Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 25 — The Fire Engineer (Michael KINSEY, Arup)

Oscar Fuchs
Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
Oscar Fuchs

Today’s episode is with the Fire Engineer, Michael Kinsey. Like a moth to a flame, I was fascinated to learn what his job entails. It was a slow burn, but I was soon fired up, and all guns blazing to learn more.

Original Date of Release: August 3, 2021.

Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 25 — The Fire Engineer (Michael KINSEY, Arup)


OF: You're supposed to be a gentleman.

MK: I apologise.

OF: We’re representing the Brits here.


OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.

You know, there are some episodes in this podcast series where you really want the guest to talk expansively about their lives and their experiences, and maybe the last couple of episodes with Salome CHEN and DJ BO have been a bit like that. And then there are people like today's guest Dr. Michael Kinsey, where they do something so specific, requiring such a specialist toolbox of skills, that the fascination comes from focusing in and discovering all the secret panels and compartments of that toolbox. But if all this talk about specialist toolboxes is already making you roll your eyes, then I'm actually doing Michael a disservice, because his area of expertise has as much to do with human behaviour as it does, to use the scientific term, geeky stuff.

[Part 1]

OF: Hello Michael, what is your title?

MK: So my job is as a fire engineer, to help design safer buildings during fires.

OF: Well, I want to know more about it. And before we do go into that, the first question I have to ask you is, what object did you bring that in some way defines your life here in China?

MK: So the object I've brought in is something called a smoke mask.

OF: Oh, let's have a look. Right.

MK: It's in this plastic box. And I can open it.

OF: I've seen the box in hotels.

MK: Exactly. So basically, you find these commonly in hotels in China, typically they’re in the wardrobe.

OF: Yes.

MK: On the top shelf, near the extra duvets and covers. And the purpose is that if there's a fire, and smoke starts billowing through the corridors, then this might be useful. Because you can put it on, and it will help you survive a bit longer.

OF: Wow. And tell me what is it that you do then, being a fire engineer?

MK: So I work for a company called Arup. Most people haven't necessarily heard of it, but they've probably heard of some of the buildings we've helped design, like the Bird's Nest, Shanghai World Financial Center, the Sydney Opera House. My job is to go around helping all the other engineers help design their part of the building, so that we can make it safe during a fire. So if I'm talking to architects, often that relates to how many exits; where the stairs are; the layouts; if the travel distances are too long. If I'm talking to, say, a structural engineer, it's how high is the building; do I need to protect the structure so that if there's a fire, the building's not going to collapse? If I'm talking to a mechanical engineer, I'll be talking to them about the smoke control system, to see if it's big enough to accommodate the expected fire size that we might have. So one of the things I love about my job is I get to learn a little bit about all these different aspects of building design.

OF: And so at what point in the process are you brought into it?

MK: Commonly, very early on. When you're designing a building, you try and design the big stuff first. So obviously, that's the shape of the building, the form. Then you have the structure. But also for fire, we need escape stairs, and they can take up a lot of space. So we have to make sure we get enough of those designed in at the very beginning, so that they can start designing around those things. So often, quite early on.

OF: And I'm guessing that means that your input can have a big effect on actually how the building ends up looking.

MK: Yeah, a lot of my job is telling people what they can't do. It's very similar to a parent actually, because it's unsafe. So a key part of what we do is about how we communicate this information, to come up with solutions of how you can do it. I mean, I've been a fire engineer for coming up to about eight years now. And every project is different. And I constantly have to learn more. And I think it suits my personality. I have a degree in computing, and I have a PhD also in computing and mathematical sciences as well. I’m naturally curious.

OF: OK. So then where is the overlap between somebody with a computer science background, and a fire engineering job?

MK: So my PhD was involved in developing computer models to simulate people evacuating high-rise buildings using lifts, and also Underground stations using escalators.

OF: Right.

MK: Trying to understand how people behave in high-rise building evacuations, and on escalators. And then I went and said “Well, how can I develop computer models to represent this?” I actually shared my office with two psychologists who were involved in interviewing survivors of the World Trade Center 911 attacks. And I've had many discussions about how people behave. Then had to think about how can I programme this, the logic.

OF: Oh I see. So you're converting behaviours into a computer algorithm.

