The future of growth - a much-debated issue aired recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos as well - perplexes experts and laypersons alike. From a macroeconomic perspective, market bears might ask cynically if growth has any future at all. They point to big imbalances in the flows of trade and capital lingering in the world economy, and much unfinished work everywhere in restructuring economies in order to create jobs and boost activity. Others expect markets to stabilise eventually and are sanguine about prospects, while some look ahead to a "Fourth Industrial Revolution" driven by technology. This will transform economies "as never before" and shake peoples' lives "to their very core", as the forum's chief economist, Dr Jennifer Blanke, believes.
Smaller countries, like Singapore, would be wise to not get carried away by a single perspective and to take an opportunistic approach to the currents of change. The philosophy towards change, evident here, acknowledges that change is inevitable and often rapid - reflected, for example, in the shortening of cycles of economic growth. A case in point is the United States which has seen "six growth rate cycles in the 14-year period from 1998 through 2012, while the previous six growth rate cycles stretched over 25 years", as one analyst observed. Change is also uneven. Typically, the outlook for global economies is mixed. Thus, even though emerging Asia is affected by market turbulence, there will still be opportunities that can be exploited by the nimble-footed, especially as parts of Asia have built a stronger base since the financial crisis and consumers are on the march.
Pointing to such opportunities, among other crucial tasks, is the strategic remit of the Committee on the Future Economy. Some of the areas being reviewed are niche production, consumption spending and modern services, as mentioned by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat who chairs the panel. Alongside traditional services like those in tourism, transport and maintenance, there is a need to develop new niches, for example, in financial services to serve the region's newly affluent. In a modern services ecosystem, various forms of specialisation should arise that dovetail with each other and collectively contribute to the making of vibrant local clusters. Despite easy access to expertise in major cities, "the enduring competitive advantages in a global economy lie increasingly in local things - knowledge, relationships, motivation - that distant rivals cannot match", as management guru Michael Porter noted.
Snaring economic opportunities in an ever-changing environment calls for closer attention to the local things that will make a difference - like an obsession with not standing still and constantly offering something that's different and better. The future of business and work hinges on more people thinking this way about growth.