Alumni Q+A: Sean Chiao MAUD ’88
As president of AECOM Asia Pacific, Sean Chiao oversees operational performance and drives strategic growth across the Asia Pacific region. He leads cross-disciplinary teams of architects, engineers, designers, planners, economists, scientists, and project managers to provide integrated services and sustainable solutions on large, complex, multidisciplinary projects. Chiao has directed or advised on high-density masterplans for new towns in addition to the regeneration of existing urban landscapes across the region, including Greater China, South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and India.
Born and raised in Taiwan, Chiao developed an interest in architecture and urban design at an early age. His passion for art and creating places ultimately led him to leave the comforts of home for the US to pursue advanced studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). After earning his master of architecture in urban design from the GSD in 1988, Chiao decided to remain in the States to work—first at Roma Design Group in San Francisco and later at HOK—before moving to Hong Kong and eventually joining EDAW which transitioned to the AECOM name in 2009.
During a recent visit to Gund Hall, Chiao reflected on his time as a student, his experience of moving abroad, how the strength of the GSD network has benefitted his career, and why he feels it’s important to give back to the School and society.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Taiwan and went to undergraduate university there. I knew about the GSD because quite a few of my professors had graduated from the GSD and then returned to Taiwan to teach. I was impressed that so many outstanding architects have attended or taught at the GSD, from Gropius to I.M. Pei. Honestly, I didn’t think I could get in. It was both very exciting and intimidating. After graduating from the GSD I moved to San Francisco and then to Hong Kong in the mid-1990s.
What was your experience like moving abroad?
I was in my late twenties, and at the time I was not very fluent in English. It’s hard to leave what is familiar and to go abroad. You have to completely change your lifestyle and language to understand the culture, how you communicate, and even what you’re eating. It’s like experiencing a large earthquake. You have to deconstruct and rebuild yourself. I also had classmates from all over the world—Greece, Canada, Middle East, India—it was eye-opening. They were all from very different cultures.
What is the most significant thing you learned while at the GSD?
It’s not only about what I learned in school, it’s what happens after you finish. After graduating, I planned to work in the States for a while so I sent out my CV to different companies. I was surprised that most people who interviewed me were also from the GSD. I had not networked much up to that point, and I thought, “this is incredible, it’s like a big GSD club!” Throughout my career, the connection with the School has never stopped. It didn’t matter which firm I joined and whether the people I worked with were colleagues or my seniors—they were all from the GSD, and they all happily influenced my professional life. And then of course I started hiring GSD people too. I was very amused when my boss, who was also a graduate, remarked to me “you know Sean, hiring GSD alumni is not the only way to do good work.”
But the GSD has tremendous talent and there’s a strong bond. We all know the environment we experienced together, we all know Gund Hall, and we all know Cambridge and Somerville. It doesn’t matter where you came from before the GSD or whether you were there for one year or two years—we all carry the same experience and we trust and believe in one another. We share a natural bond. It has been an amazing experience. So throughout my career, the link with the school and Gund Hall has become stronger and stronger.
Who inspires you?
When I moved to Hong Kong, I met a senior member of the profession who is also from the GSD. To this day, he is like a big brother to me. It’s very important as you move through your organization, professional society, and your career to have a mentor. My mentors have all been related to the GSD. In fact it’s been like a huge GSD “spider’s web” my entire life—there’s been no way out! But of course I have no complaints because I enjoy it. That’s why I feel passionately about giving back either to the School or to our younger professionals. When they join AECOM and my team, I always feel close to them. I am drawn to giving them guidance and opportunities because I received it during my journey and it is fair for me to do the same thing.
When did you realize you would be an architect and urban designer?
It probably dawned on me during elementary school. I’ve always been interested in theater, music, literature, and painting, particularly how you blend a pure form of art with the built environment that can become part of your daily life. Developing a single building is probably not my strength. I’m more interested in joining together a place with a group of buildings, and to explore what kind of space, plan, or environment I can create. This is why I became an urban designer.
