Think like a city instead of a state to innovate, consultant urges Singapore

Singapore should think more like a city than a state when exploring how public policies can affect innovation in the economy, says Adrian Brown, executive director of the London- based Centre for Public Impact, speaking of technological disruptions upending all facets of society, including public service.

"You can imagine Singapore setting up a network of virtual hubs of innovation around the world, and that would be a whole new way of thinking about it rather than being just a regional hub," said Mr Brown in an interview with The Business Times earlier this month.

The Centre for Public Impact (CPI) is a not-for-profit foundation founded by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) last June. It seeks to facilitate dialogue among various stakeholders - particularly governments - to help strengthen the effectiveness of public policies and their impact on the public.

The 10-month-old foundation is now in the midst of compiling a report on "hundreds of examples" around the world to see how effective these policies are. It will be published later this year.

For the report, the centre will focus on how policies are designed, how they are implemented, and how much stakeholders agree with the policies.

Singapore will be featured as a case study. CPI has already reached out to tertiary institutions to obtain data and information.

Likely areas of interest for the report include Singapore's transportation, education and rehabilitation, said Mr Brown, who has spent years as a civil servant in the British government and also as a BCG consultant.

Pointing to recent examples of how technology companies are affecting traditional industries, he said he saw public service as "ripe for disruption". Therefore, it is up to governments to decide if they should continue doing things the same way they have been doing, or adapt to remain relevant in an age where economies are becoming increasingly digitised and diversified.

How Singapore views this issue will have a deep impact in the future, as the country has constantly taken pride in its efficient public services, said Mr Brown.

"A government has to think of itself as an innovative engine of the economy, rather than just a provider of public services. This will make it more successful in the decades to come rather than slip behind," he said.

In this sense, Singapore's small size gives it an advantage as its policies can be quickly implemented.

To learn from the best, Mr Brown suggested that the country think of itself more as a city.

Cities are where the most diverse range of economic activities are found, and the best minds and technologies reside, he said. Thus major global cities like New York, London and Tokyo are good counterparts for Singapore to learn from.

In London, for example, there is a surge of interest in artificial intelligence and financial technology, commonly referred to as fintech. Singapore could possibly look into partnerships with the British capital to "unlock similar kinds of entrepreneurship and innovation".

"What makes a successful city is a good question for the next 50 years, and how you ask that question is the biggest determinant of growth, of wellbeing and other aspects of society. Given that Singapore is a city-state, it is well positioned to address that question as much as any other city," said Mr Brown.

This article was first published on April 26, 2016.
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