Singapore's drive toward automation and artificial intelligence should not come at the cost of skilling up her citizens to face this smarter future.
Personal hover-boards, jet-packs, and self-lacing shoes: Inspired by that blockbuster, 'Back to the Future', folks from my generation are still hoping to get our hands on these inventions, even as 'the future', 2015, seems to be coming to a close. The future economy, on the other hand, is already changing the way we work, live, and play in Singapore.
And in anticipation of more changes to our socio-economic landscape, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong restructured his Cabinet, and signalled a new approach to the future with as much determination as he has done with a great deal of openness to fresh ideas. Foremost in this push is the prominent role that technology would play.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who is also minister in charge of Singapore's Smart Nation office, is known to be a savvy computer coder, and a firm supporter of Singapore's Makers Movement, a community of citizen engineers and scientists.
He was also instrumental in infusing technology to handle Singapore's flooding issues, and boost the sustainability of the country's water supply in his previous role as Environment and Water Resources minister.
As before, I foresee Mr Balakrishnan injecting his flair for tech into Singapore's foreign affairs agenda, notably into fighting climate change, and promoting smart city technology across the region, particular across an integrated ASEAN community by year's end.
In another signal of the Government's push for innovation through technology in tomorrow's Singapore, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has been tasked to lead a committee on 'Future Economy'. The committee will examine how Singapore can help workers and businesses adapt in the face of a weaker global economy and leaner workforce.
But as much as we appreciate the urgency of transforming Singapore's future economy into one that is characterised by higher skills and productivity, we must also keep in mind that a Smart Nation is not about technology, but also people.
And in that same light, so must Singapore's future economy be first about helping people to be masters of innovative skill sets, and not rely solely on automation and artificial intelligence to cope with future challenges. One need not look far for examples of economies succumbing to quick fixes in helping their societies transform into higher value ones.
Autonomy over Automation
China, Singapore's largest trading partner, has become a dominant outsourcer, not to another country, but to robots. Since 2013, China has topped the list as the world's biggest market for automated machinery, as sales surged 54 percent year-on-year in 2014. In 2016, China is poised to have installed more robotic machines than any other country.
Even though the cost of labor in Asia remains relatively low, wage pressures have been on the upswing of late. Economists anticipate average wages to grow 10 percent this year, and in order to keep costs down, employers in China are trading humans for cheaper robots.
It remains to be seen how tenable this would be socially, given the need to cater to job creation for China's booming working class, which pressures will be amplified by imminent migratory patterns of the rural populace into the country's tiers one and two cities.
Quick-fixes to temporarily resolve cost pressures or fuel economic growth are a familiar tale, even in Singapore. Yet, our drive toward automation and artificial intelligence should not come at the expense of skilling up Singaporeans to face this smarter future.
One skill-set that the Future Economy committee might like to consider championing is autonomous, self-directed data analytics. In short, helping people in organisations see and understand data by themselves.
Data at the heart of Smart Nation
Data is the lifeblood that makes a smart city come alive. Digitisation, as a result of automation, social media, mobility and cloud, will drive an even greater explosion of data in Singapore. By that same logic, would it not benefit citizens in this data-rich environment if they were fluent and comfortable in the manipulation of data by themselves?
There are countless examples of how Singapore's public sector and businesses have already become more productive at problem-solving by embracing a data-driven culture.
Transportation has been a hot-button issue for the longest time, but by enabling more employees at the Land Transport Authority to use self-service analytics, the agency was able to quickly examine vast data sets from more than 3.7 million bus trips to identify heavily trafficked routes, and in doing so, reduce wait times and relieve bus congestion by 60 percent.
I find it heartening to see more schools in Singapore recognising the importance of data literacy. Ngee Ann Polytechnic's business school is an example of an institution that is teaching students to mine and analyse data autonomously, without the need for data scientists and analysts, much less rely on automated dashboards.
Such a skill-set is not just important for a future workforce but also for businesses that are adjusting to become leaner and more agile in a Smart Nation reality.
Self-service business culture
Access to the right data in business intelligence is what gives companies their competitive edge and allows them to discover new business opportunities. Just as secretarial type-writing pools of the 1950s and '60s have been replaced by self-directed Word processors, so will the economy expect a future workforce to not only thrive in a world run by data but also to be able to make sense of this data by themselves.
Yet, in too many organisations, decisions are still not based on business intelligence because of the inability to keep up with demand for information and analytics. IT departments have been stripped down to the barest numbers, even while information workers are demanding more control and faster access to data.
To satisfy this demand and accelerate time to value, one approach involves setting up an environment in which the information workers can create and access specific sets of data reports, queries, and analytics themselves—with minimal IT intervention—in a self-directed, data analytics environment. Information workers become more self-sufficient by having an environment that is easy to use and supplies information that is easy to consume.
It is these two themes—ease of use and information consumability—that play crucial roles in Singapore's future economy, driven by leaner, quicker businesses.
If Singapore is to safeguard her position as innovation capital for the ASEAN Economic Community and the rest of Asia Pacific, then it would be imperative for her people to be comfortable with how they see and understand their data, through which fluency would unleash a renewed source of creative ingenuity to fuel the nation's transformation into her next fifty years.
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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Marcus Loh is Director, Asia Pacific Communication for global visual analytics firm Tableau Software. He was named a Linkedin Power Profile and was listed in Singapore Business Review’s top 10 “Notable Chief Marketing Officers under 40”. Marcus holds an M.S from Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School and won a scholarship for his second master’s degree from the Singapore Management University and Università della Svizzera italiana. He serves on various advisory capacities for academia and industry including, the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore, CMO Council, UOB-SMU Asian Enterprise Institute, Asia Enterprise Brand Awards, to name a few.