Singapore's innovation output 'below expectations'

Country's return on investment on innovation front disappointing, and needs change in mindset of local companies, Singapore Business Federation exec says.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

SINGAPORE--The country has the "complete" infrastructure to breed innovation with policies, institutions, and government spending and grants, yet such input is not yielding the same level of output in terms of innovative local businesses and products. One way to address this is encouraging a more ground-up approach which emphasizes people and cultural mindsets, says an industry observer.

Victor Tay, COO of Singapore Business Federation (SBF), said the government has been quite successful in producing a complete ecosystem of research and development (R&D) and innovation, but this "factory production process" must have the right ingredients of people, ideas, culture and education system, in order to create "first-in-class products".

Tay was speaking to ZDNet Asia on the sidelines during the Future of Technology and Impact on Innovation and Productivity forum on Wednesday by the NUS MBA Alumni.

While he acknowledged that there are innovative products and services from local small and midsize businesses (SMBs), there is still no "blockbuster made-in-Singapore product" vis-à-vis overseas success stories.

The government has invested a lot of capital to create the most conducive environment for innovation, but the "dividends"--that is the creation of knowledge and production of creative goods and services--are below expectations, Tay said. In other words, while Singapore may be tops in terms of innovation input, it would rank lower in terms of innovation output or efficiency, he noted.

Going beyond top-down approach
Therefore, besides a top-down approach led by the government to foster innovation among businesses, there must also be a bottom-up approach, Tay said. The lack of which will create a "crutch mentality" where there is little independence, initiative and resourcefulness at the ground level, he pointed out, noting that in the case of Singapore, more often than not, people first look to the government whenever issues arise, and ask "what is the government going to do about it?"

Culture is a critical element of the ground-up approach, Tay stressed, because one reason for the low innovation efficiency is that Singapore entrepreneurs and companies tend to be risk-averse and afraid to fail. This can also be tied to the fundamental education system where there is an "obsession [with] standardized testing", narrow emphasis on the humanities and arts, and an arid approach to mathematics and sciences, he explained.

Another speaker at the forum, Michael Jackson, chairman of research firm Shaping Tomorrow, added that Singapore is not alone in having an education system that emphasizes compliance rather than curiosity. Jackson, who is based in England, said most schools in several countries do not encourage curiosity among children who then "grow up to be compliance managers rather than innovation managers".

During his presentation, Jackson advised individuals and companies to spot the strategic opportunities that are burgeoning in the present time to ensure they can survive and thrive in the future economy, rather than focus on uncertainties and risks.

He also highlighted that the growing prevalence of technology "which will be everywhere", will threaten several industries and jobs, but also create a lot of new industries and opportunities. For instance, mobile phones with near-field communications (NFC) technology will mean mobile wallets can potentially replace cashiers as well as self-checkout terminals at retail stores, he said.

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