology usage. I did not hesitate when I was offered the opportunity to join the DAM team as an industrial designer.
Originally, I have planned to stay for only one year but in a blink of an eye, I have been here for almost 3 years. I adapted well to some of Singapore’s big-city attributes like the excellent infrastructure, culinary opportunities and the various entertainment options. Still, I am often surprised how certain spots are able to give off a sense of that village spirit where everyone seems to know each other. Many scenes in my neighbouring coffee shops are basically the same as you would see in a Bavarian beer garden or village pub. Also, despite being a busy city, I really like the friendliness of the people here especially the hawkers. I have a favourite food court auntie who will always greet me with a “good morning, hamsum” and we would chat a little until my breakfast set is ready. Although, I’m still figuring out what does “hamsum” mean.
Q: Who or what inspired you to be in your field of research?
I completed an apprenticeship before I went to university. It was mostly manual work of building and installing things and from there I’ve learned a lot about craft skills and the different types of materials. After some time, I realised I want to be a part of the design process instead of just the implementation stage. I started to look at studying either mechanical engineering or architecture so that I can have a greater influence on the design of things in our environment. In the end, it was my brother who suggested that I should apply for industrial design courses and as usual, he was right. I really enjoy what I am doing now.
Q: What are some of the challenges for you in your field of research?
Well, there are many… A major challenge of industrial design is that you usually face something called “wicked problems”. Wicked problems are problems which do not have just one optimal solution, due to an uncertain problem definition and an interplay of multiple stakeholders with different interests. For example, even if you solve a problem perfectly for the user with a product that is of great usability and excellent quality and checks all the ethical requirement boxes, other stakeholders might disagree with your design proposal because it does not provide the best business opportunities for them. The designer then has to find a balance between the requirements to suit everybody’s needs, which is rather difficult.
Q: Tell us about your work and journey in TUMCREATE…
I started at TUMCREATE as an industrial designer and my responsibilities started with, as some might call it, the standard design tasks like ideation, visualisation and prototyping. Over time, I was able to expand my work in the direction of scientific research, including publishing scientific papers and the opportunity to present at an international conference. The cool thing is that the papers thematised the design concepts developed and are therefore the perfect supplement for me as a designer.
My scope has also expanded to supervising research teams on a few projects. One of them was a project that looked at designing future stops for autonomous vehicles. We studied the various user needs, by taking into account persons with disabilities and the demands and opinions of transport users, and developed a blueprint of a stop designed for the future autonomous transport in Singapore. This includes having interactive interfaces available that could provide additional information for the commuters about their journeys. Currently, I am also working on proposals based on recent research, in hope to collaborate with key industry players and bring improvements to Singapore’s public transport system through real life application.
Q: What are some of your plans in the future?
Workwise, I plan to stay in my current areas of expertise on design, user research and autonomous mobility. The diversification of these three areas are able to expose me to all sort of interesting works. Also, I see great potential for these fields to have positive and lasting impacts on future cities. Geographically, I am quite flexible. I could see myself continue living and working in Asia but I could also picture myself in Europe, bringing with me the experiences I have gained here.
(This time round, we are curious what will a person who works in science choose as their favourite invention of all time.)
Q: What’s your favourite invention of all time and why?
Oh that’s easy, instead of what people would consider great inventions like the printing press, light bulb or internet, I also appreciate idle things like soap bubbles. It’s a simple thing but it usually brings joy.
It’s good to hear Niklas definitely adapted well to the Singapore culture by being one of the ‘hamsums’ acknowledged by the hawker aunties! A technology is only as good as what the user deems and the important work that Niklas and his team are doing here will certainly ensure a smoother transition for commuters when the time comes for autonomous transport in Singapore.