Plans for a Jurong Innovation District, that will bring researchers, students and businesses together to develop new products and services, have elicited calls in Parliament for the Government to also help innovation take root in the heartland. Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh fears that the new industrial park in Jurong would be a high-tech island detached from the rest of the country. However, there are practical limits to spreading out the innovation drive too much.
Innovation hubs based on the Silicon Valley model depend on a face-to-face element. They are concentrated settlements of energy and talent visualised on the basis of their physical proximity to supporting institutions such as universities. They depend on personal and intellectual synergies that are likely to be deepened by close interaction. Ease of access to one another acts as a catalytic element in bringing universities, financiers and the government into an organic relationship that fosters the growth of innovation-driven enterprise. Dispersing this vision over all of Singapore might not achieve the strategic goals of the Jurong district.
Instead, it would be productive to concentrate on reinvigorating languishing neighbourhood businesses. The HDB's Revitalisation of Shops scheme, introduced in 2007, seeks to enhance the vibrancy and competitiveness of HDB shops by helping retailers upgrade the shopping environment and carry out promotional activities. Co-funding for the upgrading of common areas and promotional activities, and rent-free periods for tenants to renovate their shops contribute materially to the creation of a favourable business ambience on which these shops depend. In the same spirit, family-run shops could be encouraged to modernise selectively in order to be more appealing to a younger generation of consumers with newer tastes.
One suggestion heard in the House was to lower lunchtime parking rates to attract visitors to heartland shops. That has to be weighed against the possible social impact of heavier traffic during that period. Other ideas on reviving heartland businesses have been mooted by a group of students from Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School. These include extending shop opening hours, diversifying the services offered, and setting up business management committees. Even small shop operators can benefit from strategies of innovation applied to their activities in different ways. Neighbourhood businesses should evolve but retailers must also consider the feedback of residents. After all, heartland shops are meant to serve the community primarily. Ideally, they should also retain the charm and character of established services rather than just adopt standard templates for the sake of looking new.