Buildings are important, and I think the space between buildings is crucial. You don’t design a street purely from a transport engineering function. You evaluate the function from below ground to above ground. It’s how you create a street so it becomes a memorable place. For example, with a boulevard that features a sidewalk café, it’s about the pedestrian’s relationship with the street, your relationship with vehicles, the style and content of signage, the street furniture, the lighting and the height of adjacent buildings. It’s about creating an ambience where people feel safe and experience vitality. A good place also contributes to the economy. It’s psychological and not solely about the engineering. That’s why some retail environments are dead and others lively.
These days we talk often about sustainability, resilience, and being environmentally friendly. It can be achieved through urban design. Creating a place to impact life, economy, and the environment is fascinating. My company has a strong component of civil infrastructure work and the challenge is to integrate that with a commitment to art, design, and the social environment. In fact my professional skills have been broadened by working closely with engineers. We help engineers to think beyond engineering solutions, and collaborate with them to understand how people behave and how they respond to the social or economic environment. Rather than simply creating a carriageway for cars or riverbank to protect against flooding, we can explore many ways to design the riverbank that embrace principles of green infrastructure. A more holistic approach to engineering and design has become my mission.
What are you working on today?
We’re working on thousands of projects. I have a team of 13,000 people who are implementing projects throughout the Asia Pacific and beyond. For example, the site in Beijing where the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit took place in late 2014—which President Obama attended—was designed by AECOM. We’re working on the largest public underground train station in Hong Kong, a huge urban complex with high-speed rail lines that will connect to the mainland of China. We’re also working on major projects at Hong Kong International Airport, a major sports hub along Singapore’s waterfront, in the Philippines for the comprehensive redevelopment plan of the former Clark Air Base, and the ongoing Christchurch earthquake recovery effort in New Zealand. We are at the forefront of many iconic projects.
Our work is really about how to positively impact lives, transform our communities, and how to make this world a better place. We have engineers, architects, environmental scientists. And we have specialists dealing with water resources, and water and wastewater treatment plants. We’re the government’s consultant for a very interesting project in Hong Kong that involves relocating a large sewage treatment plan into caverns because land in Hong Kong is very expensive. Following the feasibility study, we have started the investigation and design works for preparing the caverns and relocating the sewage treatment works. Then the government can free up valuable waterfront property for much-needed housing and other beneficial land uses to improve the community and the environment—which will present AECOM with another opportunity to shape Hong Kong’s urban development.
Many of AECOM’s assignments are pioneering projects. These days, projects are getting more and more complex, and clients prefer a company that can deliver holistic solutions so they don’t have to deal with 20 consultants. They will appoint AECOM as the lead consultant and while we may not be able to do everything—we can often accomplish 80%—and we’ll do it in a very innovative, bold, and creative way, establishing a benchmark for new urban projects. It’s what makes AECOM unique. Not many companies are doing what we are doing. It’s something I’m very proud of.
How do you manage your time? It sounds like you work 24 hours a day!
Probably 20 hours a day! I work very hard Monday to Friday. I travel extensively and deal with people a lot—clients and potential clients in either the private sector or public sector, and our employees. I also have a wife and three kids. My wife works as well, but she manages the family so I’m able to focus on my work, but it’s exhausting. So the weekends are very important. It’s key to be home at least one to two days so I can fully recharge.
Was there anyone at the GSD that had great influence on you?
Everything about the place, not anyone specific. Of course you have certain professors you like, but it wasn’t about an individual. It was the whole culture, the entire network, the passion for design, and the passion for changing the world.
What’s your favorite memory of the GSD?
Working in Gund Hall. I think this is a very important building. The big hall and terrace…it was a wonderful experience, the openness, the big design workshop. Of course I also remember the intense cold in winter and how hot the summer is! I mentioned to you my recollections are also about culture and meeting so many wonderful people. I still have very close friends from the GSD and from Harvard. I did not hang out with only GSD students, but with people who studied medicine, political science and other subjects. That inspired me so much at that time.
What advice do you have for GSD students?
Harvard is not just imparting technique or developing intellect. It is training leaders. It’s about leadership—how you impact, how you inspire. I think students should have this kind of understanding and perspective. We should all have the ambition to lead to create positive impact, to change our environment and our community. It is about working together with different people, different languages, and different cultures, and building a strong network to change our environment for future generations.