An inclusive designer, social innovation technologist and social impact strategist, Ken is the Director of (these)abilities, an Inclusive Design & Technology Agency that works with companies to build more inclusive products, services, environments & campaigns that benefit not just Persons with Disabilities but serves as a fresh experience for all.
He helps companies interested in being Inclusive to harness Disability as a Source of Innovation, Blue Ocean Strategy & form of Corporate Shared Value, all of which are strategic for a healthy double-bottom line.
With an academic background in Design, Engineering & Social Impact Strategy, Ken has given talks & workshops on Inclusive Design & The Future of Disability at places such as Google, TEDx, General Assembly & the Singapore Business Network on DisAbility. He has also worked with companies such as Grab, ComfortDelGro & Embraer on inclusive design strategies.
1) Share with us the activities you took part in while you were studying in SUTD.
I studied Engineering Product Development (a blend of Product Design & Engineering) in SUTD. I was a dual scholarship holder, one from SUTD and the other from Deutsche Bank.
On the academic side, design flowed through different facets of academia. The curriculum for every subject consisted of two parts – one project-based and the other, mainly theoretical. For project work, we got to do very practical stuff (very hands on) and that was the time where our creativity shone. In SUTD, what was unique was that they expect things from you that they do not teach. We were required to look for answers ourselves and not be spoon-fed by our tutors all the time. We were very much encouraged to do self-directed learning. Academically it was very fun.
On the CCA front, I was involved in Soccer and the brewery club where we brewed our own beer. As the pioneer batch of students in SUTD, we managed to secure a whole HDB flat, and the students co-existed with professors and their families. We were also able to screen shows like the EURO 2012 at the void deck and watch with our friends. There were also board game nights at different apartments, and that was only because we had a four-bedroom apartment and had a lot of space to accommodate everyone to come in and chill.
In SUTD, we were very involved in the entrepreneurial space as early as in 2012. A large handful of us were in the start-up space and the entrepreneurial spirit was very strong. It got more exciting when we learnt that the projects we were working on could potentially turn into different ventures. We also attended many entrepreneurship events.
2) Why did you choose to study Engineering Product Development in SUTD?
My motivation came when I was 17 and a student at Meridian Junior College (MJC). To fulfil the community service hours then, I volunteered at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore (CPAS) regularly. It was my very first interaction with people with disabilities (PWDs), and I knew I wanted to do something to change the way society views disabilities. I felt that design and technology had a very important role to play, in empowering and reshaping how society view disabilities.
It was partly passion and partly acknowledging that they were tools to help me to redesign the disability scene.
My first choice was to go to NUS, but they did not offer a double degree programme in Industrial Design & Mechanical Engineering. I got accepted instead to Industrial Systems Engineering in NUS. I thought that this was a very useful degree as there will always be a job for systems engineers no matter the condition of the market and economy. It was a stable job that paid highly.
I was also contemplating doing a mechanical engineering degree with a minor in business at NTU. However, I decided to head to SUTD as NUS and NTU’s courses did not have the design elements within an engineering programme, which I was looking for.
SUTD offered a fusion of both product design and engineering. For me, the interesting bit about SUTD was that we got to work on many projects outside the curriculum and had a huge freedom on our project scoping – I’ve always wanted to do disability design and technology, so in most of the projects that I have done, including systems and control and ethnography, I took a disability slant as I was given the freedom to do that.
We also got the chance to work in research labs to do undergraduate research projects – some of which were related labs in MIT Media Lab, like the Fluid Interfaces Lab, where we would try to augment the senses of people with disabilities, or cross-map them, so that they can interface with technology and society better.
3) What was the inspiration behind starting (these)abilities? What do you hope to achieve for (these)abilities in five to ten years’ time?
As a teaching assistant in CPAS, I was teaching slightly younger kids than myself on how to spot fires and call 995. I recognised a lot of discrepancies and had wondered why I did not interact with more PWDs growing up.
