Budget watch

The challenge ahead: Ensuring innovation across the economy

Experts say the Government faces a mighty challenge in making sure that true innovation can flourish across the economy. PHOTO: ST FILE

The call to innovate is one that has been repeated for close to a decade now, but most can agree that what we mean when we talk about innovation has changed drastically.

With Budget 2017 drawing near, experts say the Government faces a mighty challenge in making sure that true innovation can flourish across the economy.

Innovation was also a key theme running through the report released last week by the Committee on the Future Economy.

It noted the importance of innovation in ensuring that Singapore becomes a smart and connected global centre with empowered workers and sustainable businesses.

One of its recommendations is the establishment of a Global Innovation Alliance, in which Singapore tertiary institutions and companies link up with overseas partners in innovation hubs and key markets.

"Given the fast-changing technology environment and rapid growth in Asia, it is even more critical for us to build new networks to facilitate innovation, especially for our young," the committee said.

Professor Kevyn Yong, the dean of ESSEC Business School Asia-Pacific, notes that being innovative is harder than ever too.

"The mere novelty or newness of an idea may have been enough to qualify something as an innovation in the past, but that is no longer true," he says.

"Innovations ought to create value for the target user. That said, innovation does not have to be in the form of a new product or service. It could also be a new business model that disrupts how the industry has always functioned."

In the age of Grab and Airbnb, which have upended entire industries, there is a higher bar to pass before a company would be seen as being truly innovative.

For some, the main solution to elevating innovation in Singapore is a long-term one - inculcate an innovation mindset among the young.

"As an educator, I firmly believe that innovation and entrepreneurship can be taught - right from kindergarten through to university, and throughout one's career, whether in the classroom or not," Prof Yong says.

His call is echoed by RHT Holdings chief executive Jayaprakash Jagateesan, who feels innovation here is driven from the top down, when it should be ingrained in the way people think and behave.

"Our Israeli partners have told us that, in Israel, the education system encourages students to participate actively and learn beyond their textbooks," he says.

"Israel's strong innovation culture also stems from how entrepreneurial failure is viewed as an education rather than a disappointment. Risk-taking is encouraged from a young age and it is a contributing reason to why Israel is known as the Start-up Nation."

But what about the many Singapore companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), that are still struggling to start their innovation journeys?

Mr Liang Eng Hwa, the chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Finance and Trade, said the answer lies in research and development (R&D).

"One of Singapore's strengths, that we have built up over the years, is our R&D capability... but most of the R&D resources are used by big companies," he notes.

"What we now need to do is to get SMEs, those with aspirations to do more and to sell to bigger markets, and look at R&D as a way to grow."

One way the Government could help would be to channel some of the funds under its ongoing $19 billion Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 plan, that funds R&D programmes, towards the Industry Transformation Maps - Singapore's blueprints to strengthen local industries.

"Then we can further support R&D among SMEs. They may not have the scale or funds to do R&D on their own. And we could also facilitate collaborations among SMEs to come up with joint solutions," Mr Liang says.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline The challenge ahead: Ensuring innovation across the economy. Subscribe