MK: Yeah, I would look at it more as, what are some of the patterns in behaviour? And how can we develop a model? So what percentage of people do X behaviour? What percentage do Y behaviour? And then we can develop that into a simplified version of reality, which is our model. So for a lot of my PhD, I would either count people doing things, or I conducted a survey asking people what they would do. And there's huge limitations with this.

OF: Right.

MK: Absolutely.

OF: Because what I say I would do in the cold light of day, is probably not what I would do when I'm panicking with my pants on fire.

MK: Exactly, exactly. Well, actually it's interesting, most fires - when there is a fire, say, in a massive building - the fire won't be anywhere near you, but you're still required to evacuate. So a lot of the time people won't be even aware that it's a real fire.

OF: Yes, I totally understand that. Because you hear a fire alarm even, and your first instinct is to think it's a false alarm.

MK: Exactly. So this comes back to a common bias. And I've done research looking at human behaviour. One of the things we look at is biases. And ‘Normalcy Bias’ is a common one, where people think that there's nothing wrong. Because statistically, it's likely there is nothing wrong. The chances of you being involved in an actual fire are very small. So whilst it is a bias, it's actually totally valid to think that.

OF: Right, and what other biases did you find?

MK: A lot. ‘Authority Bias’, so if your boss tells you to do something, you're less likely to question him, because he's your boss in a position of authority. The same is true if you’re, say, in a museum, and a member of staff asks you to do something, you're likely to follow what they do, because they're in a position of authority. So there's a myriad of biases we've identified, and use that to try and frame how we think about how people might make mistakes during a fire evacuation.

OF: I see. So you might model the behaviour of what that guard in the museum would do. And then subsequently model what people around that guard would do. And then so on and so forth.

MK: Exactly. And then we try and associate some kind of probability of doing certain things.

OF: Right.

MK: And then we'd run the simulation multiple times. And sometimes the guard might do one thing, sometimes he might do another.

OF: And then work out, do you have the right safety precautions, no matter what that guard did, basically.

MK: Exactly. We're not trying to design for one event, one fire. We’re trying to design for a range of events, to make it a resilient design. So we run a series of different scenarios, maybe fires happening in different places, maybe people behaving in different ways. And then we try and say "OK, now we know this, where are high levels of congestion? Why aren't people using this exit? How can we get them to use this exit?” And then we might be able to either change the design of the actual building itself, or we might change the management procedures to try and get more people to do a certain type of behaviour.

OF: The more you talk about it, the more you think “Well of course this has to do with computer science. Like, how did fire engineers do it beforehand? Because you can't simulate fires without this kind of modelling.

MK: Absolutely. I mean, traditionally before computer models, people just followed building fire codes. These are general rules - almost like heuristics - that you build your building according to. Like, you need this many exits if you have this many people. That's still primarily the way you design buildings at the moment. The problem is that these building codes are not very flexible. When you want to build very different designs, and you can't follow the code, how do you demonstrate it's OK? Say, for example, I'm building an airport. And my travel distance is longer than what it says in the code. What I can do is I can run something called an evacuation model, where I simulate people in the building evacuating, and then I also simulate the fire. And that simulates the smoke spread, and smoke falling down. And then I can say “Look, everyone can evacuate in all these different fire scenarios.” So looking at fires in different areas, different sizes. And then I can say “Look, in all these possible fire scenarios - or probable fire scenarios - people can still get out. So we think it's safe”.

OF: Thinking about that example you said about the ‘Authority Bias’, that makes me think about the cultural differences between how people behave. Because you would imagine that in a country where societally you are more inclined to follow authority, you'd have a different outcome to a more sort of liberal and devil-may-care society.

MK: Absolutely. And I think in the World Trade Center 911 attacks, where you had companies coming from different cultural backgrounds, they observed some of the cultural differences.

OF: Oh really.

MK: So I think anecdotally there were some companies that were predominately American. And before the alarm even went off, a number of people said “I'm getting out of here, I'm not waiting to be told what to do.” A more individualistic way of thinking. And conversely, there were Japanese companies, and they all waited until their boss told them that they should evacuate. So culture, by all means, definitely plays a part in how people behave during an evacuation. It's a hard one to nail down, “What is culture?” Because it's such a myriad of things, and even within a country, there can be different sub-cultures as well.

OF: Then when you're plugging this into your programme, you do take into account the differences? Or does it all kind of wash out in the end?

MK: Generally, we would create a more simplified version. So the key thing is getting the right numbers of people in. Typically, in the model, we’ll be conservative. So we'll totally max out the population. And then how we’d accommodate different demographic groups are things like changing speeds and things.

