Singapore as Innovation Nation

I'm sitting up in the nose of a Singapore Airlines 747 on the loonnngggggg flight back to San Francisco.. I've just been there for three days to kick off one of my various "involvements" this year — as a so-called Senior Visiting Fellow of Singapore's Civil Service College.

I said yes because I was interested in getting an intimate view of what is generally considered to be the engine of Singapore's relentless progress — namely, its government. I wanted another data point in my quest to understand the dynamics of innovation stewardship at a national level.

Government is generally credited with leading Singapore's transformation. When I first visited back in the1960's, the country seemed nothing more than a developing country fishing village — one with no territory to speak of, and no natural resources other than people. Today Singapore is rich, sleek and sophisticated — a country of 4.5 million people with a global airline, a world-class life sciences research center, a whopping bank balance...and a national innovation strategy.

Singapore is interesting precisely because the public sector leads; in fact one could argue that the bulk of the innovation and entrepreneurship in the country resides in the public sector. A country with a brand identity for education — thinking schools, learning nation — Singapore's brand identity for its public sector could easily be — creative government. (Or at least creativity-oriented government.)

This kind of thinking is typically greeted with skepticism in other parts of the world. A typical view of government holds it to be synonymous with bureaucracy. One senior US government official recent defined bureaucracy for me as the ability to maintain continuity in the face of idiocy. And many I meet on the road these days are skeptical of government's role in fostering innovation at a national level.

But Singapore provides existent proof of the importance of government — at least for one nation — in driving an innovation agenda. And it is a fascinating example of how innovation stewardship can work. For example, the Prime Minister of Singapore has a degree in mathematics and chairs the National Science and Innovation Council, which in turn oversees the National Research Foundation that is funding Singapore's big plays: digital media, life sciences and water/environmental technology. The majority of the cabinet has advanced training in science or technical fields such as medicine. So no problem here in terms of understanding the importance of science and technology, or of investing in innovation. But Singapore is also investing in the fields of design and management as well in actively developing a sweet spot where all of these disciplines converge to generate...innovation.

Singapore looks at national innovation through the lens of management, so one is not surprised to learn that there is a cross-functional government committee concerned with fostering creative industries that operates in parallel with a team looking at how to make Singapore appetizing for the global creative class. Sometimes things look somewhat overmanaged. One entry in the Civil Service College catalogue is a course on humor as a management technique.

As innovation becomes increasingly outsourced, Singapore will be one of the most important suppliers of innovation services. They are investing in the right ingredients — financial incentives, world-class laboratories, talent-friendly ambiance, education institutions and much more. Perhaps most importantly they have a theory of national innovation that they are eagerly putting into practice. Actions speak louder than words. And along the way, perhaps, they will develop even more of a sense of humor.