Building a Culture of Innovation in Singapore

Building a Culture of Innovation in Singapore (SHUTTERSTOCK)
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By Kayla Toh

How do you cut a cake into eight slices with three cuts?” This seemingly impossible question was posed by Dr Günter Pfeiffer at the Switzerland – Slovakia Growing Through Innovations symposium, a forum about the value of innovation in society’s development.

As trivial as Dr Pfeiffer’s mathematical problem sounds, he uses it in his innovative management classes to teach his students to think outside the box. “The obvious is not the solution,” he said.

Moreover, the exercise teaches his students the importance of co-creation—a good idea gets even better when you discuss and improve it with others. This approach to idea generation is already popularised in Silicon Valley firms.

Singaporeans are often regarded as system thinkers instead of creative thinkers. But according to Dr Pfeiffer and the vast majority of researchers, innovation can be fostered and cultivated.

To be an innovator, there must a willingness and boldness to venture into the unknown.

If that is the case, how can we learn to innovate and see beyond the obvious? And what are the barriers we have to overcome to make that change?

Let’s Start From the Very Beginning

Evidence shows that innovation and creativity can be learned and enhanced—and should instrumentally begin in the early years of life.
According to research at New York University, students were more likely to innovate when they were taught problem-solving and argument development, and given the space for networking.

The study also found that straight-A students might not be the best innovators. In fact, students with lower scores reported higher innovation intentions.

And that may very well be the case in Singapore. According to experts at a 2015 education conference by the International Association for Scholastic Excellence, our education system has trained many top scorers, but it may have discouraged innovation. The excessive focus on marks and grades leaves little room for developing creativity.

Affirming the need for change is DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam. He said Singaporeans need to move away from an obsession with children’s grades. “We’ve got to have enough space for diverse experiences, for their minds to wander, and we’ve to provide that space as kids grow up,” he added.

Mohamed Aidil Bin Ali, the founder of ZYD Math and Science Academy, agreed. “In order to produce more innovators, our education system has to be tweaked such that our students are more inquisitive.”

Are We Teaching Our Students to Fear Failure?

As we place more emphasis on grades and achievements, we also indirectly cultivate a fear of failure from a young age.
We joke that Singaporeans are known to be ‘kiasu’ (Hokkien for being fearful of losing out) or ‘kiasi’ (fearful of dying).

But our culture of fearing failure—and our unwillingness to take risks—pose real obstacles to innovation.

Dr. Michael Teng, CEO of the Singapore Innovation & Productivity Institute (SiPi) said at the 2015 Frost & Sullivan Growth, Innovation, and Leadership conference that the fear of failure could prove crippling to the local startup ecosystem, as students in Singapore are taught not to fail.
Yet this mindset sits in stark contrast to that in the United States, where failing is considered part of the learning process. In fact, entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley are never afraid to brag about their failure stories.

Alex Lee, a student at the University of Queensland, said, “I think Singapore lacks the space to be creative, and people are more confined to their own environment where they just can’t get out of their own comfort zone.”

To be an innovator, there must a willingness and boldness to venture into the unknown. We need to develop the courage to fail, as well as self-confidence in our own abilities.

The Top-Down Hierarchical System: a Hindrance to Creativity?

How do you cut a cake into eight slices with three cuts?

After years of education, we enter the workforce. And chances are we’ll land in a corporation that practices a top-down hierarchical system, like many other Asian countries.

While hierarchical systems enable an efficient chain of command, they might also hinder innovation and creative thinking within organisations.
The eminent Dutch social psychologist, Dr. Geert Hofstede, conducted a comprehensive study to measure the Power Distance Index (PDI)—the degree to which the less powerful members of society accept authority.

In countries with a high PDI, the people accept a hierarchical order where everyone has a place. As a result, junior-level staff members do not bring ideas forward, making it hard to innovate under such societies. Malaysia has a PDI of 104—the highest in the world, and Singapore trails not too far off with a relatively high PDI of 74.

Creativity is far from a solitary activity. In fact, the evidence shows that it arises from social engagement and discussion in group situations.

Researchers have found that in global organisations like BMW and Nokia, informal lateral communication across hierarchies and countries are key to innovation. Cross-functional teams remove the communication barriers posed by hierarchical systems, and bring forth the best ideas.

Conformity and Authority

Many perceive our lack of innovation to be an education or work culture issue. But some think that Singapore’s problem lies in our society as a whole, and our tendency to “conform”.

In a BBC radio interview, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said Singapore’s conformity kills creativity. “When you’re very structured almost like a religion… Uniforms, uniforms, uniforms… everybody is the same. Where are the creative people?

Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? … All the creative elements seem to disappear.”

Some locals feel that our tendency to conform likely relates to our strict laws and regulations. Ashrul, an ITE West student, said, “We usually follow the rules. Because of the laws and regulations, we are afraid to make changes and are more likely to follow the norms; and we won’t think of other ways to change our routine.”

“If the policy is not so strict, regulations are loosened up and there is more freedom, you can do a lot of innovation,” echoed Mr. Chua, a retiree.

Whether our strictly regulated society creates conformity is a legitimate point for debate. But the Eastern tendency to “conform” might not be all bad.

While Western cultures encourage individualism and individual perspectives, conformity has been the positive catalyst for a harmonious society in many Eastern countries like Singapore.

Moreover, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology determined that while individualism tends to breed innovation, collectivist values of patriotism also have a positive effect on innovation.

A country’s patriotism appears to provide a stronger push towards technological innovation, such as in countries like Japan.


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