The challenges of encouraging innovation

The challenges of encouraging innovation

The latest global survey of student aptitudes, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), shows that Singapore's youth are more adept than most in solving complex, real-world problems.

Their creative responses have debunked the hackneyed view that they cannot think for themselves.

But four panellists at a pow-wow on future cities here on Tuesday highlighted some challenges involved in innovating that Singaporeans and companies here face.

The panel discussion was organised by the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, which is part of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), and the Netherlands Embassy in Singapore. Billed as TEDxBinnenhof, it was akin to TED, the popular global technology, entertainment and design talks held worldwide periodically.

Businessman Devadas Krishnadas, who is managing director of regional strategic planning consultancy Future-Moves, kicked off the discussion on innovation challenges here by pointing out that there was no Singapore company that was globally great. He said: "We do not yet have great Singapore companies. But we have shares in great companies aroud the world. That is an expensive way to seed and grow experimentation."

A big snag in innovating here, he stressed, was that Singaporeans had little tolerance for the more-misses-than-hits culture of innovation.

So, he added, Singapore should sharpen its innovative edge by strongly encouraging Singaporeans to "learn to learn" and not just absorb knowledge handed to them. It should also champion experimentation, allowing for countless failures before succeeding big-time. Singaporeans should also steep themselves in the arts and humanities to fire their imagination.

He added that Singaporeans should also learn to thrive amid uncertainty. "We tend to think of those who embrace uncertainty as threats, or maladjusted. But they are the people who are the solution providers for the future."

Strong leaders were also "non-negotiable" to inspire breakthrough discoveries. He defined such leaders as anyone who "communicated, conceived and constructed" ideas compellingly.

With such leaders, the next step in effective innovating was to break a big problem into small pieces, invite various people to work on these pieces, and build on the small advances they make along the way.

He added that society should not hem innovators in with predetermined constraints.

On this, Dutch architect Peter van Wingerden, who heads floating cities developer Beladon, cautioned that innovators should not be motivated by money.

"Not everything has to be a business case," he said, noting that Apple co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, was driven by his passion to make everyone's lives more enjoyable.

Dr Michael Bolt, who was in the audience, agreed. The director of research for Asia at semi-conductor company NXP said the "radical change" needed for game-changing innovation happened only when innovators saw what they did as meaningful to themselves and others.

For now, he said, many among them, including engineers, lacked that insight. "They should ask, 'What am I doing for my company and myself?' and not 'My boss wants me to do this, so I do it,'" he said.

This article was published on April 3 in The Straits Times.

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