Monday, August 22, 2016

Reorienting Singapore - Ideas for a Future Economy

Singapore is unique country. The Singapore government works better and more efficiently than its corporates. So naturally, it wasn't surprising to find the Government of Singapore exploring new policy options to ensure Singapore continues its development. The urgency with which Singapore Government is looking for these new themes is indeed creditable.

There is a Committee on Future Economy. This committee comprises many thinkers and business leaders. The committees presented some ideas at the IPS CFE conference. I am parsing through the ideas in the sessions - all make interesting food for thought but not out of the ordinary. Be ready to sift through jargon and buzzwords while picking the best ideas.

Here are some of my thoughts on these things:

Keeping aging population employed, relevant and highly paid
First we need to abandon the concept of "job" or employment using same skills over entire lifetime. Some skills stay relevant and even appreciate with practise. Surgery, tailoring, etc come to mind. There not much is required to be done so long as the skills remain relevant. But even master tailors and surgeons will also need to be aware of the advancing robotics wave. Thus, we definitely need to reskill the greying workers. The question really is how to reskill in a way that augments the skills they have acquired and makes these workers into super-constributors. One way is to take the skills they have acquired over lifetime and let them impart these skills to new workers. In areas where robots are taking over, these workers can evaluate the robots or augment the research in robotics.

Opportunities for section of population with varying skills
How to ensure employability of part of population of varying skills? 
  1. Take the art route. And we need not ignore the digital art - Singapore can become a hub of say world class web-designers, interface designers etc. The key question is what domestic set of skills can be made available to the world that will have sustainable advantage? 
  2. Dragon purse effect: Allow citizens to create something artistic and using SMEs explore if it finds relevant demand in the world. If yes, then it can be expanded into a proper global scale product. This is like next step of kickstarter - a place where entrepreneurs can innovate new products and try it on smaller scale. A dragon purse was a hit world-wide. So what can be the next dragon purse.
  3. The key question will be how to ensure that the core of what is found in Singapore can be deployed globally in such a manner that benefits will flow to Singapore? 

Reinventing Construction
Singapore is as unique as Netherlands in the fact that it has natural constraints to deal with and has the technology and capital to solve the problem. Netherlands also has innovative ideas. Does Singapore? I think so. Just that we need to look widely.
  1. With an eye to global warming, Singapore needs to raise its height by about 5 meters above mean seal level. It means gradual planned buffer creation across most of the city. This area needs to be explored.
  2. Singapore can invest in breathable green materials construction techniques for office and residential buildings. The idea is to use architecture, materials and structural engineering to reduce (and if possible eliminate) requirement of air conditioning.
  3. Urban agriculture idea is not new. But creating enabling buildings is not given as much a priority. By the looks of it, the future buildings will have to work with plants, crops, animals and poultry. Again needs investigation and trials. A country like Singapore can effectively be leader of such technology.

Hi-tech Industries such as medtech, Predictive Tech etc.
There are a few hi-tech industries that can play to Singapore's advantage - high-tech manufacturing and pure high-tech industries.
  1. Medtech is high-tech manufacturing type industry. What is unique about medtech type industries is that they are highly technology dependant and thereafter entire global demand can be serviced through small worker-less fully robotized factories.  Chip-design industry has similar characteristics. While, the intellectual property is difficult to replicate, the production is easily replicable with cheaper capital and easily available robotics. When medtech wants to retain its Singapore advantage then it must create a network of med-tech testing environment (can test in China and India - will be lower cost). Thus, you leverage proximity and access (to ASEAN, India, China, Indonesia - populus markets) for testing and deployment.
  2. Similarly, a pure high-technology industry includes Predictive Technologies is rightly highlighted as relevant industry for Singapore. These are pure high-tech industries. Another like Algorithm designdata analytics, etc. will make high return, small team tech companies possible. 
  3. For both types of industries, the research in engineering sciences and applied mathematics is essential. Universities can highlight potential candidates and these bright candidates may then be financed to create startups locally.
  4. These companise individually may be small teams but collectively will be large employers and require plethora of suppert services that will be employment generating. 

