Many countries look to learn from Singapore's innovation playbook, and are keen to achieve our well-educated populace, steady economic development, high governance standards, abundant sources of financing, and shining skyline.
Committing heavily to innovation investments and achieved outputs such as the number of PhDs, patents filed, or papers published, has helped us achieve high rankings on global innovation leagues.
Yet, we enjoy relatively underwhelming innovation efficiency and labour productivity – due to the dearth of actual innovation outcomes such as game-changing businesses, breakthrough ideas, and blockbuster products. Despite our best efforts, there are only two Singaporean companies on the Fortune Global 500 list.
Our best companies seem restricted to regional markets, and our growth remains heavily driven by the manufacturing, trading, or financial services clusters. We struggle to produce celebrity thought leaders, CEOs, or Nobel laureates.
IMD and Mercer rank Singapore as among the best places to live in the world. Coupled with our low unemployment rate of under three percent, what has previously been our innovation imperative – the hunger in each of us to survive – may gradually cease to be relevant.
It might therefore well be time that Singapore articulates a new strategy for innovation. This has to extend beyond another government-led cluster development effort, but involve concerted ground-up effort to look within ourselves as Singaporean firms and Singaporeans to see what we truly bring to the table.
How deep do we need to reach within ourselves before we can one day see local entrepreneurs as brazen as those in Israel, start-ups rivaling those of Silicon Valley, R&D outcomes as global as those of Korea, designs as creative as those from Denmark, and engineering marvels surpassing those of Germany?
In a wide-ranging study of these global centres of innovation, we found that that these countries embarked on different innovation trajectories due in large part to their geographical, historical, or cultural contexts.
While factors such as a good education system, regulatory framework, or innovation infrastructure play important supporting functions, the true secrets behind each country's unique innovation pathways ultimately involved the unique innovation ethos of country.
Israel's entrepreneurs have the confidence to attempt the impossible due to their immemorial chutzpah culture to be audacious.
Silicon Valley's iconic disruptors share an optimistic, collaborative, and action-oriented innovation culture that has its roots in California's hippie movement from the 1960s.
South Korea's fearlessness in reinventing itself to take on the world is said to be a result of its constantly-dynamic geopolitical options, being sandwiched among giants like China, Japan, and Russia.
Denmark's creativity comes from a collaborative spirit that is only possible due to its flat social structure.
Germany's technical leadership is due a premium placed on taking the long-term view, developing deep expertise in craftsmanship, and a vocational apprentice system that passes on such tacit knowledge.
Gazing within ourselves and digging deep into our legacy, are we being honest to ourselves by yearning to define Singapore innovativeness by superstar companies, high fashion labels, or dramatic architecture?
Much has to be said for our almost natural ability to get things done. Singaporeans adapt easily to the cultures of different international firms, and are prized for our ability to roll up our sleeves in dealing with regional markets and integrate on-ground insight with an understanding of corporate headquarter requirements.
Dealing with Singaporeans is simply more straightforward, trusted, and safe. Our social capital – whether due to our small size or the common denominators of school or national service – forges easy collaborations among companies because everyone knows everyone else.
Whether or not we're wearing innovator, creator, or designer 'hats', our financiers, engineers, policymakers, and business folk are constantly seeking ways to be better.
We may not have a natural flair for the dramatic, but the incremental, almost 'invisible' innovation ecology has brought us to where we are today, and may yet drive a signature brand for Singapore Innovation for years to come.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Calvin Chu Yee Ming is Managing Partner at social innovation firm Eden Strategy Institute. Calvin also serves as an Executive Advisor to NUS Enterprise's Social Venturing Programme, an iAdvisor with IE Singapore, and as an Associate Lecturer in Strategy and Organisation with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.