In this first of a three-part series on design innovation, Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie talks to Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran on how design thinking has been used in formulating government policies and programmes
Meet Mr Michael Hon, 63, who has persuaded scores of seniors - who once shunned e-payments - to use them on a daily basis.
The semi-retired businessman, who signed on to become a digital ambassador during the circuit breaker period last year, has a special touch when teaching seniors how to use digital tools.
He encourages them to take notes which they can refer to. To reinforce the teaching further, he gets them to practise in front of him.
"Most of the time, they are worried about security issues when using e-payments, so I tell them how I had the same worries when I started, and what are the ways to protect oneself."
He does not just tell the seniors and hawkers that they need to adopt technology. He also explains why they need to adopt technology using life examples that they can relate to.
He is among the 1,000 digital ambassadors who have been hired and trained by the SG Digital Office to help hawkers and seniors make the leap.
Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said using seniors like Mr Hon was just one of the ideas hatched using design thinking, a human-centred interactive process, to ensure that no one is left behind in Singapore's continuing digitalisation push.
He added that the SG Digital Office teams drawing up the plan realised that their ambassadors must be able to communicate and empathise with the difficulties faced by different groups of people for them to get on board the digital bandwagon.
"So for the seniors, we have the young people in their late teens and early 20s, whom the seniors can relate to as they are the age of their grandchildren," he explained. "And then you have those who are in their 50s and 60s who are their peers and who have the same fears and difficulties learning how to use digital tools."
He noted that the other important part of the plan was for the digital ambassadors to be within easy reach - to be embedded in the community.
"So, they are at the community centres, libraries and at the hawker centres, coffee shops and wet markets, for the hawkers and market stallholders whom we are trying to convert to using digital e-payments," he said, adding that more hawkers have joined the Hawkers Go Digital scheme, with 10,000 stallholders now accepting e-payments.
In an interview with The Straits Times, he brought up various other instances where Singapore has used design thinking and put the well-being of citizens at the heart of its public sector improvement initiatives.
Q: What is design thinking as applied to government policymaking?
A: The way I see it, there are two parts to it - one part of it is in the focus, and the other is in terms of the process. Design thinking's focus is on human centricity. In the case of government policymaking, the focus is on the citizens.
Whatever it is we are crafting, whether it is a product, service, programme or a policy, the end result must be to enhance lives, livelihoods and well-being of our citizens and society.
About S. Iswaran
Mr S. Iswaran, 59, is currently Minister for Communications and Information, focusing on strengthening the infocomm and media sectors, and accelerating digital transformation across the economy.
He also oversees policies and strategies to build a digitally ready community, as well as efforts to develop libraries of the future and enhance government communications. As the Minister-in-charge of Cyber Security, he oversees efforts to ensure a safe and secure cyberspace.
Mr Iswaran is also Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, where he oversees various bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations.
He joined the Singapore Administrative Service in 1987.
He served in the Ministries of Home Affairs and Education, and was seconded to the National Trades Union Congress, and later to the Singapore Indian Development Association as its first chief executive.
Mr Iswaran was director of international trade at the Ministry of Trade and Industry in the lead-up to Singapore's hosting of the World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference in 1996.
He then joined the private sector as director for strategic development at Singapore Technologies. He was previously also with Temasek as its managing director.
Mr Iswaran has been elected as a Member of Parliament in six general elections since Jan 2, 1997. Prior to his Cabinet appointment in 2006, he served on several government parliamentary committees, and as Deputy Speaker of Parliament from September 2004 to June 2006.
Mr Iswaran read economics at the University of Adelaide and graduated with first class honours. He also holds a master's in public administration from Harvard University.
Register for Design Innovation Forum
listen to more of Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran's views, you can register to attend the virtual Design Innovation Forum by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in partnership with The Straits Times.
British inventor and Dyson founder James Dyson, architect Brian Yang and SUTD president Chong Tow Chong will also speak.
Registration is free.
SUTD DESIGN INNOVATION FORUM
March 19, 2.30pm to 4pm Speakers
• Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran
• Sir James Dyson, chairman and founder of Dyson
• Mr Brian Yang, partner at architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group
• Professor Chong Tow Chong, president of SUTD
• Mr Mark Wee, executive director of DesignSingapore
To register, go to: str.sg/SUTDForum or scan the QR code
The other part of design thinking is the process. First, you have to understand what is the problem you are trying to solve - some people call it a problem statement. Some will say it is understanding the needs of your customers.
Then, you have ideation - coming up with new possibilities and designing a solution. It is about turning these initial ideas and research efforts into value.
Finally, the real test is in execution or implementation of these programmes. In Government, it is about helping our citizens understand the programme or policy, so that they can respond to it. For example, we launched the SG Digital Office and embedded 1,000 digital ambassadors in the community as we understood that some of our seniors had concerns and challenges going digital, and required support on their digital journey.
It is not that different from a product - taking it from design to manufacturing, and then, ultimately to the consumer. Nonetheless, it must be an iterative process. You must be willing to learn from experiences, adapt and respond to changes, such as technological developments, demographic trends and globalisation.
Q: So do you think design thinking is becoming relevant to a whole lot of areas in government?
A: Yes indeed. It has been infused in many areas of government - in providing transport services to cutting waiting times at hospitals. Even our libraries and Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix races that we host yearly use the design thinking approach.
Our National Library and the regional libraries - they are very popular and well patronised, partly because of the way they have been designed and conceived.
They provide a whole host of programmes and services, both at the libraries and online.
NLB (National Library Board) aims to deliver an integrated customer experience - a patron can go from accessing the resources online, and then attending an event in person at the library. The experience should be seamless. So, in that sense, our libraries are an omni-channel service provider.
Design thinking has been and is also being used to design and curate the look and feel of the physical spaces, as well as the resources we provide and activities we run in our libraries.
In designing our libraries, NLB looks at the profiles of the library users as well as the larger communities they are located in. They analyse their behaviour, such as borrowing trends, so that the regional libraries can cater to the needs of different groups of people - whether they are children and families, teens or working professionals.
One example is Library@Orchard, which has won awards for its design. It has a design studio concept that provides spaces for learning, reflection and collaboration, and carries the largest public library collection on design and applied arts.
Q: You mentioned the Formula 1 race - how has design thinking been used in organising the yearly races?
A: It is not just about holding a car race. We wanted to achieve other things. It was an opportunity for us to enhance Singapore's positioning as a global, vibrant city. So, yes, we decided that it will be a race in the heart of the city, but we also had to think about what else we wanted to lay around it.
So, we added on different layers of activity around the race: business networking events, lifestyle events - food, fashion, shopping and tourism. To bring it all together and showcase Singapore, you need good, thoughtful planning and execution.
Q: How do you think the design thinking approach can be made more pervasive?
A: The universities are teaching design thinking and the Singapore University of Technology and Design, of course, offers a unique design-centric and interdisciplinary education. More broadly, we must encourage problem-solving and critical thinking in our schools, through approaches such as project work, so as to start seeding a design thinking approach in our students.
We have to also go beyond our schools, to make this approach pervasive in our businesses, community and the Government, such as the Infocomm Media Development Authority's Pixel Design Thinking programme, where companies which are keen to apply design thinking methodologies can receive support to start a digital innovation project or to facilitate their design innovation process.
Ultimately, design thinking is a habit of the mind that can and should be developed. We must infuse it into our approaches to problem-solving and innovation, so as to ensure that our products, policies or programmes continue to meet the needs of our customers and citizens.