OF: Well, you mentioned the example of the individualist society, let's say like an American. And then the more follow-the-authority society like Japanese. Where in that spectrum does China lie?

MK: I'm not familiar with the latest literature in China. I have read the cultural map, though. And I think China seems to be a bit higher, closer to Japan, whereby people are more likely to follow authority. Compared to, say, the UK or the US.

OF: Well, you are an expert, then, in the behaviour of people in fires, especially when it comes to lifts and escalators. Is that the way that I would sum up your specialisation?

MK: Yes, that's true.

OF: Which to me, seems like a puzzler. Because the one thing that I kinda thought I knew was that, in a fire don't use the lift, right?

MK: Absolutely. I mean, one of the reasons there was an interest in my research was because we're building ever higher buildings. And asking people to walk down flights of stairs is quite strenuous, certainly as we have an ageing population and increased numbers of disabled people who can't necessarily very easily use stairs. And lifts potentially provide a viable means to get a lot of people out. The key findings from the research were that you have to use a combination of lifts and stairs. You don't just only use lifts. Otherwise, people will be waiting forever to use a lift. Generally for a very super high-rise building… So, the higher the building, the more benefit it would be to provide lifts. I think, low-rise buildings don't generally benefit for throughput. And the other finding was that it generally helps to use something called ‘Shuttle Floors’ or ‘Sky Lobbies’. So you're shuttling your lifts between certain fixed floors. And what that means is, people will typically walk down the stairs to the next sky lobby, and then they would take the lift. And what that means is that you get this process happening in parallel, whereby some people are being evacuated in lifts, and some people are walking down to get the lift. And that staggers their arrival to the lift lobby, it means you don't have as big crowds in the lobbies. And we could reduce evacuation times by up to 33%. I mean, there's a load of other ones. Occupied time feel shorter than unoccupied time. This is why in lift lobbies, they typically put mirrors, TV screens, they give you something to do while you're waiting. And then the time feels much shorter than had you had nothing to do.

OF: Fascinating. Which has nothing to do with fire, right?

MK: Exactly. But if we can make people feel less anxious whilst they're waiting during a fire evacuation, that can generally help improve things. It also will help improve the likelihood they'll choose to use a lift if they're prepared to wait longer, compared to choosing to walk down a stair.

OF: Well when it comes, then, to big buildings, this is very relevant to a city like Shanghai, where we are. Because I'm imagining that your job is different depending on the location.

MK: Yeah, absolutely. And also the people we deal with when we're designing the buildings is also different. Quite often, cities would have their own fire codes, on top of which to tailor for specific fire challenges. So there are certain parts of China which are particularly mountainous, so they will try and consider the mountains within certain fire codes, and may be relax some of the other requirements. Because you can't necessarily do all the things you'd normally do because you're building your high-rise building on the side of a mountain or something.

OF: Can you think of some examples of some of the buildings that you have helped with their fire engineering here in China, in the last eight years?

MK: Sure, perhaps one of the most notable ones that I can think of is the Starbuck Shanghai Roastery.

OF: Oh, right.

MK: Not far from here.

OF: Yeah.

MK: That was one of the first projects I helped with. At the time, it was the largest Starbucks in the world. A unique challenge of that is that they have this big processing area for making coffee. That's quite unique. I also work on helping with train design.

OF: Oh right.

MK: Helping the fire engineering design for trains. And we helped some Chinese rolling stock manufacturers design trains for the U.S. Trains are very different to buildings. And whilst they are much smaller, they're just as complicated in terms of fire engineering.

OF: Because?

MK: Because everything goes down to a very small scale. So everything that can burn on a train has to be tested for flammability, smoke, toxicity, and heat release rate.

OF: Yeah, this is where if I know too much about fires, I start to get a bit worried.

MK: Well actually I'd say, everything is controlled on a train. From a lot of the materials, everything that can burn. Whereas in a building, quite often there'll be some level of uncertainty about exactly what the tenants are going to put in the building. Generally, they have to follow certain fire code requirements, but that's done later on in the design process. Whereas with trains, everything's kind of done at the same time.

OF: And so when it comes down to what you're doing here every day in China, what is the ‘day in the life’ in that case?

