Interview with Thomas Oetterli about the 2019 Schindler Global Award


The 2019 Schindler Global Award is the third global competition with an urban design focus – a sustained commitment by Schindler to add something to the discourse about urban design. Why is this important to the company?


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Thomas Oetterli has been Schindler CEO since 2016, and is also a member of its board. He started at the company in 1994, working his way from an accounting position to his current role.

The 2019 Schindler Global Award is the third global competition with an urban design focus – a sustained commitment by Schindler to add something to the discourse about urban design. Why is this important to the company?
Schindler sees the Schindler Global Award as a way to bring the thinking of the company – and our focus on accessible, sustainable vertical mobility and traffic management – in line with globally relevant, large-scale issues. We see it as our responsibility to support various initiatives, including the award, which address the challenges and opportunities associated with urbanization. Students of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design and planning are at the first phase of what will become their professional careers. It is certain that they will have a role in creating the cities of the future. The Schindler Global Award is an excellent format for students to gain exposure to global issues and come up with new ideas and approaches in response. Through the award we encourage their contribution to the global discourse about sustainable urban development. We learned a lot from the entries in 2015 and 2017, and look forward to learning even more in 2019.

The focus on urbanization is interesting, given the fact that elevators and escalators are usually associated with building interiors, not cities as a whole. Yet the company clearly sees itself as a contributor to the city. Can you explain this a bit more?
Elevators and escalators are essentially a kind of public transportation system. They also enabled the construction of cities as we know them – buildings over five or six stories are nearly unthinkable and certainly impractical without mechanized vertical transport systems. We would not have dense cities of tall buildings without elevators and escalators. The award is focused on the city because our work is inherently urban. We study at how people move around, from home to work and everywhere between, which means that we look at what we do as an integrated part of large systems that work in cities. Understanding things holistically helps us serve our customers better, and to help make urban life better in general.

The focus of the award is on mobility, with the point that we are “urban through mobility” – what might students who participate in the Schindler Global Award gain from this way of understanding the city?
Simply put, mobility is one of the most important parts of urbanization. If mobility can be sustainable and encourage access for all to urban amenities, then everyone in a city – and beyond, as we’re talking about global sustainability – can benefit. We hope SGA participants will see the power of mobility to positively influence the lives of everyone in cities. We also hope that they see the benefit of working in an open format to share ideas and take pleasure in creating responses to complex questions, such as those posed in the competition brief.

What makes India exciting as the site of the current award cycle?
India is one of our biggest markets. In 1998 we established Schindler India a 100% subsidiary and we are now expanding our manufacturing facilities, including the first escalator-manufacturing site in the country! Cities across India are experiencing urban growth in the form of everything from super tall, super thin towers to smaller complexes of buildings. Of course, all of these spaces must be made accessible, and our product range enables this in everything from a humble housing project to a landmark development. Indian cities face many challenges, but they are also the sites of a lot of interesting work on how cities can be improved and changed to better serve their inhabitants. We hope the award can provide some inspiring original thinking from students, in the specific case of Mumbai.

What trends do you see in urban mobility?
We are currently focused on innovation in terms of the way that elevators function and how people interact with them – we pioneered the first traffic management systems in the 1990s, and continue to take advantage of the opportunities brought by digitization. Smart cities are discussed often, and we make elevator systems smarter, and improve how they are serviced, installed and even how components are manufactured using cutting-edge technology.

It is clear that Schindler understands elevators and escalators as important “hardware” for sustainable urbanization and making cities more livable. Can you explain more about the digitization based “software” side of vertical transport, such as traffic management. Can you explain what this is and how it might contribute to those goals?
Traffic management is concerned with how people move through a building, and how the vertical transportation system handles their movement needs. Schindler was first to market with “destination control” in the 1990s. This system lets users input their destination in a building and for them to be directed to the most efficient route. This saves energy and time. In a building with thousands of people, both savings are extremely important.I find it interesting that traffic management also increasingly takes the whole city into account – the building and its vertical transport systems are the only the final step in most people’s journey. We’re interested in everything that happens before they step into an elevator or onto an escalator. For example, knowing commuter train schedules can help to efficiently serve building occupants by predicting the flows of people through a building at any given time. Data and analytics are important to us at all scales. I suppose this is also “software”. Students should be aware of how one building system can interact with much larger urban systems.

The site of the first Schindler Global Award was Shenzhen, and then the award moved to São Paulo, and now Mumbai. Why is the focus global?
Business is global, and the practice of architecture or urban design is global. Even the most locally focused firms must use materials and even labor from abroad. Some firms will work on all continents, using international teams. That’s exciting to me – and it is how we work at Schindler, with 60,000 employees spread over the world.
The discourse about cities is also global, and even cities are becoming more prominent, some with almost the same status as countries! Knowing about the world outside of your own context, participating in broad societal discussions helps in the professional world. We invite students who participate in the Schindler Global Award to adopt this globally oriented way of thinking early in their maturation and use it to help shape their ideas.

What role might vertical mobility have on the competition site and task in Mumbai?
Mobility is multifaceted. I think it is interesting to consider the total role of mobility on the site, rather than simply looking at vertical mobility. Students should think about mobility as more than horizontal or vertical connections from point A to point B, but a more continuous movement. Approaching that on the site could offer a very interesting starting point for students. With digitization and new technologies, we are suddenly connecting ways of moving in a city like never before. This is something we’re very interested in at Schindler.The site stretches a long distance along the central, dense peninsula of Mumbai – I’d say that a strong design there has a huge potential to really change the city. With the existing rail lines, highways and roads, non-operational monorail, along with the new metro lines to come and even a ferry, the site is defined by its mobility.The zoom-in part of the site, where the students will connect their ideas about urban and regional scales with a specific, localized design must not only answer how people move around but also why. Where are people going, what are they doing? And for designs to be truly inclusive, students should not forget to think about all of the inhabitants of Mumbai – projects should not be focused on only one socioeconomic group. Not only the richest or the poorest, I mean everyone.

Do you have any last thoughts for students who participate in the Schindler Global Award 2019?
Do your research and understand the context. It is not enough to design something new and innovative – you must also carefully tailor it to its specific context. The best entries from the past two global awards did this in a smart way. Having a targeted focus that is clearly communicated also helps to convey ideas clearly – this is essential in professional life! The Schindler Global Awards are a fun chance to practice many skills, from design to teamwork, and also communication and strategic thinking.