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Is Singapore entrepreneurial enough to deliver upon its smart nation goals?

smart nation smart nation
Photo credit:

Leong Him Woh

Singapore is creating the world's first smart nation. But can a country which is stereotypically risk averse, pull off such a bold ambition?

Singapore was founded in 1819 and between the years of 1824 and 1963 was under the control of the United Kingdom.

At the point in which it gained its full independence in 1965, the country still formed a part of the third world.

Under the governance of Lee Kuan Yew, who became the country’s first Prime Minister, Singapore developed into a first world nation in just one generation.

With no natural resource, the country couldn’t rely on some of the usual drivers of economies that other nations could.

That meant innovation had to be at the heart of a strategy which saw Singapore become one of the most competitive economies in the world.

It is now ranked as the most open economy in the world, the 7th least corrupt and the most pro-business. And it has the third highest GDP per capita.

The country’s latest initiative is to develop itself into a ‘smart’ nation.

According to the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), the government body overseeing the smart nation project, it’s vision is to ‘harness ICT, networks and data to support better living, create more opportunities, and to support stronger communities.’

From healthcare to transportation, Singapore is seeking to use technology to create greater efficiency, whilst underpinning further economic and societal development.

So for a country which has experienced so much growth in a short period of time, and is continually trying to develop itself through innovation, why is it perceived to be risk averse?

Hot Topics caught up with Steve Leonard, the Executive Deputy Chairman of the IDA, to understand why and what that means for the smart nation program.

Before taking on his role for the Singapore government, Leonard held senior executive positions in APAC for two US corporates, EMC and Symantec.

Hot Topics: How was the transition from running the APAC division of global corporates to working for a government body?

Steve Leonard: It was both easy and difficult. The Singapore government is very clear, very transparent so it wasn’t difficult in the sense of trying to understand who was making what decision and the process for making a decision.

That part was easy.

It was difficult in the sense that I can came from a background in which everything was a very near term outcome. Since I lived in a public company environment, everything was 90 days.

You had to deliver every 90 days and if you wanted to try something you could try it because it would either work or not in a fairly short period of time.

I’m used to the idea of doing something fast and being judged by the market. You’re either winning or losing every day of the week.

In that sense, joining government is difficult because you can’t just try stuff and see what happens.

You’re dealing with citizen’s lives and tax payer’s money so you have to be more cautious without necessarily being slow.

HT: Given the emphasis being placed upon the smart nation initiative by the government, what are the pressures of trying to deliver upon those goals?

SL: It’s a significant pressure, but without some pressure things just don’t get done. So, the fact that the Prime Minister backs smart nation, wants regular updates and the Minister that runs it reports to the Prime Minister, just means that there is a very short loop.

All that is a positive in terms of keeping the pressure on.

We deal just fine with the pressure because it keeps things moving.

HT: How do you deal with the supposed risk averse nature of Singapore?

SL: I’d actually argue it differently. To me, Singapore epitomizes taking risk.

It’s been perceived by the external world to be risk averse but the more you’re here, the more you realize that’s not actually the case.

Big risks were taken to try and make Singapore work in the first place. It has no natural water supply, no materials that you can dig out of the ground so things that have been economic engines for other countries, just don’t exist here.

So, the risk of trying to build water purification, public housing, merging and demerging with what was Malaya at that time, was huge.

Now, it’s more in the scenario of people perceiving it as risk averse because things do work and therefore there is a natural tendency to not want to screw up what is working.

Singapore has been a very risk oriented place in order to move forward. Now, we’ve got a citizen community that has a place that works so therefore the downside of experimentation feels bigger.

If you’re going to try something quite different when something is already working there is a lot to lose.

It just means we have to be more thoughtful about the decisions we make.

Around the time of the state funeral of Singapore founder, Lee Kuan Yew, a lot of us watched the old black and white reels. He is basically encouraging people to get on with it, get things done, tackle challenges.

In a lot of ways Singapore was and is a very entrepreneurial environment, Not in terms of how many startups or how much VC money, but more the idea that if you just take a rock in the ocean and try and make it the first network ready country in the world with the 2nd highest GDP, you have to work incredibly hard.

In that sense, I think of Singapore as a great entrepreneurial story and Lee Kuan Yew as a great startup CEO.

HT: There is so much tech innovation happening in Singapore, from robotic fish to autonomous cars. How do you tie that into a single story around the smart nation?

SL: To be honest, we’re not trying to tie it into a single story. We’re more trying to show what’s next.

That has always been the big challenge for Singapore.

If you look over the years, the first thing was to try and have precision manufacturing so Singapore became a world leader in disk drive assembly.

Then it was biomedical and trying to innovate with pharma. There’s always a focus on the next great adventure.

The things that we’re working on with smart nation don’t necessarily have to connect to each other.

It’s more like a magnetic core which is pulling everything in.

HT: Singapore is attempting huge innovation across sectors like healthcare and transportation. Is it possible to achieve both societal and commercial gain?

SL: We hope that there will be both.

The smart nation initiative is targeting big problems and trying to figure out a way to do something useful. We can then go to other countries and say that this is something that we built.

Just like we all use Apple products, I would love it if we could build a product that becomes company ‘x’ and that the technology, product or solution becomes just as widely embraced and appreciated in Boston or Bangalore as it is here.

Our goal for the smart nation is that there is a commercial reward for the community and innovators that made it possible and also that we’re solving the things we want to solve.

As much as we love some of the cool tech, we’re trying to also work on things that are important to solve.

And because they’re important, there will be a commercial market as well.

I’m a believer that we don’t have to solve one and then hope for the other. I believe if we solve one, we’ll get the other as an inevitable outcome.

We’re not trying to create a smart nation as a charity event. We’re trying to solve problems that also create companies and jobs.

It’s an economic engine.