Innovation takes a village

In his National Day rally speech in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called on Singaporeans to embrace cashless payment systems – an integral part of Singapore’s push towards becoming a Smart Nation.

Despite widespread availability of various cashless payment systems, Singapore’s efforts to go cashless have met with resistance. Last year, six in 10 transactions were made in cash – in large part due to the convenience of an island-wide network of ATMs, and in some cases, reservations about the security of cashless payment systems.

Indeed, the challenge lies not with creating cutting-edge infrastructure, but in changing the mindsets of those who are meant to embrace it. As Singapore continues its Smart Nation push, such challenges will continually emerge as more disruptive technologies become a part of everyday life. Innovation in the infrastructural sense has to be complemented with equally vigorous efforts to equip the general public with the tools they need to embrace it.

Action Plan Singapore, a report by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), recommended various strategies to do this, which included the creation of a Stay Ahead Scheme where Singaporeans are trained in the key skills and competences required to operate in a world of disintermediating technologies as well as artificial intelligence (AI) – whether as students, entrepreneurs or skilled workers.

Such a scheme, the report asserted, was essential as new models of value creation would continue to displace traditional businesses, industries and jobs. As a result, displaced individuals would have to be re-trained in order to be re-employed elsewhere. In addition to equipping people with the skills they need for employment, the use of such technology also means that job-matching and job training can also be done differently.

Singapore’s National Jobs Bank system, for example, could be enhanced significantly if it allowed job-seekers to display portfolios of training, skills, experience, testimonials, as well as an accompanying personal statement. This would allow the system to push out possible matches as soon as job vacancies are available.

Said the report’s author, Dr Gillian Koh, Deputy Director (Research) at the Institute of Policy Studies: “If we are a smart city that is tapping the best that information technology and artificial intelligence can offer, then all workers, young and old will have up-to-date information about the skills, competencies and experience that employers are looking for. The cost of being out of work, job-hunting, and skills mismatch can be much reduced.”

Dr Koh added that there are now researchers who can disaggregate jobs by the sorts of skills and competencies that are required to perform them across all sorts of industries. She said: “When this basic and detailed information is fed into smart information systems, the right signals can be sent to workers of all ages about what skills and qualities are in demand, and by whom.”

In this way, if displaced workers feel they need to upgrade their skills, the government would already have channelled funding into providing them with relevant training. Educational institutions would also be able to leverage on these signals to provide relevant training in a timely way. In addition, smart employment placement systems would further smoothen Singaporeans’ transition to an economy of the future.

Said Dr Koh: “Ultimately, what you need is an interactive, self-learning system that is able to match job-seekers with job providers, which gets better at it every time it does that. With rather complex information about the job-seekers and what employers are looking for, the process of ensuring people stay employed into their senior years is improved, as long as they do indeed want paid work.”

Building a Smart Nation also necessitates fostering a general climate that is conducive to innovation at all levels of society and in all industries. At a panel discussion at last year’s Google Big Tent Event, Mr Steve Leonard, Executive Deputy Chairman of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, noted that a major obstacle to innovation in Singapore involved prevailing attitudes towards risk-taking and failure.

He said: “We don’t have enough support for taking risks. 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?”

Mr Urs Hausler, chief executive officer of DealMarket, highlighted the vast mindset difference between the United States and Europe/Asia: “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 people who finance the business also think the same way.”

Indeed, being a Smart Nation means we must be able to risk leveraging on new technologies, to benefit from the new ways in which they can help us lead productive and fulfilling lives.


This piece was written by Liew Hanqing.