Essentially that’s what got me started, and I also went on to explore the Deaf community, the visually impaired community et al – all very vibrant, with different ways of thinking. I started planting myself into these communities to learn from the ground up. Moving up the curriculum in SUTD, I started to see the overlap between design, technology, disability, and what companies were doing for PWDs. The sorts of innovation and motivations behind each design were very compelling to me. I was also curious as to how I could lend my skills and expertise to PWDs.
Most people would assume that I must have a family member or close friend who has a disability to spur my motivation for this endeavour. But for me that was not the case – I do not have that kind of relation to anyone who is a PWD. This leads to the point that you don’t need to be personally affected in order to do something and that anyone can step up. I want to send across that salient message that I did so and others can definitely do so too.
PWDs are severely overlooked and underserved as a community and the fact that society is okay with that being the status quo, sincerely frustrates me. I see it as a design flaw. With social constructs being arbitrary, societies can construct new rules so that we can redesign them, finding different new & effective ways to advocate for disability through avenues that we know people will pay a little more attention to.
Over the past 10 years, I have kept track with the trends of the local government’s support for the Disability Community in terms of support & to what degree. Now, with (these)abilities, I get to plan and work with various government entities to shape the kind of support we’d see in the years to come.
4) How can students in Singapore help in (these)abilities? Are there particular type of skills you are looking for?
I would love to have young budding designers, engineers and aspiring entrepreneurs enter the disability space, to show them what the disability landscape and industry is like. It is possible to peak with Innovation and Impact by being in the Social Impact space, rather than clamouring to be the next Facebook or Google. We engage students through business, design and engineering volunteer projects, and give students projects with real-world application, mostly in the local communities, to create solutions that will significantly impact the lives of people who need their help.
Besides volunteering, we are open to internship opportunities for final year students in design, engineering and business. Just drop us an email at email@example.com.
5) Who is your role model? What quote do you live by?
I did not really have someone to emulate growing up, but what helped me was that I did not come from a privileged background. I started working odd jobs at 15 for pocket money and that allowed me to buy my first mobile phone. Those experiences taught me independence, resilience and the value of money. That shaped the course of my learning as I came from humble beginnings.
Through these, I built a lot of resilience, and learnt to adapt to whatever the world throws at me and the ability to bring out its best.
A universal quote that I share with my colleagues and people I mentor, that ranges from designers, engineers & entrepreneurs, is that “If you wait until you’re ready, then it’s probably too late”. I think as Singaporeans, we tend to be very risk averse and seek perfection. So, chances are someone already has beat you to the game if you wait till you’re ready. Feel comfortable with being uncomfortable.
6) What advice do you have for undergraduates who are still looking for their career path or meaning and purpose in life?
To a certain extent, there is privilege in Singapore. With privilege, whatever you try is still a very safe space. I managed to find my purpose at 17 and was very clear in knowing what I had to do to get there.
I threw myself into the deep end with no safety nets and tried out a lot of different things. It was my beta test to ensure I had the passion and resilience to pursue what I wanted. There must also be the passion to persevere in these fields. I’ve tried many different things – throughout my childhood, I wanted to be an accountant, a doctor that fuses TCM & Western Medicine, etc. Dive deep into a lot of them to just understand more before deciding whether that is truly what you want to do.
Your passion will drive you through a lot of different things. Passion is a big driver for change and there’s no pressure for it to be related to social impact – if you feel you are serving a purpose, then just continue doing it. Expose yourself to as many things as possible, as deeply as possible, and acknowledge and embrace the risks involved. Personally, I take the hard courses that I know are beneficial to me and will not take the easy way out: for example, I’ve never taken a module simply because it guarantees me an A grade.
Look at your learning as a long-term investment, I can’t emphasise this enough, “Explore vastly and deeply and acknowledge and embrace the risks involved.”
(these)abilities is an Inclusive Design & Technology Agency that works with companies to redesign and/or build Inclusive products, services, environments & campaigns that benefit not just Persons with Disabilities but serves as a fresh experience for all.
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