The Singapore Sprint: How one country is navigating the challenges of building an innovation culture

Singapore Skyline

By Andrew Grant and Gaia Grant

Adapted excerpt from the Grant’s new book The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game. The book is an adventurous journey around the world to explore sustainable innovation principles that can be brought back to contemporary businesses.

Do you know which city walks the fastest in the world? Apparently the average walking pace has increased by up to 30 per cent over the last few decades, and Singapore now leads the pack with the fastest walking pace of 18ms per 10.55 seconds.

What’s even more fascinating about this quirky fact is that the cities that walk the fastest have also been found to innovate the fastest, and Singapore has indeed come out on top of a number of innovation measures. As the pace of life gets faster and faster, it becomes apparent that we need to innovate faster and faster, and Singapore has been leading this trend.

So just how innovative is Singapore? How did it get to the position it’s in today, and where could it be headed in the future?

Starting from a determined vision

Singapore is one of the few countries you can arrive in confident that everything will be spotlessly clean and will work. It stands out in the Asian region as a technologically advanced nation that has been able to leap ahead of its neighbours. Indeed it has managed to boost its GDP by an astonishing 3700 per cent, 10 times that of the US, since it was founded as a nation state in 1965.

Founding President Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled the country for over 30 years, was a visionary leader who sought to bring innovative ideas to the country. In his inaugural speech he aspired to develop Singapore to become ‘a first world oasis in a third world region’.

Lee Kwan Yew established what the locals have called an ‘authoritarian democracy’, with the country standing in stark contrast to a number of corrupt dictatorships among its neighbours in the Asian region. When the country entered the ‘innovation race’ in 1965, it started as a tiny, poorly equipped nation with few natural resources, even reliant on buying water from its neighbour, and yet it soon emerged as a clear frontrunner.

Racing from the back of the field to the front, Singapore can now claim a number of trophies, including being rated as one of the best cities for investment potential for 16 consecutive years. It is also said to be the world’s easiest place to do business, as well as Asia’s ‘most network-ready’ and ‘most transparent’ country. Bloomberg has placed it in the top 10 most innovate countries.

At the beginning of their race the focus was on quality control, then it shifted gears to focus on customer service. Now the focus is on innovation.

Building a ‘creative class’

How did this happen? The mechanism Lee Kuan Yew put in place to drive the vision was a focus on developing talent (for example, through investing in higher education and attracting branches of top international universities), technology (in lieu of a lack of natural resources) and tolerance to attract the ‘creative class’ (according to Richard Florida’s principles of what makes a ‘creative class’).

For a country famously intolerant of publicly discarded chewing gum, the description of Singapore as ‘tolerant’ might come as a surprise. Yet the three major cultural groups (Indians, Malays and Chinese) had to learn to live alongside each other in the same housing districts to avoid cultural ghettos (and to allow for a sharing of perspectives).

The question now needs to be asked: Are Singaporeans themselves innovative? Has this innovative focus from the government filtered through to all levels? Has a culture that encourages sustainable innovation over the long term been established?

Innovating into the future

When we have asked Singaporeans specifically if they think Singapore is innovative, a typical response has been, ‘Yes!, The government is very innovative!’. But what happens when a visionary creative
genius leader moves out of the role? Does it leave a vacuum? The next challenge will be to see if this sort of creativity moves beyond the visionary leader to each individual (for example, through having freedom to ask questions, challenge ideas, look at the status quo and think more outside the box).

Our international research has shown that leadership styles that lean towards discipline and control rather than freedom have the advantage of enabling a leader to quickly cut through bureaucracy and to cull poor or ‘unproductive’ ideas, allowing for faster implementation. The visionary leaders of Singapore and Apple, as another example, have relied on this approach.

However there has also been plenty of long term research that has revealed that countries, cultures and organisations that have had strong creative visionary leadership with a focus on control have often stumbled when it comes to succession planning, and the loss of the inspirational leader can leave a large gap. The list of companies that lost their way following the exit of a visionary founder is extensive.

The Singapore solution started as a short-term sprint, using methods that helped them get to the front of the pack, but it is in the process of transitioning to a more sustainable marathon. ‘I believe Singaporeans can be creative,’ says Professor Kirpal Singh of the Singapore Management University, ‘but the creative eco-system needs to be firmly in place and entrenched as high value.’

Back to business
Think about the parallels for organisations today, and how these principles might be applied in business:

  • How does the organisation transition from the visionary leader to an integrated and open innovation culture?
  • How is it possible to transition to a foundation of freedom that will enable innovation and growth from the grassroots?
  • What creative ecosystem can be built to support long term sustainable innovation?

The more we contemplate these challenges and how they can be dealt with, the more we may be able to build a culture that supports sustainable innovation over the long term.


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2 Responses to “The Singapore Sprint: How one country is navigating the challenges of building an innovation culture”

  1. […] How did it get to the position it’s in today, and where could it be headed in the future? Read the full article here > Author innovationPosted on July 1, 2016July 18, […]

  2. […] How did it get to the position it’s in today, and where could it be headed in the future? Read the full article here > Author TirianPosted on July 1, 2016October 31, […]

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