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ThinkPlace designer Manasa Sitaram

A global outlook designing change for a global city

What if you need to leave a place to realise how much you truly belong to it?

And what if the perfect combination of skills and interests needed to create authentic Singaporean change in a Singaporean context could be collected far away from the city-state? 

These questions and more ring loudly in the ears of Manasa Sitaram.  

A Strategic Designer in ThinkPlace’s Singapore Studio, Sitaram arrives with a CV that marks her as a truly global citizen. But after returning to her homeland to take up a job with ThinkPlace in 2018, she says she has never felt more Singaporean. 

“I feel like without knowing it I’ve been working towards this job my whole life,” she says. “It comes from my upbringing and from my studies but it also comes from being an immigrant, having that double culture and having to be very adaptable.” 

Born in India and migrating to Singapore with her parents as a baby, Sitaram grew up thinking of herself as something of an outsider.  

After high school she travelled to Japan to complete her undergraduate degree in globalisation studies at the University of Tokyo. 

“I was 19, I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know anybody in Japan but I just had this sense of adventure,” she says. 

After almost five years in Tokyo, where her degree focused on East Asia and included studies in everything from anthropology to international relations, Sitaram moved to New York City to complete a Masters in Global Thought at Columbia University. 

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Daniel Silkstone
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Singapore is a city with an ambitious digital agenda
Singapore is a nation with an ambitious digital agenda.

Her Masters thesis looked at how ethnic networks from Asian locations like Bangalore and Taiwan contributed to the rise of Silicon Valley in California. 

“One of the reasons Silicon Valley is the juggernaut we see now it that there was openness towards anyone and everyone,” she says. “As long as you had passion, talent and drive you could be the CEO of Google.” 

With the Singaporean Government so focused on fostering innovation and creating a start-up friendly culture, Sitaram’s expert knowledge makes her ideally suited to the digital transformation work that ThinkPlace is increasingly engaged in. 

Her time overseas made her a truly global citizen but also had another effect. “Growing up here I sometimes felt like an expat Indian,” she says. “Being in New York made me realise how deeply Singaporean I was.” 

Ask her what that means. What is it to be Singaporean in 2019? And she lights up.  

“I had a lot of strong opinions about Singapore while I was away but increasingly I felt like I needed to come back and live here to have a right to those opinions,” she says. 

“The greatest thing about Singapore is how ready we always are to adapt, to change, to move with the times. Our people and our government think on their feet. We get it.” 

 

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Sitaram’s background has also made her passionate about fostering the creativity that comes from having diverse viewpoints in the room – a crucial part of the ThinkPlace approach to design. 

“The diversity we have as a society here is what will help us move forward,” she says. “As a country we are really good at aligning ourselves towards a shared vision. It’s a strength. But we also need to remember sometimes that diversity can be productive.” 

At Columbia she experienced the power of design thinking and strategic design to make change in the world and instantly knew this was what she wanted to do. That led her to ThinkPlace and a job interview that let her know she had knocked on the right door. 

“In the interview they asked us to carry out an exercise,” she says. “It was to redesign a traditional hawker centre for the future. It’s a challenge that was just so Singapore and so fun. I loved it.” 

At ThinkPlace she has already begun making her mark on her nation’s future – working on digital transformation and innovation projects that are very much aligned with the Government’s ambitious vision for a digitally-connected nation.  

“It’s such an exciting time for digital in Singapore,” she says. “We have the people, the resources and the shared commitment to shape a new digital future for this place.” 

But while she is fascinated by all-things tech, Sitaram’s perspective – like that of ThinkPlace itself – is focused on what this transformation can deliver for people. How it can change and improve their lives, better connect them with services and create lasting positive impact. 

“It’s really the human aspects of tech that interest me most,” she says. “It’s about technology as an opportunity to connect people, tell stories and change people’s experience of living here in this place.” 

Singapore is a perennial representative in the lists of the world’s best nations for innovation. This reflects the seriousness with which the nation’s government has sought to create a culture that incentivises invention and business development. But incentives and favourable conditions aside there is another side to innovation: a creative side. 

“I’m really interested in creativity and the arts,” she says. “In how we can use tools and mindsets from art to inform our design methods and come up with new ways of doing things that are bold and ambitious.” 

It is often said that Singapore is both large and small. A global transport and tech hub but also a single Asian city. A melting pot of cultures and people that looks simultaneously towards its neighbours but also to the world beyond. 

In this context, Sitaram is well-placed. “What I bring is a Singaporean voice but also a minority voice and a global voice,” she says. 
 

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