The View from Singapore: Vision and Leadership in Conquering Innovation FatigueBy
I just returned from an adventure in innovation and culture in one of the world’s most delightful and innovative nations, Singapore, where I spoke about innovation during Innovation and Enterprise Week 2009 sponsored by A*STAR, the government’s large program for the advancement of scientific technology and research. What remarkable vision is at play in this effort!
Singapore is an example of what can be achieved in a nation with a bold vision of economic progress and long-term growth. One consistently gets the impression that officials there, whether university leaders, team leaders, or high-ranking politicians, have a strong desire to advance the welfare of the nation and its people by giving people the resources and opportunities to work hard and succeed through innovation and entrepreneurial activity. There is a culture of cooperation and vision that seems to permeate the activities of leaders and influencers far more than you might see in other parts of the world. The nation is not without its problems, and no individual is without human flaws, but what I saw impressed and surprised me.
The nation decided years ago that it wanted to be a place for world-class research and development. They boldly recruited leading talent and ramped up education for its own citizens. They crafted beautiful complexes for interdisciplinary research to pursue targeted areas. This resulted in a large science park, and then the One North complex with Biopolis, a collection of large buildings for R&D in the life sciences, and Fusionopolis, a massive edifice intended to bring together numerous disciplines in other areas. They invested huge amounts of money to support R&D. While other companies and nations are cutting back, they are increasing their R&D spending from what was about 2.5% of the GDP recently to 3% in 2010. Many billions of dollars are being committed to achieve their vision.
One cannot explore Singapore without realizing that its leaders are serious about making Singapore an attractive place for business, for research, and for innovation. They understand the importance of location and co-location. They have worked hard to make Singapore a center for business for many multinational corporations. Currently over 7,000 MNCs have a presence in Singapore. They have worked to bring many disciplines together for targeted purposes by co-locating disciplines in research at One North, which is also near to the National University of Singapore, the Ministry of Education, and other key facilities, not to mention integrating industrial centers such as the Lilly Center for Drug Discovery on the Biopolis campus. Bringing people and institutions together physically creates opportunities for synergy and cross-fertilization that can’t be matched by remote online interactions.
The synergy between business and state-funded R&D is further strengthened by sending researchers into industry for internships or limited engagements to provide firsthand experience into the realities of a start-up or other business.
The planning behind A*STAR has resulted in many fruits. There have been nearly 30 spin-off companies from these recent efforts. A patent estate of over 3,000 applications and patents exists (this number from A*STAR apparently includes filings in multiple nations, so the number of patent families is considerably less, but still healthy). Significant growth in licensing revenues is coming through the efforts of Exploit Technologies, the licensing and commercialization arm of A*STAR. International recognition is being earned for the accomplishments of A*STAR.
How a small nation of four million people has transformed itself into a powerhouse of R&D and excellence in science and business shows what can be done with strong leadership and a commitment to the future. Of course, you can’t overlook one of their secret weapons that help attract and retain so much great talent: some of the best food in the world. Check out the food courts at Biopolis and across this island nation. This is a land that understands the importance of great food. After all, isn’t food ultimately the fuel behind human innovation?
Here is a gallery with a few photos I took while in Singapore. Click on a thumbnail to see more of the respective photo. The first photo shows the famous mascot of Singapore, the mythical Merlion. The building in the 2nd and 3rd photos is Fusionopolis, showing two different views (north and south sides). Then there are some downtown shots and a Buddha in Chinatown.