Take a different angle on innovation

With the public interest at stake, experimentation in the public sector has to be less aggressive than in the private sector – but that doesn’t mean innovation can’t take place, says Mr Steve Leonard, Executive Deputy Chairman of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA).

It’s 8am and Mr Steve Leonard is kicking off his day with Challenge at PS Café Petit. And with a full agenda that will take him all over town – to meet tech startups, investors and other industry players – he may not get into the office at all today.

“The Apple computer wasn’t invented in a cubicle. Innovation happens in garages, laboratories, coffee shops, so these are the places I go, to explore great ideas and how the IDA can contribute,” he says. A 28-year veteran of the tech industry, Mr Leonard was formerly President of EMC (Asia Pacific/Japan), and Senior Vice President of Symantec (Asia Pacific/Japan), both global leaders in cloud computing, IT storage and security.

The IDA appointment is his first stab at public service, but it’s not unfamiliar territory for him, having served on the IDA board since 2009. He was brought in as Executive Deputy Chairman in 2013 to promote and develop the infocomm industry, especially that of start-ups.

As an American who had never worked in government, he had not considered a position in Singapore’s Public Service, Mr Leonard, 52, tells Challenge. But when offered the role, he took it on as a way to learn and contribute, by bringing in his experience and relationships from working with big companies in the tech industry.


Solving problems

The public sector’s duty to its citizens means that it has a different challenge when it comes to innovation, observes Mr Leonard.

In the private sector, mistakes can cost time and money. But in the public sector, “if you get it wrong, there may be issues around safety, transportation – things that aren’t acceptable.

“So you have to take a different angle on innovation. You can’t experiment as aggressively. But, what we have to do is make sure we don’t allow [ourselves] to then not innovate.”

The whole idea is to learn as you go. Take risks

Public sector innovation isn’t just about launching products, it’s also about solving problems, he adds. One problem the IDA identified was that not enough local startups get to work with the government. This also means that agencies risk missing out on the ideas or solutions from start-ups.

“Because the government needs to avoid risk, it would be safer to buy from a well-known, big company,” he says. “So to get a [small] company with some cool and new ideas into government is pretty tough.”

Mr Leonard’s team is using the tech industry’s incubator approach to help start-ups improve their products and to run their operations more professionally. Once they are ready, the IDA “start-up factory” gives them accreditation and connects them to potential sources of funding and customers, including the government.


Bridging industry and government

Nurturing local start-ups is part of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative. This is a vision in which everyone – government, industry players, research institutions and citizens – unites in using technology, including big data, to develop more responsive systems. It covers transportation, healthcare, eldercare, community bonding – just about every aspect of civic life.

Mr Leonard notes that while cities around the world are working on “point solutions” – smart street lighting, smart trash collection, smart home energy systems – in Singapore, those parts are being wrapped into a whole that will become Smart Nation.

“I’m lucky because [the IDA being a statutory board] … we are able to do things in support of the government, but we’re also closely aligned with industry, so we try and be that bridge.”

That bridge begins with creating a culture of innovation, because “99% of innovation is mindset”. He explains: “A lot of it is just ‘Am I willing to try things, to make a mistake, to potentially feel embarrassed’… What I’ve tried to do in joining the IDA is to repeat the message, ‘It’s ok to try things’.”

The key is to have an idea of what you want to achieve, and identify early if an idea is working; if not, change course.

As part of its attempts to nurture such a mindset, the IDA recently arranged for polytechnic students to build drones for delegates visiting Singapore. Some drones worked, some didn’t – there were broken propellers, burnt out motors, fried batteries – but “the whole idea is to learn as you go. Take risks,” says Mr Leonard.

He encourages the same with his three children. At home, he collects items that have stopped working for them to tinker with. “We try to put opportunities in front of the kids and see if they’d be interested. If something is broken, such as an old laptop, take it apart.”

It is Singapore’s concerted efforts to build an innovation culture that makes Mr Leonard convinced Singapore “stands alone” in becoming a Smart Nation. “Nobody else around the world has the right scale, so our compactness is a benefit.”

And while data is certainly a big part of the IDA’s work, it does not stop there. “Data gives us important information,” he says, “but then you have to think about how to change the business models or legislation as appropriate.”

That’s where he looks to his colleague Ms Jacqueline Poh, the IDA’s Managing Director, for guidance on navigating the mechanics of government decision-making. Many of his coffee meetings are spent conferring with her on ideas and who to get support from for initiatives.

99% of innovation is mindset. A lot of it is just ‘Am I willing to try things, to make a mistake, to potentially feel embarrassed’.

Enhancing lives

While big data undoubtedly plays a vital role in Smart Nation, it raises concerns of privacy and security violations.

Mr Leonard acknowledges these concerns, but stresses that Smart Nation focuses on enhancing citizens’ lives, than on surveillance.

The real motivation, he says, is to address trends such as Singapore’s rapidly ageing population and increasing urban density. These issues require the government to look at enhancing eldercare or using power more efficiently – and one way is to tap technology.

The gathering of data could be seen as “a trade” between citizens and government, he says: The government collects data and in return citizens receive better services, in much the same way a merchant collects credit card details from its customers.

“We have to think about how to articulate [the use of data] in a way that’s not intimidating, but it starts with a discussion,” he adds.

Personally, Mr Leonard feels that Singapore can lead globally as a Smart Nation. But that, he concedes, is not for him to determine, as he is just a catalyst. “It’s what Parliament and Singapore’s citizens decide they want for the country.”


What's in your cuppa?
Double espresso.

How do you take it?
Straight up.

Where do you drink it?
All over town.

    Jan 12, 2015
    Kate Lilienthal
    Norman Ng
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