Singapore's vision for supporting tech innovation encourages team diversity

Multicultural teams on startups found more willing to share ideas, executive says

singapore kids

Pre-schoolers at a Singapore school are being taught basic computer skills through games, including how to usescanners to find information in bar codes and how to use sequencing.

Credit: Matt Hamblen

Singapore seems to have an advanced notion of how to develop and use technology innovations.

The small nation is trying to serve all age groups. The government, through a new education program, starts by teaching pre-schoolers sequencing skills, through simple, fun games, so that they can be ready to learn software coding as they grow older. At the other end of the age spectrum, it is testing the use of robots to help elderly folks at a neighborhood drop-in center do simple exercises.

In between, the government has encouraged the use of robots at Changi General Hospital, a major facility with 1,000 beds, to deliver medicines and supplies to patient rooms. Telepresence is being introduced to coach physical therapy patients so a caregiver isn't needed to take the patients somewhere for treatment. In an earlier blog, I described ongoing work to develop self-driving taxis, partly to address growing concerns with urban density.

I'm just back from a five-day tour of Singapore with other reporters where I got a chance to see these innovations, and many others, for encouraging new tech up close. Singapore may not be further advanced in any one technology area than other cities, but the nation's government and businesses do seem to take an unusually comprehensive approach to pushing technology innovation, grouped under the heading of Smart Nation. Because Singapore is both a city and a nation, a small island near the equator in Southeast Asia, the government's leadership has been central to its technology advances.

singapore elderly Matt Hamblen

A robotic coach helps lead seniors in simple exercises at a Singapore community center

 

One clear theme that resonated many times on my trip was Singapore's commitment to promoting diversity in its technology work force, which reflects its diverse population of 5.4 million. The nation already has a large female work force, but it also is home to a rich combination of Asian cultures and religions.

People from families originally from Malaysia, China and India, among others, work together at all kinds of jobs and can be seen walking to work and riding the subways together. In one section of two city blocks, I saw a Buddhist temple near a Hindu temple, which were just steps away from a mosque and a Christian church.

At a government-sponsored technology incubator called BASH (Build Amazing Start-ups Here), the multicultural diversity of Singapore was put on display. About 20 small startup teams of four to six people each were seen in a large open room in a converted factory, working from white boards as they typed on computers at movable desks. On nearly every team, I saw a mix of cultures and both genders, something intentionally encouraged by Infocomm Investments, a government entity headed by Alex Lin. (Infocomm Investments is part of the nation's Infocomm Development Authority, although IDA is being replaced this year in a government restructuring with the formation of the Infocomm Media Development Authority and the Government Technology Organisation. )

"My passion is building stuff," Lin said in an interview. In the last two years, Infocomm Investments has seen impressive growth in the number of startups that advance from the idea stage to the point of creating an actual product (a Minimal Viable Product, to use Lin's lingo). To reach that point, Infocomm learned it helps to build diverse teams and to push them to consider marketing of their products earlier in the startup cycle.

Lin said the number of startups reaching that MVP point has surged from less than 8% to more than 40% in less than two years. That 40% represents about 140 startups.

"Multicultural, diverse teams work well because the members are willing to share," Lin said. In teams dominated by men or people from one ethnic background, there is a tendency to be more competitive within the team as developers and others quietly keep new ideas to themselves. Perhaps these team members think they can achieve more on their own than by working together.

"If you want to develop a global startup engine, you need to develop a playbook and share it," he said.

I'm no expert on what works in creating successful startups, but a focus on diversity in teams with members that freely share with one another might be a useful insight for all kinds of managers of incubators in nations of all sizes.

A culture focused on efficiency

It helps that Singapore has a culture that highly values efficiency, not just in activities likestartups, but throughout work places and organizations. "In Singapore, we are obsessed about efficiency," Lin said.

Why Singapore is associated with efficiency probably has a lot to do with its history. The country first became independent in 1965 and was pushed hard by its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, to adapt to modern times. During his 25 years in office, the government undertook massive housing, clean water and manufacturing initiatives. His team of ministers focused heavily on carrying out the programs that Lee mandated.

I think Singapore has also transformed in less than 50 years into one of the few "tiger economies" of Asia because it has had to. As a small nation in the region, it recognizes the need to be independent and successful, partly to stay on even terms with neighbor nations that are many times larger and rich with resources that Singapore doesn't have.

What Singapore is trying to do now is grow its startup community in ways that reflect its aspirations to increase its prominence in the technology world. The model of fostering startups comes from Silicon Valley, but tiny Singapore wants to grow startups internally to share, and compete, in that global startup ecosystem.

Singapore has long been known for its technology innovations, and recently won the top ranking as a smart city globally from market research firm Juniper Research. Juniper used 40 different metrics in its research, noting Singapore's leadership in fixed and cellular broadband services, city apps for parking and transportation and a strong open data policy.

While Singapore's promotion of startups wasn't the biggest part of Juniper's ranking, it's an effort that has obvious potential and could provide insights to tech startups elsewhere.

Heavy use of social media by government officials

One small but related insight into Singapore's savvy in using technology is how its political leaders frequently use social networking to relay news and insights to the general public.

When the nation's finance minister, Heng Swee Keat, suffered a stroke at a cabinet meeting on May 12, he was attended by three physicians who are also cabinet ministers and were attending the meeting. Shortly afterward, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted an update about the finance minister on Facebook, which was separate from the official statement given by his office. Several other government officials also expressed their concerns in separate Facebook posts, summarized in a story in the Straits Times, a popular news site in Singapore. Heng, 54, remains in intensive care, according to recent reports.

Willingness to enforce anti-discrimination laws

The Singapore government, including police, also seem very willing to enforce the country's laws designed to prevent criticism of other religions and cultures, including in online forums. It's another example of wanting to encourage and protect a multicultural society.

In the most recent example, Singapore police arrested 17-year-old blogger Amos Yee on May 11 for making online "offensive and disparaging remarks against various religious communities," according to reports.

Yee reportedly uploaded an expletive-laden video on March 27, four days after the death of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and later reportedly posted an obscene image on his blog.

In a brief interview with myself and three other reporters, Singapore Minister of State for Communications and Information and Education Dr. Janil Puthucheary said Yee was arrested in May primarily because he didn't appear before authorities after being given a "notice" (similar to a police order) to do so that was issued in December and was related to online comments he made last November.

"Most people say things on the Internet," Puthucheary said in the interview. "This case was about his not responding [to an earlier notice]… We believe in protection of the common space, the religious space. This is to serve the interests of our citizens."

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