Edwin Chow, Assistant CEO, Innovation & Enterprise, Enterprise Singapore

On channelling innovation to boost sustainability and profits

How is sustainability being perceived by business executives in relation to long-term corporate performance?

EDWIN CHOW: Large corporations in Singapore are beginning to realise the fact that having sustainability embedded into their work processes is actually good for them as a company. There was no single light-bulb moment, but rather an evolution of thinking based on the changing preferences of customers, employees and shareholders.

Sustainable business practices are becoming more mainstream, along with an awareness that profitability and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. We can still follow policies that boost economic development and create good jobs for citizens, while at the same time conserving resources. 

In an era of rising protectionism, what are the prospects for open innovation to address global sustainability challenges, and what role do you see Singapore playing in fostering cross-border collaboration?

CHOW: We do not pretend to be able to change the world. For us, open innovation is a means by which our companies can become more competitive. We think open innovation makes sense for our companies and that is why, as a government, we want to encourage them to follow this path. 

For many years our small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) were predominantly traders, distributors and system integrators. Their business models were built on close competition – making everything cheaper, better and faster. This has been good for the country and should continue, but we want to build on this to get our firms to own their distinct brands, products, technology and intellectual property, and differentiate themselves from competitors. The way to do this is to identify problems for which there are not readily available solutions, then develop something that can meet the needs of customers and scale it up quickly. 

This concept of open innovation also makes sense from the point of view of large corporations. When they are not able to develop their own solutions in-house or they think there are better ways to do it, they can tap into the creativity of start-ups, research institutes, entrepreneurs and SMEs outside their firm. For example, we have linked Sembcorp with start-ups and entrepreneurs to help them solve a challenge related to waste management. The start-ups have a platform to test their solutions with a large company in a relatively controlled environment. If Sembcorp chooses to implement one of their solutions it is a win-win for all parties involved. This shows how innovation can be channelled towards initiatives linked to sustainability.

Where are the primary end markets for Singapore-led innovation efforts?

CHOW: ASEAN is naturally one of the driving forces because Singapore has a relatively small domestic market. If any of our companies want to grow and become more competitive, they have to develop solutions which are relevant for the world, and the ASEAN market is a good testing ground. Enterprise Singapore and the Economic Development Board set up the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA), which is a network to connect to innovation hubs around the world. This helps to identify in-country partners that are able to help our start-ups navigate new markets. So far, the ASEAN cities of Jakarta, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City are part of the GIA network, and we are looking to attract a few more from the bloc in the coming years.

As far as business is concerned, ASEAN is quite united in its support of open innovation. I think people across ASEAN – whether they are in Singapore or one of the other nine member states – recognise that if they want to solve problems they stand a better chance to find the right solution in a shorter period of time if they are prepared to utilise the resources of the entire region rather than just their own country.

Singapore benefits when our neighbours develop and vice versa. The more we can encourage and facilitate collaborations at the micro level the better it is for all of us. If you look at the founding teams of our start-ups, they often comprise people from elsewhere in the region or the world, and these diverse teams are often the most successful ones.

What is the role of Singapore within the wider ASEAN innovation ecosystem?

CHOW: Singapore offers a conducive business environment with easy access to talent and smart capital, along with a diverse array of corporations and networks that can help start-ups to scale their operations. The country has developed its strengths over the past 50 years, and today they are utilised by innovators in the ASEAN region and beyond.

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