Shake it up

One tiny city state is pushing hard to be a center for innovation

When it comes to innovation, there is no such thing as status quo — you either improve or decline relative to everyone else, and sitting in a comfort zone for too long could prove costly. That is the philosophy of Steve Leonard, the CEO of SGInnovate, the government entity that supports entrepreneurs leading Singapore's innovation efforts.

While it may not be on par with Silicon Valley, widely considered the heart of global innovation, Singapore has been punching above its weight for several decades now.

Suhaimi Abdullah | Getty Images

Last year, a joint study from Cornell University, INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organization ranked Singapore as the sixth most innovative country in the world, behind the likes of the United Kingdom and the United States — countries much bigger, and with more resources, than the city-state.

Singapore's innovation journey so far had been necessitated by the need for survival.

The country has had to tackle some big macro problems: long-term potable water supply; food security; affordable housing; infrastructure; and talent acquisition, among others. Today, with one of the highest global standards of living, the urgency to innovate may not appear to be as high at first glance.

But appearances can be deceiving and the need for innovation has never been higher as Leonard noted.

"You sort of slip into this comfort zone and there's this idea that as soon as you are too comfortable, that's when things slip away from you because somebody across the street, across the continent is working harder," Leonard told CNBC earlier this year at the side-lines of the Innovfest Unbound conference in Singapore.

Leonard has been at the cutting edge of Singapore's innovation story for years — he was formerly the CEO of the Infocomm Development Authority, which was restructured in 2016 to become the Government Technology Agency. Prior to that, he held Asia Pacific leadership roles based out of Singapore in some top tech companies.

"I am a big believer that there's no such thing as status quo. You're either always improving or you are declining," he said.

Other voices

Becoming an innovation hub is an ambition for many cities because it attracts investments and talent and Singapore is no exception. There are three parameters — culture, ecosystem and the urban environment — that work together to make a successful innovation hub, according to Yossi Vardi, a veteran Israeli entrepreneur and investor.

Culture affects the willingness among innovators to take risks and can foster a more collaborative environment. A vibrant ecosystem allows people with similar mindsets to discuss ideas and help each other.

"You always have to reach out outside of the boundaries of your five, six, seven or 20 people," Vardi told CNBC earlier this year, adding that meetups, hackathons and industry conferences help people to expand their network within an ecosystem.

He added that, because of globalization, innovators can move around more freely. Cities, Vardi said, need to offer a comfortable standard of living to attract or retain talented individuals.

While Singapore can attract talent, and build an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors, corporations and research institutes, experts say the city-state generally lags in the culture of risk taking.

Leonard pointed out the challenge is in convincing people at every level to buy into an innovative idea, where not all the variables are known from the start. Giving an example, he explained that in the 1940s, a big innovation to cars was padding the dashboards to offer some protection in accidents. That ushered in more features, including seat belts, airbags and electronics for anti-lock brakes.

"The point is it's not like we kept vehicles off the road while we figured all these things out," said Leonard. But he acknowledged winning over skeptics is difficult. "I don't pretend to have the answer. I think there's just this good, old fashioned will which says if this is important enough, we commit to it."

Singapore's leadership appears to understand the necessity to constantly innovate and take risks. Last year, the government committed 19 billion Singapore dollars ($13.6 billion) to support research and developments over the next five years. And earlier this year, it announced more than $100 million will be invested into local efforts in artificial intelligence — which is still at its nascent, experimental stages — over the next five years.

Which city has the edge in innovation?
Which city has the edge in innovation?

Tan Kiat How, CEO of the Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore — the government statutory board that looks after Singapore's information, communication and media sector — told CNBC the authority was focused on several areas to help the country become an innovation hub and a smart nation.

Those include looking at how technology will disrupt various sectors and the new opportunities created in areas of finance, retail, restaurants, manufacturing and others; keeping a steady talent pool for the ICM sector; investing in building more infrastructure; and making regulations pro-business and pro-innovation while also ensuring sustainability.

The sandbox approach

Singapore understands that risk taking and leaping into the unknown is a part of innovation, but it has played smart, from the regulatory perspective, to ensure risks are controlled before making a particular solution or process mainstream.

As a result, it has rolled out what are called regulatory sandboxes, in which particular solutions can be trialed. Those cushion against failures while allowing a certain degree of risk taking.

For example, the government recently introduced a "Data Sandbox Programme" for companies and agencies to exchange and analyze big data.

Previously, the Monetary Authority of Singapore set up a regulatory sandbox that allowed fintech players to experiment with new financial products and services within a controlled environment.

But at the cutting edge of innovation, there is no playbook, IMDA's Tan told CNBC.

"There's no precedence or useful examples. What we do is try, experiment, start small, start fast (and) if you have to fail, fail fast. And learn those lessons and apply them again."