Joyful Chaos in the Tropics

The Future Belongs to the Tropics


On the 3rd of September 2021, as part of the pre-conference webinar series “The Future Belongs to The Tropics” leading up to the International Conference of Tropical Sciences (TropSc 2021), the Mahathir Science Award Foundation (MSAF) together with the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) successfully hosted a public discourse on the “joyful chaos” of cities in the Tropics.

The speaker of the discourse, Gaétan Siew, past President of the International Union of Architects and UN-Habitat Special Envoy, shared his views on the unique character of tropical cities. Professor Dato’ Seri Dr. Mazlan Othman (Chair of TropSc 2021), started the webinar with her welcoming remarks, sharing her view that the “chaos” arisen from transition in tropical cities can eventually to lead to creativity and growth.

During Gaétan’s sharing, he first took a deep dive into exploring the role of traditional knowledge in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. He described the city as having an invisible layer of knowledge that is only shared among the locals or those that have deep knowledge of the city. He mentioned that such layers of knowledge are often seen in emerging worlds, such as colonial cities. Gaétan expressed that these cities are usually the combination of two types of cities: spontaneous cities and top-down approach cities.

He then went on to outline the different evolving visible layers  of cities, such as the space, the people, its function, and time. An eye-opening insight Gaétan shared was that besides the visible layers mentioned, cities are also made up of invisible layers such as the layers of people that move to and from different locations. He said, “The world is made of mobility for survival and better life, in terms of refugee movement, exchange of ideas, goods services and trading, and capital.”.

The audience was brought into full amazement as Gaétan related the repetition of geometric patterins in plants such as fractal leaf patterns to the organization of cities such as Mumbai, Istanbul and Naples. These cities, in terms of land-use efficiency and resource optimization, are organised in an invisible manner. Gaétan also emphasised other elements of cities such as languages, desire as an invisible knowledge, innovation, and materials that are provided a second life through transformation.

As he reached the end of his presentation, Gaétan explained that a new layer of the city has emerged as a response to the post-pandemic situation. This new layer consists of internet connections that do not require any physical infrastructure. His words left the audience some food for thought to figure out the future of our cities and its multiple layers.

All in all, the discourse session thoroughly intrigued the audience. During his presentation Gaétan referenced and recommended two books that you may want to add to your reading list:

(a) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

(b) Invincible Cities by Italo Calvino


This webinar is a free pre-conference event leading up to the International Conference on Tropical Sciences (TropSc) 2021 to be held from 25-27 October. Gaétan Siew will be speaking at the conference during our Smart People-First Cities in the Tropics panel session. To register and find out more about the Conference, visit  .


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