Design Thinking Singapore’s Future: What is Holding Us Back from Change?

A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong said: “Good design thinking was a key reason for Singapore’s successful journey from a third world country to first, and it will be critical in the country’s future transformation…

Indeed, Singapore is where we are today is by Design. Nothing can take this away from us. As Mr. Lee said, our founding fathers did a great job in understanding and defining problems, generate solutions, prototype, test, and review. All these steps are key pillars of any proven Design Thinking process.

While Design Thinking is a proven process to move forward, the “ingredients” driving the context for this process are now very different. I would argue that we have a far more difficult job today than our founding fathers. The irony being that Singapore’s successes may ultimately hold us back.

SG100: Incremental improvements or Radical change?

A few years ago, we celebrated our 50 years of independence. Will the next 50 years (SG100) be more of the same as we have now? Or is there a need for a radical change that will take us towards a better future? 

Actually, many of the solutions and policies our founders created then were radical and different. Fortunately, most of the policies proved to be right thereby making life better for many citizens and forming the country we know today. But are these solutions still relevant in today’s context? 

If we decide that change is required how are we going to better understand our enabling factors and roadblocks so that we can better frame the problems to be solved? 

A Better Framework to Contextualise Problems

Whenever innovators try to create impactful change, we tend to frame our challenges through three lenses: “things we own”, “things we do”, and “things we measure ourselves by”. 

Things we own” are assets we build, buy and/or make. For example, if we want a future in sustainable energy, how can we invest deeply in this future without jeopardising the value we have created in Jurong Island’s oil refinery activities? How can we create a credible “Smart Nation” when the majority of our homes do not have the wiring/wireless infrastructure to enable this? On a smaller scale, you might wonder if a universal payment system like Allipay or WeChat Pay will happen in Singapore when we have invested so much in a “state of the art” credit card infrastructure both in our pockets and in retail shops. It is hard to let things go when so much effort has been taken, or so many livelihoods depend on it.

Our processes and culture dictate the “things we do”. How can we solve wicked problems highlighted by Mr Lee in having to raise fares in public transport? Especially, when civil servants fall under intense criticism and scrutiny? If daring to “fail” is a hallmark of creativity, then how can we expect the various government agencies dare to make a difference? Won’t our “Kiasu” (Hokkien for cannot lose out) and “Kiasi” (Hokkien for afraid to die) culture lead us down a path of mediocrity as we just end up preferring the status quo rather than exploring a new unknown.

Finally, the “things we measure ourselves by” implies how we measure success. Most of the time this is related to money. If you had a very well paying job, would you consider changing it even if it will be obsolete in a few years? For example, could banks give up relationship managers when there seems to be a future in Robo-Investing? In a Singapore context, the analogy would perhaps be our GDP. If we refer to the Singapore Statistics, the manufacturing sector (the largest contributor to our GDP) declined to 19.2% in 2017 from a high of 28.2% in 2004. This was something we last experienced in the early 1970’s! We struggle against other countries with a much lower cost base and an amazing capacity to learn. How do we rethink Singapore’s economic engines when our largest contributor to our GDP could hold us at bay? 

Keep Moving Forward

I agree with the Prime Minister; by using Design Thinking the possibilities are endless for our beloved country, but we must also be aware what is holding us back from truly reimagining what the future could be.

I leave you a final analogy. I hate to use Apple but everyone gets it. Apple was struggling in a world of computing giants. Under the strong leadership of one man, the company became a huge success. Apple’s current CEO has many of the same problems as we have as a nation. So what should Apple do? Perhaps our answer is not that foreign after all.

I love to hear what you think about this post, so let us have a conversation by leaving your comments and feedback below.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on April 28, 2018.

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