Innovation - always by the SME   
SMEs are preferred entities to undertake innovation. Allow SMEs to fail fast, fail often and fail safe - and then wait that is all it takes for innovation to flourish. Celebrating failure is as important as celebrating success. Yet these three things - fails fast, fail often and fail safe require enormous infrastructure and social development. 
  1. Principle-based regulation: The search for light-touch regulation is not easy. Light touch regulation implies a quicker resolution of liabilities and protection of genuine risk-takers from being unnecessarily hounded. That should suffice. Other aspect of light touch regulation are actually ease of doing business which are fairly well developed in Singapore. It is also better to guard against misuse of personal health and financial data than regret the "light touch" later. So right-touch is better than light touch. These aspects are easy to deal with using "principle based regulation" letting the courts follow the spirit of the law rather than rigid enforcement of letter of law. That is advantage of the common-law system as practised by Britain and US.
  2. An evolved Intellectual property law framework: Hi-tech industries along with innovation as a focus implies creation of intellectual property. Intellectual property can quickly devlove into what is referred to as "problem of commons" or "gridlock economy". In either case the innovation suffers and the innovator lands in trouble. To counter this, a quick-resolution mechanism for intellectual property is required - starting from registering unique IP, resolving disputes and trading IP. 
  3. Government contribution: Government can give access to the international patents database so as to prevent duplicate research and ensure that when IP is granted in Singapore (certain class of IP) then it is really at the cutting edge of the stream and thereafter can be traded across the world.

Future of Work - Implications
It is well accepted that future work will be more like a free-agent rather than life-time employment at specific skill. It will be multi-skilled (may types of work at once), simultaneously (many jobs at once) and within multiple teams that come-together and get disbanded at hyperspeed. All this requires development of infrastructure. 
  1. A skill repository is essential: The construction value chain is an example - the developer knows who is best architect for the job, who is a good contractor, electrician, plumbing contractor etc. and they all come together for a project (while some may be working on more than one project) to deliver a unique product. The question is why cannot other businesses do it. It is because transaction costs are too high. If there were a skill repository (indicating who has the best skills for a particular job) and it was easily accessible, then you could hire these experts easily (band and disband easily). 
  2. Legal innovation required for future work: Future work also requires development of standardized contracts so that both parties are protected in such transaction. It also requires grievance redressal and dispute resolution mechanisms. It also creates a new set of jobs that addresses background checking, feedback taking, maintaining work histories and customer reviews. Lets say Singapore were to partner with Linkedin and augment the database Linkedin has with fact-checked database. Wont it be easy for prospective employers and service seekers to hire those people? Data on new skills sought by the employers can be mined, appreciated for long-term skill development and it can become input into human resource policy.
  3. Safety net: With firms not able to help create employee safety nets, it may be required of the government to create a mechanism for these free-agent workers to bolster their safety nets. Some hand-holding and some compulsion may be necessary so as to ensure that longer lifespans are happier lifespans.
Second mover/ Fast Follower strategy for innovation
Seond mover or fast follower strategy made famous by Panasonic case in business schools has some merit for flexible economies. But sadly the fast follower days are over. These days winner takes all approach is dominant. A more relevant model for this era is the "long-tail" model. There is only one facebook. Singapore may heed the story of mySpace which was the first mover, but lagged in innovation and quickly faded into obscurity. For most of the industries Singapore intends to rely on, this is the reality. In such a case, a fast-follower or second mover strategy cannot help Singapore. In fact Singapore needs to be a leader and additionally be flexible to keep its advantage.

Globalisation and Regionalisation
Singapore is welcome in China as well as India. Singapore should use this advantage to develop supply chains which are regional and supply global products with these supply chains. Just like the Apple HQ is at Cupertino but production is in China, we can have highly value-adding HQs in Singapore and production in China, Vietnam Indonesia, India tc. Engineering excellence is not geography centric. The passionate drive to make your product superior can be recreated anywhere. What you need is an environment where entrepreneurs can fail safely without being judged harshly (socially more than financially).

I think the Future Economy deliberation has just started. Maybe if they could ask me for what I think! ;)