Singapore Learns to Innovate

June 17, 2000
Singapore Democrats

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Are creativity and effective management irreconcilable? Singapore’s Economic Development Board believes that good processes can be innovation’s best ally.

Singapore has made a fortune by being predictable. The city-state swears by dependability, whether it’s in tap water (all of which is potable), or in politics (all of which is one-party), or in business. In Singapore, where even littering can get you in trouble, messy is a no-no.

This presents a problem, because Singapore urgently needs innovation. Everyone in town knows it. But innovation is not as orderly as, say, contract manufacturing. Singapore’s southeast Asian neighborhood — encompassing Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia — was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, and it still hasn’t recovered. The nation’s gross domestic product fell 5.6 percent in the last quarter, compared with the year before. All three pillars of the economy (trade, investment, and technology) are weak.

Needing ideas, Singapore did a very Singaporean thing: The country’s Economic Development Board sponsored a pair of awards, one for an outstanding innovation, the other for an outstandingly innovative organization. Applications came from scores of Singaporean companies and groups ranging from disc-drive maker Seagate to the National Library Board. (I was one of its judges and — full disclosure — received an honorarium for helping.)

There was a lot of good stuff in the applications, but what caught my imagination most was the disciplined, orderly, well-thought-out way in which the Economic Development Board asked companies to evaluate themselves. The underlying assumption — what other assumption could a Singaporean organization make? — seemed to be that it’s actually possible to capture the butterfly of innovation, pin it down, and study it. Some disagree about this, of course. An opposing school of thought — very American — says innovation just happens. It’s an unleashing, an explosion, a consequence of stepping out of the box. As Oscar Hammerstein put it, “How do you catch a moonbeam in your hand?”

No matter which argument you support, there’s definitely an institutional dimension to innovation — if only in the sense that some companies make it harder to innovate than others. Every CEO in the world calls for new products and new ideas, but in many cases the very same companies deride new thinking, kill it, or force it into exile the minute it appears. Innovation by corporations is corporate — if it’s going to create revenue, it must eventually involve the entire organization, not just a bunch of propeller-heads sequestered in the lab.

All of this is what makes the Singaporean EDB’s application form a useful document — one that companies can use to audit their own receptivity to innovation and provide it with structure and discipline. The form asks for detailed answers to two sets of questions.