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Enabling a culture of innovation in Singapore

last updated 03 November 2017
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Ideas discussed at the Google Big Tent Event included encouraging diversity and getting people to tinker with technology.

“One mistake we make about innovation is to think that it is about brains; it is really about minds,” said Mr Bruno Lanvin, Executive Director of INSEAD. “It is about encouraging diversity and different ways of thinking.”

Mr Lanvin made this point during a panel discussion on innovation at the Google Big Tent Event, which was held at Chjimes on 29 October. Joining him were Mr Steve Leonard, Executive Deputy Chairman of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore; Mr Laurence Lien, Nominated Member of Parliament and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre; and Mr Urs Hausler, CEO of DealMarket.

Innovation means taking risks, and governments can generate return on innovation by creating conditions under which people can get together to share ideas. “Most innovation does not happen in the lab; it happens in the cafeteria,” said Mr Lanvin. “You have someone studying electrical engineering, sitting across the table from someone doing ancient Greek philosophy, and you start a conversation. This is the real root of innovation.”

To create a culture of innovation, therefore, there is a need to look at talent beyond the “absolute” sense of the word, for example, talent in terms of producing enough engineers or IT professionals, but also in the “relative” sense. “We need to look at different shades of talent, different combinations of talent, different backgrounds. The diversity becomes a differentiator and an advantage.”

Sharing this view, Mr Leonard noted that one of the major sources of innovation over many years – Bell Labs in the United States – was the “antithesis of structured innovation”. “The whole thing about Bell Labs was that it was not about metallurgical roles, or engineering roles, or chemists’ roles. It was about bringing together all these people from different disciplines to create breakthrough innovations such as the transistor chip and the radar.”

From that perspective, Singapore may need to tweak its approach to creating an environment that is conducive to innovation. “If we spend too much time controlling the levers and knobs and switches, we may end up over-egging.  But we also cannot just stay away and hope for the best,” said Mr Leonard. “Perhaps the answer lies in bringing together people that have some interests in common, and then getting out of the way.”

Another thing that can be done is to be more proactive in celebrating exits, recent examples of which include Viki’s acquisition by Rakuten and YFind’s acquisition by Ruckus Wireless. “These are examples of what can happen, and we can be more active in promoting these exits to get people excited about start-ups and innovation,” he said.

There remains, however, another major obstacle to innovation in Singapore, and it involves attitudes towards risk-taking and failure. “We don’t have enough support for taking risks,” said Mr Leonard. “If you have great academic credentials, have an internship at a great company, how do you go home and say that you want to leave this and go to a start-up?”

Making a similar observation, Mr Lien pointed out that there are a lot of alternatives – such as having a cushy job at a bank – instead of taking the entrepreneurial route. The mindset is such that people tend to think, “Why innovate, why take the risky path, when there are more conventional routes to success?”

In this respect, there is a very big difference in mindset between the United States (US) on one side, and Europe and Asia on the other, said Mr Hausler. “In Europe and Asia, people do not invest in those who have already failed. But in the US, if you fail, you will be given a second chance. The way they see it, failing is part of the learning, and you stand up and do better the next time. The venture capitalists and the people who finance the business also think the same way.”

Agreeing with this, Mr Lanvin said, “You need to have this idea of ‘falling forward’. You fail but you fail ‘forward’. You make progress.”

Tinkering with technology at IDA Labs

Try tinkering with technology. This was the call made by IDA Chairman Ms Yong Ying-I in her opening address at the Google Big Tent Event.

IDA is developing a “tinkering environment” by setting up IDA Labs. “We want to encourage everyone, regardless of age or roles, to try ‘tinkering with technology’, to test things, make things yourself right within the office space,” said Ms Yong.

The IDA Labs will start off as a collaborative space for IDA staff and industry participants, and will complement other labs in universities, research institutions and companies. Through this initiative, IDA aims to achieve four objectives.

The first of these is to support local tech companies through the testing, assessing and promoting of local IT products and solutions. The second is to provide start-up tech companies with opportunities to demo and showcase technology to various government bodies and industry partners, in order to spur greater adoption of their technology and give them access to new markets and customers.

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