MK: I get to work on different projects. Sometimes I'll dip into one project… I’m doing some evacuation modelling for a hotel at the moment. I've just finished one of a shopping mall in 成都 [Chéngdū]. I'm involved in an airport project in Cambodia, and this'll be looking at not just evacuations, but also material testing requirements; what happens when the client can't necessarily meet certain fire codes; do we think it's OK; how can we show it's OK? So a whole range of things.

OF: And in terms of the codes, would you say that the codes here are as strict as you'd find elsewhere?

MK: Well, a lot of other countries have been looking at fire engineering for 50-100 years. And you think, you know, what was happening in China 100 years ago, they're in a different place. This said, a lot of the latest research is coming out of China. A lot of Chinese universities are contributing to the latest developments within fire engineering. And the codes are developing. And also, they'll develop in different ways because they're presented with new challenges in China that perhaps you get less of in other parts of the world. You get super high-rise buildings, 600 metre buildings. You're getting airports being built, a lot, at the moment. And there are just fewer airports being built in other parts of the world.

OF: I can see why you are still passionate about it. It seems to involve so many different things like the engineering side; the computer modelling side; the behaviour analysis side; the customer relations management side. Maybe I'm in the wrong job. And I'm looking at your object. You know, when was the last time that you yourself have worn something like this? Have you been involved in anything like real-life modelling like that? Or is that not really relevant to your world?

MK: I haven't been involved in an actual fire. I was involved in an evacuation of my apartment block. And I live on the 20th floor, so I had to evacuate down the stairs. I was the first one out, thank god. I would die of embarrassment if I wasn’t.

OF: Die of something, yeah.

MK: Yeah. But thankfully, I mainly look at other people involved in evacuations, and try and understand what's going on.

OF: Good. Thank you, Michael.

MK: Thank you.

OF: On to Part 2.

[Part 2]

OF: Do you know what, I haven't had enough fire puns. I have to think about more fire puns as we go on.

MK: There’s the classic one of ‘Burning questions, model answers’.

OF: OK, we're on to Part 2, Michael.

MK: I’m ready.

OF: OK. Question 1, what is your favourite China-related fact?

MK: So my favourite China-related fact is to do with the Three Gorges Dam.

OF: Oh, yeah.

MK: In 湖北 [Húběi] Province. It's a massive hydroelectric dam. It's the biggest in the world. And it displaces large amounts of water. And NASA have done a study and demonstrated it displaces so much water that it actually slows the rotation of the Earth by a few decimals of a microsecond. So it actually slows down time.

OF: What?

MK: I didn't believe this, I had to go and look it up on the NASA website. It's true. It's amazing.

OF: Gosh, OK. Do you remember that Superman movie where he…

MK: …Goes around so fast. Yeah, yeah, he goes around so fast, yeah.

OF: And then he reverses time. I think it must be to do with that.

MK: He should have gone to 湖北 [Húběi], you know.

OF: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?

MK: Yes. I actually love learning Chinese, and part of it is learning Chinese sayings. And I think one of my favourite sayings is 精诚所至,金石为开 [jīngchéng suǒzhì, jīnshí wéikāi].

OF: Wait a minute, wait a minute. I don't know that one, say it again slowly?

MK: 精诚所至,金石为开 [Jīngchéng suǒzhì, jīnshí wéikāi].

OF: Naah, I don't know it.

MK: I think my pronunciation is not amazing.

OF: No, it sounds good to me.

MK: The literal translation is ‘With complete sincerity, you can open metal or stone’. You can overcome any challenge. And the reason I like it is, it's quite inspiring, which I think is quite useful when you're learning Chinese, you need that inspiration. And also it's a derivation of my Chinese name, which is 金诚 [Jīn Chéng].

OF: Oh nice.

MK: 金 [Jīn] sounds similar, phonetically, to my actual English name, Kinsey. Yeah.

OF: And it’s ‘gold’, right?

MK: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And ‘golden honesty is 金诚 [Jīn Chéng].

OF: Oh and that's your… Oh, that is beautiful. Because you are quite sincere as a person. I'm feeling that, you know, you're the kind of person who says what he means and means what he says.

MK: I do. I try to. And sometimes it works. And sometimes - certainly in Chinese culture, with the concept of saving face - it doesn't always go down well.

OF: Alright, I'm going to try and learn that one. Although the ones that are eight characters, I always find those much harder. I prefer the four ones.

MK: Absolutely. I mean, another one I quite like is 拍马屁 [pāimǎpì].

