Case Study: TEDx Singapore

Data Can Be Green

A computer scientist with a dream

We all know what energy crunchers our smartphones and computers are, and we’ve all seen the pictures of factories with endless puffs of smoke billowing from their chimneys. It has seemed inevitable that since the industrial revolution our technology has been a great contributor to environmental degradation like pollution and climate change. Our devices place a huge requirement on the earth’s energy resources, but a necessary one, right?

To mitigate technology’s impact on the environment, we therefore need civic-minded people to step up with innovative green solutions.

Meet Dr. Tan Tin Wee. A medical and botany professor by occupation, he heads the labs at the National Super Computing Centre, a subsidiary of A*Star Singapore.

Dr. Tan ventured into building supercomputers after realizing the immense potential it held for multiple applications apart from processing with the advent of the IoT (Internet of Things) era.

When Dr. Tan approached us, he had been invited to speak at TEDxSingapore, to share his thoughts on Singapore’s future and how it is affected by his work.

Complex, esoteric ideas for a general audience

In our line of work, we often meet hyper-intellectual individuals like Dr. Tan that typically have trouble communicating their thoughts in a simple way through their presentations.

As Dr. Tan was explaining his idea of how heat from supercomputers could be counteracted with the sub zero temperatures in colder climates, he was scribbling esoteric formulas on a piece of paper. Whilst using technical jargon would undoubtedly convince the audience of Dr. Tan’s expertise, it is equally likely to confuse the TEDx audience that is made up of people from all walks of life. As a university professor, Dr. Tan was very used to conducting technical lectures to a technical audience, but we believed that Dr. Tan would still be able to persuade his audience using simple language.

To ensure that his ground-breaking ideas will be appreciated by an , we had to ensure that his vehicle of communication would allow audiences to fully grasp his ideas with related references that they were familiar with.

Noting the TED requirement for presentations to be below 20 minutes, we also had to restrict the amount of ideas we could have in the presentation as Dr. Tan was in no manner short of thoughts.

The Super-Energy Problem

Our first meeting with Dr. Tan gave us a peek into his mind. Much like how some of the greatest people in science theorized solutions that were so brilliantly obvious and therefore easily overlooked, Dr. Tan was passionately working on solutions to solve the problem of excessive overheating and energy wastage from supercomputers.

The scale of the problem was so large and abstract that we worked hard to create analogies that could sufficiently relay the information to the general audience.


We asked him: How many tea kettles could the heat from supercomputers power?
His answer: A thousand.


By relating something unfamiliar like the energy consumption of a supercomputer to that of a household object – a tea kettle, audiences can fully grasp the magnitude of the problem by relating to their own personal experiences.

The next big challenge was to communicate how we could use this energy, normally wasted, in a meaningful way.

Waste-Recycling

Through many rounds of research and conversation with Dr. Tan, we found that large companies built data centers in colder countries like Iceland so they wouldn’t need to expend more energy to cool the overheating supercomputers.

But how do we do that in a tropical country like Singapore?

Thankfully, Dr. Tan already had the solution (as well as its supporting mathematical calculations). He wanted to create ‘Singapore’s own Iceland’, as he endearingly calls his project, using the extremely cold liquid nitrogen at Jurong Island. The liquid nitrogen needed to be heated to room temperature to boil anyway, and the supercomputers needed a way to offset the heat generated – it was a perfect match.

A Natural Symbiotic Relationship

In our search for a compelling story to illustrate this scientific phenomenon, Dr. Tan mentioned that his mentor had advised him to tap on his expertise as a medical doctor.

After much discussion, we decided that the analogy of animal waste was the best representation to relate his idea of waste recycling. Cows consume grass, in turn producing feces as waste which ends up as fertilizer for new grass to grow – A symbiotic relationship.

Juxtaposing this illustration with his ‘Singapore’s Iceland’ idea was an apt way to represent the concept.

The still unsolved problem

Still, all this meant very little to an audience that might not have a care in the world for energy waste and super computers.

We still needed to find a way to make this new information relevant to audiences who weren’t computer scientists or medical professors. We eventually settled on bringing the examples down to a micro-level: when the big picture gets too complex, it’s time to scale things down to the realities of everyday life. People may not care for supercomputers heating liquid nitrogen, but what if every household had a way of powering devices with the heat they themselves produce?

A far-fetched idea? Maybe not.

Imagine, using the heat from a computer to heat your coffee pot. Such memorable and desirable visual pictures help the audience connect with these ideas on a personal level, using a commonplace beverage like coffee as the relevant thread tying these ideas together.

A vision for Singapore’s future

Singapore’s government is very quickly transitioning the city into a smart nation powered by the Internet of Things and smart technology.

Dr. Tan’s envisions a nation where everyone uses mass-market household devices custom-built to work together in harmony with each other. This will reduce our energy waste and consumption drastically. An energy cycle that works in tandem, as synchronized as the water cycles found in nature.

See Dr.Tan Tin Wee in action:

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