SINGAPORE has surmounted many a problem through forward thinking and clever reinvention, earning a solid reputation as a shining beacon of innovation. Today, the nation is facing a new challenge, surmised in a simple question: “How can we keep innovating and pushing onwards towards being a truly smart nation?”
Naysayers are quick to point out that there seems to be a lack of smart nation success stories, while others feel the country is no longer a great test-bed for global innovation. As we race to be innovative, have we failed to see the forest for the trees?
With any country, emerging or otherwise, having access to the same technologies and theoretically the same capabilities to adopt and adapt accordingly, how does innovation come about?
The answer very well could be inclusion. Everyone has a part to play in a nation’s innovation journey; going beyond the government, we must also inspire businesses and startups to join the fray. Singapore boasts a world-class startup ecosystem; according to the Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking and Report 2017 by Startup Genome, Singapore is 12th overall and also clinched the top spot in terms of quality and accessibility to talent.
It is worthwhile remembering that Singapore’s success continues to be built on international trade, albeit forced by circumstances historically. An island tiny in size compared to many cities and states elsewhere, Singapore gained economic and technological advancement through exchanging ideas and resources with other countries, and spotting opportunities that bigger countries might have missed.
This same logic is seen in how within the nation state, numerous startups are already looking to solve problems that many larger corporations do not even consider to be problems. What startups lack in resources, they make up for through agility and creativity.
Gone are the days where problems can be viewed and solved independently – this is true for any nation as well as any company. The China of today is vastly different since enacting its open-door policy, notably trading since 1990 with Singapore, a “startup nation” in relative terms. So why wouldn’t any company adapt what lessons they can from strategies that have proven to be successful?
INNOVATION THROUGH COLLABORATION
In the case of Experian, as an established centennial-old multinational, we know the importance of “innovating at speed”. Look at the Forbes 500 list from a decade ago and the list today, and it is clear that those who do not innovate tend to fall behind.
We actively push to inspire a culture of continuous change and innovation as a means to proactively solve and address the problems our customers face today, and the problems they will likely face tomorrow. One thing we learned though, is that looking inwards is not always the right way to go, and hence we partner and collaborate closely with startups, as a means to gain fresh perspectives and tap resources we may not otherwise have internally.
A clear example of this approach is how Experian established an Innovation Hub in a co-working space here in Singapore. The team comprises Experian staff who have the remit to actively collaborate and work with startups and partners across the SEA regions. A “best-of-both-worlds approach” as we carefully move away from being an accelerator of sorts for startups towards an incubator that executes based on the strengths of our internal staff.
The Innovation Hub seeks to match customers’ problems with capabilities available in the startup ecosystem. We then work together to find new solutions.
Collaborative innovation is an approach that is slowly gaining ground, with companies such as Unilever also leveraging startups as collaborators. Through Unilever Foundry and Padang & Co’s recently launched co-working space, LEVEL3, in Singapore, Unilever staff can tap the expertise offered by the startup ecosystem while still addressing the company’s own problem statements directly.
Due to the proximity and close collaboration fostered through the co-working space, the FMCG company has direct access to new ideas and emerging technologies that can be implemented and scaled up to bring value to Unilever much quicker.
Taking a collaborative approach has been a huge success for us, and is an approach we believe more companies can benefit from as well; not just the initiating organisations but for the startups as well.
In India, we worked with the government to create an automated Electronic Identity and address verification service called Prove ID. The service helps make banking services more accessible to the 60 per cent of the population that are currently unbanked while preventing identity fraud which is among the fastest rising forms of fraud in the country. With access to the formal banking system, the less privileged no longer have to access credit or loans through unofficial channels that tie them down with high interest rates and possible danger in the form of loan sharks.
Ultimately, while Singapore’s government has consistently pushed for innovation and change, I would emphasise that together, we need to push for a culture of problem-solving, collaboration and partnerships, across the board, both in the public and private sectors.
When organisations view a problem as something for them to solve collaboratively, we will begin to see true innovation. And it is clear that the direction for change needs to be set at the top.
Chief Executive Officer, Experian Asia Pacific
This article was first published on The Business Times, 30 March 2018.