OF: Wait a minute, wait a minute. 拍 [[Pāi], OK, 马 [mǎ], OK. Is that to do with a horse’s fart?

MK: 拍马屁 [Pāimǎpì] is ‘stroke the horse’s arse’ or ‘pat the horse’s arse’.


MK: So it literally means sucking up.

OF: Oh.

MK: So quite often, when I meet people and you use just a few words of Chinese, they go “Woah, 哇塞 [wasāi], your Chinese is amazing”. And so “No, 不用拍我马屁 [bùyòng pāi wǒ mǎ pì].”

OF: Oh wow.

MK: You don't need to stroke my horse’s arse, you don’t need to suck up.

OF: Which is again in idiomatic Chinese. So in a way, you're also saying again how good your Chinese is.

MK: Yeah, it doesn't manage expectations very well. It can get a bit hairy sometimes.

OF: Right. OK. I think I have to have a warning now on this episode. I can't believe you've talked about horses’ arses, Michael. You're supposed to be a gentleman.

MK: I apologise.

OF: We are representing the Brits here. What is your favourite destination within China?

MK: I think one of my favourite places is 浙江 [Zhèjiāng], as a province. Lots of places of natural beauty. It's so close to Shanghai as well. I've been whitewater rafting there, I've been hiking there, you can go to 杭州 [Hángzhōu], I've been to different islands just off the coast of 浙江 [Zhèjiāng]. It's absolutely beautiful. And you can do it all within a weekend, if you live in Shanghai. I think it's an amazing place.

OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?

MK: I think I would miss the convenience of living here. You can find almost anyone to do anything. Like fix things almost at any time of the day, or any day of the week. Actually, last night, I forgot my keys. And I know a guy who will come at any time. And it was slightly late at night, and he would just get up, come, and then he would come and open the door, and that was it.

OF: Wow.

MK: I think one of the things I would miss the least is the language barrier, and certainly being able to connect with certain people on certain levels. Conversely, it motivates me to want to learn more.

OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?

MK: I think one of the things which surprises me still is how kind and welcoming people are, especially to foreigners. You know, from when I have problems working out an app on my phone, or I'm trying to pay for a bus ride, someone will come and help me. And I haven't even asked for it. It still amazes me.

OF: I think this could also be a function of your exuding sincerity, Michael.

MK: Well, I try and… Whatever I do, I try and do it with a smile. And, you know, and just look clueless. I've hammered down the clueless look quite well now, so…

OF: No but I mean, absolutely you're right. If you do approach it with that attitude - and you're smiling, you’re not getting frustrated - I think China is a place that will repay that.

MK: Absolutely.

OF: What is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or just hang out?

MK: One of the places - and I don't know if this is a bit of a cop-out - but it's Pie Society.

OF: Oh, yes I know it.

MK: On 陕西 [Shǎnxī] North Road.

OF: There’s a couple, I think.

MK: Yeah, there is, there are two. And I actually live not far from there. And they do loads of pies, Sunday roast, and a lot of ‘pub grub’ food.

OF: Yes. When I first found it out, I was like “What’s this place?” And I walked in and got a steak and kidney pie with baked beans on the side. I was just like “This is the happiest day of my life.”

MK: It's always interesting when I invite some of my Chinese friends, perhaps, to go and try it as well, because I’m like “Look, you can try British food”.

OF: Although we're not world famous for our cuisine.

MK: No. No, normally it's fish and chips.

OF: Oh god. The next question, it’s a big one. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?

MK: OK, so this…

OF: Send it to me now.

MK: There you go.

OF: OK. What am I looking at? Explain that.

MK: So this sticker is actually formed of three parts - three stickers - that you have to sort of put together in the right order. And it's of this small, fat, Chinese child belly dancing, almost. So I love this because it's quite happy. It was one of the first ones I've seen which are multi-component stickers.

OF: Yes.

MK: And I use it, I guess, when I want to say that I'm happy, or to perhaps exemplify my dancing style.

OF: Well, I would like to see you dance like this. Very good. And it's cheating as well, because it's three, not one.

MK: True.

OF: Can you actually send one of them? It must be a bit weird.

MK: I’ve sent them in the wrong order once, and it was like “Oh, recall, recall,” you know?

OF: Nice. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?

MK: So I know one Chinese song. It's called ‘爱我别走 [Àiwǒ biézǒu].’ It's a love song.

OF: As in ‘Love me don’t go’?

MK: ‘Love me don't go’.

