Sniffing out a new take on Singapore

Differences in perception and reaction make for interesting debate on scent walks.

THINK you've seen all that Singapore has to offer? Now, do it again. This time, don't use your eyes but your nose.

Singapore-based fragrance designer which creates scents for brands, hotels and retailers, AllSense is organising a series of scent walks over eight days through the city, led by academic, researcher and artist Kate McLean.

Ms McLean's research focuses on linking human perception of "smell data" with the urban environment through a process called sensory maplandscaping. By combining scent walks, digital design, water colour, motion graphics, distillation and scent diffusion, she has created scent maps for various cities around the world including Paris, Amsterdam and New York.

Mapping scents

The 50-year-old says: "My interest in the senses stemmed from my Masters in graphic design study in Edinburgh. I divided the city experience into five sensory modalities and mapped according to each one. Smell was the most captivating, and also significantly under-researched so I continued working with it."

There are eight walking routes to choose from, including the Gardens by the Bay, Kampong Glam and Little India. The one-kilometre walks will take approximately an hour to complete. While participation is free, she wants participants to record their thoughts on the various aromas they encounter and any feelings or opinions about them.

Ms McLean will compile the data collected from the scent walks here into a map to present to the public in a gallery exhibition in August. Together with global manufacturer International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), AllSense is launching this walk to coincide with SG50 celebrations.

As scents can be subjective and our sense of smell isn't an isolated one, but is informed by our other senses, creating a scent map of a city isn't exactly straightforward.

Ms McLean explains: "In every city, there are background scents that form the underlying base note. On top of this are episodic notes that are neighbourhood-specific and form smellmarks that help us identify a particular neighbourhood or a specific time of day. I have a methodology for seeking out smells and working with the general public to identify a truly representative study. I then select from the data and visualise the scents and smells onto a map."

By dedicating her research to the study of smell, Ms McLean is also doing her part to elevate it, as she feels its importance can be overlooked. She says: "Smell and scent form a part of our knowledge of a place and it can help construct the overall scene around us, informing us not just of imminent danger, but also as an ambience. Sight and hearing were raised in the sensory order as empirical objective ways of knowing, but smell is invisible as both an entity, and a social construct."

50 shades of scents

Her research has also brought up interesting facts about the sense of smell that not many people know. She shares: "What we smell and how we react to it is influenced by both prior experiences and our genetics. On scent walks, the differences in perception and reaction make for interesting debate, and I find it particularly interesting because one of my end-goals is to be able to share smell experiences."

Ms McLean doesn't recommend any of the eight routes here in particular, saying that each walk will be a different experience, depending not only on the location and time of day, but also on the other participants on the walk with you. She advises: "Explore a neighbourhood you think you know. I'm sure you will be surprised."

Her favourite scent walks thus far have been in Pamplona and in New York. In the former, several people identified cooking smells which was followed by a debate and an imagined situation of individual ingredients and the recipe used on them. During a scent walk in the latter city, someone described a smell outside a bar as "the smell of shattered dreams".

She says: "I love lyrical descriptors like this that can conjure a scenario in a few words."

The walks will take place from June 3 to June 10, and participation is free. To sign up or for more information, please visit

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