Veera Sekaran

FuturArc Interview / 1st Quarter 2020

Veera Sekaran

by Alakesh Dutta

A consultant, educator and entrepreneur, Veera Sekaran lectures at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for the Masters course in Landscape Architecture Programme and at the Institute of Engineers (IES) for Public Utilities Board’s (PUB) Waters Certification programme, and is the founder of Greenology. It is a firm that specialises in designing and building vertical greening features, roof greening features, rain gardens and bioswales.

Sekaran has developed the proprietary Greenology Vertical Greenery (GVG), which is a sustainable urban vertical greening solution, and the LED Plant Grow Lights. Both have been used in Singapore and abroad. He is also the founder and director of VertiVegies, an indoor vertical farming company.

AD: How did your journey into a career associated with nature and greening begin?

VS: I grew up in a kampong where everything was outdoors. I would be climbing trees, running around farms, using my hands to do everything and trying to understand nature. I wasn’t shy of the outdoors and I also wasn’t shy of hard work. So that’s how my journey into greening and being part of nature began.

When I graduated from NUS in 1987 with a BSc in botany, I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew that I wanted to pursue something in the green environment but not a lot of work was available at that time. I was offered a job by one of the professors at a laboratory to research on fungi. I stayed there awhile before taking up a job as a manager at the Mandai Orchid Gardens. It was an outdoor job admist nature with plants. It fitted the bill perfectly. This basically became the start of the journey. After a brief stint in Seychelles, I joined the Singapore Zoo as a curator. There, I did a lot of work with animals and botany to design the enclosures and the various greening works. After this, I joined the industry. So, the journey went on from one domain to another. Every move brought newer experiences, exposure and challenges.

Outdoor green wall at North Canal Road, Singapore (photo courtesy of Greenology)

AD: What brought about Greenology and its focused attention to vertical greening?

VS: One of my many journeys led me to a mid-career switch into the civil service. I became Head of Horticulture for Changi Airport. From there, I was brought into the National Parks Board (NParks).

NParks then was more about administrative work than involvement in actual greening work. Hence, when the opportunity came along to do something more challenging, I jumped on board and started Greenology in 2008. At the time, I wasn’t very sure what the trends were, but I wanted to create something more niche, something more specialised. The trend for green walls was catching on. Many people were importing expensive systems that were not doing very well. That’s when I decided to develop my own system. This evolved and took a life of its own (the Greenology Vertical Greenery).

AD: What then led you to start producing your own technologies, like LED lights specifically for indoor plants, sensors, etc.?

VS: Well, it had to be. While people were thrilled with outdoor green façades, some were beginning to ask if these could be done indoors. I worked a lot with indoor plants when I was working for Changi Airport and I knew the struggle that you have with indoor plants, especially getting the correct temperature, humidity, light levels, etc. It is also very costly. So, I started looking at technologies that would make it easier to grow plants indoors. Around the same time, LED lights were beginning to come in. But the technology and literature that existed was not sufficient. Therefore, I decided to do my own research and developed my own lights. I experimented with different wavelengths to understand what wavelengths would work best for which types of plants. I then partnered with a friend to develop the lights. Once he began to manufacture the lights, I started buying them from him. It became quite successful. I soon bought into his business and developed it into a more interesting venture producing these grow lights.

AD: What other greening works does Greenology do?

VS: Although the branding of Greenology is green walls, its work is actually more holistic. We do anything related to nature and the environment. The challenge lies in developing greenery that is intended to bring back biodiversity within the urban environment. Being a zoo botanist, I have done master planning works for seven to eight zoos around the world with Bernard Harrison. I did the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) projects. I was asked to design and develop the Balam Estate rain garden. It was one of the first ABC Waters projects to be done and it became an important resource to develop the initial ABC Waters guidelines. I also worked with Herbert Dreiseitl as a specialist, advising the team during the initial period of the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park project. Currently, I have two ongoing ABC Waters projects in the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) campus. I also do interior landscaping projects like the one I did1 in the Apple Store at Orchard Road. Basically, I do all these kinds of specialised and challenging projects where I get to try new things. This helps me to innovate.

AD: You have spoken about creating a Green Intelligence Network that will allow people to communicate with greenery. What is this about?

VS: It’s something that I have been working on for the past two to three years. I basically want to use technology to create a link and connection to nature. The ‘wood wide web’ is the mycelial network that has been existing as a naturally occurring communication network for millions of years in the plant kingdom. It has got a repository of billions of terabytes of information about nature. My intention is to use technology to connect to this ‘wood wide web’ and create a Green Intelligence.

It will be a whole network of sensors that will go into understanding how trees and plants grow and their habitats. I intend to use that data to benchmark various parameters that will then inform us to create habitats that can thrive better. This Green Intelligence will also give better information about possible reasons for failures of trees and plants. These are amongst the many possibilities that can be harnessed by marrying modern technology with the natural sciences and domain knowledge. Very few people have done this, and I am one of them. I have put up a proposal to Gardens by the Bay to convert it into a smart garden. I hope that this project materialises soon.

“A lot of things that we and other farmers are doing are very new. Farmers need to be allowed to develop projects like entrepreneurs.”

AD: How important is biophilia in your projects?

VS: I actually use another word that I have coined myself. It’s called ‘bio-filial’. It’s about the conscience and consciousness of greening. It’s a definition that is more innate to the human spirit. When we talk about biophilia, we are referring to people’s want to be close to nature. Filial piety, on the other hand, is about respecting and caring for the past generations. It’s embedded in Confucianism, where they talk about care and respect for the elderly. I have used that word a bit differently, to appeal to people to care for and respect nature. This will lead to thoughts and actions that will create habitats and sustainable ecosystems for all species to coexist.

Bibliography
1 Outstanding Science Alumni Award 2014. NUS Faculty of Science. [Online] https://www.science.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Distinguished__Outstanding_Science_Alumni_Awards_2014.pdf.

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