OF: Right.

MK: Exactly. It's a ballad, fairly simple.

OF: OK. So ballad means it's slow so you can actually read the bloody lyrics.

MK: Exactly. And I've memorised the lyrics as well. I can just about read them now. There's no rapping, which is good for me for my background growing up in the mean streets of Surrey. Yeah, it's just about manageable. You know, I can almost sound OK.

OF: Yes, those are the ones who need to learn. Because I've been trying to find good songs, but people always like the upbeat ones, and they’re too fast.

MK: True.

OF: And finally, what other China-related sources of information do you rely on?

MK: Generally, I don't read the news as much since being here. I've just noticed it takes up a lot of time developing opinions about things I don't necessarily need to have.

OF: Yes.

MK: So I try to find a variety of sources. So the South China Morning Post, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, things like that.

OF: And in terms of your professional life, are there industry websites or other things that you would have a look at?

MK: Yeah, there are scientific journals. There's Fire Technology.

OF: Ooh.

MK: Yeah, I'm also a reviewer for some of these journals as well. So naturally I get given papers to review, often ones from authors in China. People doing research in tiny parts of fire engineering - looking at combustion, pyrolysis, smoke dynamics, structural response - whereas I'm more interested in looking at how people behave.

OF: Michael, thank you so much.

MK: Thank you.

OF: The last thing that I would ask is for you to nominate who you think I should interview in the next season of Mosaic of China.

MK: I will nominate Dr. Maya Shinozaki, who's a colleague and a friend. She solves really complicated engineering problems using computer modelling as well. I think she'll be really interesting to talk with.

OF: All right. I'm intimidated already, but I look forward to meeting Maya. Thank you so much, Michael.

MK: Thank you.


OF: Well it's taken us until Episode 25 of Season 02 in this series, but I think we've just finally managed to reach peak diversity: two geeky middle-aged English home counties white dudes. At least Michael has a PhD and a corporate career to his credit, all I've got is this podcast and an intermediate swimming certificate.

Maybe what's really going on is that I need to admit that talking about steak and kidney pie with someone from Surrey is making me feel a little bit homesick. It's been 18 months since I last stepped foot outside of mainland China. And while I know there are people listening who have had a much harder time than the likes of me over the last year, I feel like I need to at least speak for all those other people who are in this same situation. Hang on in there everyone. And if you feel like you've been going just that extra notch more crazy over the last few months, you're not alone.

OK, back to today's episode, and you can see the images that go with it on all the usual places: on Instagram, Facebook, WeChat, the website, and Patreon. And speaking of Patreon, there's now another place you can hear the PREMIUM version of the show, and that's on Apple Podcasts. So just type 'Mosaic of China PREMIUM' into your Apple Podcasts app, and you'll now be able to subscribe straight through there. Here are some clips from today's full-length version of the show...

[Clip 1]

MK: What, am I supposed to drop my life and not come back?

[Clip 2]

MK: Known waits feel shorter than unknown waits. So if you tell people how long they're going to wait, that makes it feel like it's a shorter period of time.

[Clip 3]

MK: We're at 70 floors up! Are you gonna choose not to use a lift when we can get out really quick?

[Clip 4]

MK: Ships are very different. If there's a fire, you can't just get off the ship.

OF: Right.

[Clip 5]

MK: ‘Bandwagon Bias’. You're more likely to do something if someone else is doing it.

[Clip 6]

OF: OK, so there's more to being a fire engineer than just looking at the height of doors.

MK: Absolutely.

[End of Audio Clips]

And that's all for today. Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. Coming up is a catch-up from Season 01 with another PhD, it's with Dr. Srinivas Yanamandra from Season 01 Episode 15. If you enjoyed today's chat with Michael and you haven't yet heard Srini's original episode, you should definitely check it out, not least because there's also a surprising connection to the Three Gorges Dam. And I'll see you back here next week.

[Catch-Up Interview]

OF: Srini, it's great to see you again.

SY: My pleasure Oscar, thank you so much. You gave me so much visibility, so I'm always thankful to you.

OF: Oh, not at all, I'm thankful to you. Your episode was one of the ones that people do talk about still, because it was so unusual. Well, I wanted to check up on you and to ask you what has happened, especially during COVID.

SY: During COVID, I have got a little more depth into epidemics. And I did a couple of sessions on finance technology and epidemics, how to link between epidemics and a systemic crisis that the banks face. And that has actually led me to finally enrol myself into a Master's in global bioethics.

