NTU inter-disciplinary student team builds new heights for sustainability
NTU’s ‘Tower of Babylon’ seeks to be an icon for the sustainable use of resources
The Tower of Babylon, once the tallest structure in the city of Babylon, one of the most decadent cities in history known for its opulence and extravagance, is now being “rebuilt” in five universities around the world.
One of these “towers”, a structure which can take any height or form, will be constructed in Singapore at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Instead of representing the peak of a Babylonian society which was extravagant in its consumption of resources, these new towers will be a new symbol for sustainability.
Constructed creatively from recycled materials by 17 undergraduate students from different disciplines, the NTU structure is the university’s entry in an international multi-disciplinary competition named “Building Tower of Babylon: What on Earth is Sustainability” organised by the Global Alliance of Technological Universities (GlobalTech).
The team from NTU will pit their skills against four other participating members of GlobalTech: Georgia Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
The competition will focus on the inspiration, networking and collaboration of the students, so as to achieve a symbol of sustainability for their region, country, city and university.
Leading the tower-building efforts at NTU is Eugene Lee, 25, a fourth-year engineering student from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Together with his team, they started a collection drive for more than 1,000 plastic bottles and sourced for wooden pallets – commonly used by the shipping industry - which was then used to form the foundation of their tower.
Eugene said there was a symbolic meaning to the whole structure, which they painstakingly built by hand using simple tools. It stands in a shape of an octagon, featuring tall overhangs of plastic bottles, peaking with a tall flag.
“The flag represents tower of Babylon, five poles represents the five oceans, it is spread to the seven continents, and finally to the four official languages to Singapore,” he explained.
Eugene said they decided to embark on this endeavour as it presents an opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills into a multi-disciplinary project, with the other members bringing in their skills from courses such as computer engineering, environmental science and engineering and materials engineering.
“Our structure represents the human ingenuity to use common recycled materials for alternative use rather than expensive specialised materials used in the industry,” he said.
“This is shown by the use of reconditioned wooden shipping pallets to build the base of our structure augmented with other common local materials like wood from mangrove trees that are common in Singapore swamps.
“Even though it is all simple materials, we hope to show that artistic yet sustainable buildings can be done.”
The main challenge they faced was to focus the multitude of ideas and views from many disciplines, into a single direction. Time was also a concern as they only had a week to complete construction of the structure, after three months of initial planning.
Prof Su Guaning, NTU’s President and Chairman of GlobalTech, said this competition gives opportunities for students to better understand how climate change, the demands of rapid urbanisation and depleting resources will have an impact on the world and on a small island like Singapore.
“In today’s world, problems such as mankind’s ever increasing consumption of natural resources cannot be solved by just one person or a single solution,” said Prof Su. “To tackle global issues such as sustainability requires many individuals with different expertise coming together in a concerted effort, to create new technological innovations that will not only reduce resource usage, but also change the way we use resources.”
Sustainability is one of NTU’s Five Peaks of Excellence, the five-year strategic blueprint for global greatness unveiled in January this year. The other four areas where the university seeks to excel are new media, future health care, the best of East and West, and innovation.
This is the first time such a tower-building competition has been organised by GlobalTech, a network of the world’s top technological universities that aims to address global societal issues to which science and technology could be their solution.
For this competition, students from five partner universities across different continents and cultures are given the same task of building a structure using only local or locally-sourced materials, their know-how and their hands. They will not only be judged on their completed structure, but they will also have to document the entire construction process and the methods they used to realise their vision.
The documented process will then be uploaded on the web and judged online by well-known professionals from various fields in addition to two jury member from each of the five participating universities. The results are expected to be announced in July.
The concept of this competition was first initiated by the ASB (artsciencebuilding) association in Switzerland. The aim of the association is foremost to support and inspire young people towards a more interdisciplinary freedom of thought and to think “outside the box”.
GlobalTech was formed in Singapore in April 2009. It brings together seven leading engineering-based universities in the belief that one of the best ways to address global issues is through the joint and concerted development of technological solutions, based on top class research in science and technology.
The "Grand Challenges" identified by GlobalTech include biomedicine and health care, sustainability and global environmental change, security of energy, water and food supplies, security, and changing demographics/ population.
More information about the Tower of Babylon competition can be found at its website here.
A video of the tower building efforts at NTU can be found here.
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