OF: Wow.

SY: So I started doing a bioethics programme since June 2020, and I'm into… Like, it is a two and a half year programme. I enrolled myself because I'm so excited to understand how ethical dimensions can come into the biotech space, actually. So…

OF: Amazing. And you're doing that over the internet, I guess.

SY: Indeed, indeed, there is this UNESCO programme, so a United Nations programme, and they offer it through a University in Mexico, Anáhuac University. And I enrolled, it is an online global bioethics Master's programme.

OF: Well, that is a great match for you.

SY: Yeah.

OF: Because it mixes ethics, with computing, with the pandemic.

SY: Yes.

OF: And do you already have any early insights?

SY: Yeah, indeed, the insights are like pretty good in terms of what we regularly read in newspapers. Whether you have to impose someone to wear a mask, or you don't have to impose someone to wear a mask; the kind of ethics in terms of rationing of the number of beds, for example, for the COVID patients. So there are a lot of ethical issues that have evolved and we are now grappling with, which maybe we haven't really paid that much attention to in the pre-COVID era.

OF: Yes, that's fascinating. And then what about with the bank? So of course, your title is that you're the chief of Compliance at the New Development Bank, which is a multilateral bank here in Shanghai. So what was the situation there during the Coronavirus?

SY: Indeed as a bank, I think we have really geared up ourselves in terms of the task that is at hand. While we have been set up primarily for our infrastructure and sustainable development projects, there is an emergency that is required in terms of assisting our member countries catching up with this fight against the Coronavirus. So the bank did its bit in terms of granting emergency response loans, a couple of billions of dollars in each country to fight the pandemic immediately, and also as a kind of emergency economic response. So each country by country we went through, we understood what kind of programmes the governments are doing, and whatever little bit that we could do in terms of supporting the country programmes, we were able to do that. That’s a massive response, which is important considering the stature of the bank as a development organisation, yeah.

OF: And those were loans to other countries, or to countries within BRICS themselves?

SY: Because this bank is set up by the BRICS - and our member countries are BRICS countries as of now - so the loans have gone to them.

OF: Right, understood. And then what about, then, in the workings of the bank? Everyone within the bank represents those five different countries - each with their different status of Coronavirus prevention and cure - how did you manage to work with your co-workers? Was it just the same as usual?

SY: Indeed, we have a brilliant way of, like, work-from-home arrangements, our cloud systems were perfectly up to the task. So the support system that we had - in terms of the advisory that we received, and in terms of the families that keep coming from different parts of the world to Shanghai - as a hosting organisation, and also as a host government - we have been taken very good care of, both by the bank and by the municipal government here.

OF: Right. And then you've talked very much in the abstract then, what about you in terms of your own learning? Have there been any ‘aha’ moments that you've had yourself?

SY: The best ‘aha’ moment is I was able to do a TEDx Talk.

OF: Oh you did?

SY: Yeah, I did a TEDx talk in October. And that was a real ‘aha’ moment, because doing a TEDx is like a phenomenally important item in the bucket list. And the topic was on ‘Swans, Shocks and Serendipity’. So the Black Swan events which have happened in the last two decades - like the 2001 terrorist attack, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2019 COVID pandemic - so there are three black swan events in financial history. So how each of these events have led to a FinTech discovery. So serendipitously, these crisis events have led to some important FinTech discoveries. That's available on YouTube, and I’m marketing myself now if anybody's interested in that, they can get onto YouTube and listen to that. I think it's about a 17 minute talk.

OF: Great. And of course there are three examples because… ‘omne trium perfectum’. You taught me that.

SY: Yes, indeed.

OF: Well Srini, it's great to see you. You haven't lost any of your enthusiasm, I was expecting no less from you. And we are going to be releasing this episode at the same time as a new episode in Season 02. And sadly, the person who you referred couldn't be in the second season of Mosaic of China. Although it wasn't really his fault, you have a new leader at the bank, and we just couldn't get our diaries to align. But thank you anyway for the referral. I did manage to find a very nice replacement, so I hope that you enjoy the episode.

SY: Yeah, let me look forward to this. And thank you so much. In fact, this is a phenomenal podcast. And I'm also very much thrilled to do it.

OF: Well, it's a pleasure to have you in the project and I look forward to continuing our relationship. Thank you Srini.

SY: Thank you.

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