Sunday, September 05, 2004

Innovation, Creativity, Love and Identity

Shel and I were having a email discussion about the creativity in Singapore. He said he was fundamentally impressed with Singapore during his 5-day visit a few weeks ago, but from what he's seen and heard, he was not too sure about how innovative and creative Singapore really was. Network World has published his opinion piece on Singapore. He has also posted more of such opinions in his blog.

Singapore has focused more on adapting and adopting the innovations from elsewhere well, explained Shel via email. It was innovative from that perspective. As he saw it, RFID and color-coding in libraries was innovative but only in application--not by creativity. He suggested that I put up a blog post to say that I took issue with him.

Thing is, I don't have any issue with his observations because they are true. It just depends on how strict we want to define "creativity", "innovation" and "inventiveness".

It's true that Singapore aspires to be innovative. We want to be "World-class". We want to benchmark ourselves so that there is a basis for judging our progress. Many Singaporeans would agree that we are not there yet. I can tell you that some people (like me), working in a government agency, get a bit embarrassed when the Powers That Be say that "Singapore is first in" 'blah blah', or that we have a "world class" 'blah blah'.

I'm proud of Singapore's achievements, but just uncomfortable trying to say "we are there" and can compete with the Big Boys. As a Singaporean, I'd say our government has been too successful and effective in meeting the needs and wants of the general population. We are simply the victims of our own success.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965 (after being booted out of the Malaya Federation), even our political leaders admitted that Singapore was a "political joke". So they had to adopt a very paternalistic approach in shaping Singapore. It could be said that there was little room for individual-experimentation and failure was not an option. Now that we are comfortable and safe, Singaporeans naturally tend to be risk adverse. And perhaps because Singapore is so small geographically, successes and failures are magnified.

"Necessity is the mother of invention". Younger Singaporeans don't have enough reasons or crisis or hardship to invent things. But these past years, we've had our fair share -- the Asian Financial Crisis, outbreak of SARS, real threats of terrorism on home soil. So we are learning and waking up, but perhaps not fast enough.

Shel also observed that our local bands sound like something off MTV. While looking for indigenous art and cultural products, he couldn't find any (though there were plenty from the region). Again, he's right. That's because we don't have an exclusive and unique Singapore Identity -- yet.

Our local music sound like something off MTV because MTV is what we think is hip and happening. Singaporeans seem to think that everything overseas is better than homegrown. Music, fashion and even accents (yes, many try to speak in US twang). I know because I was like that. Now I'm more confortable with our local accent, our working styles and mindsets.

I was at the NUS Cultural Centre the other night for a 1-hour show on "Electronic Music meets Poetry Slam". The university students formed a club to create and experiment with electronic music, and they combined their talents with a poetry performance. Creativity in action.

Of course one could argue that what they've done is nothing unique. It's all very westernised (Poetry Slam originated in the US -- Chicago. It was created by a truck driver. In Singapore, I think someone like that who invents a new artform would be hailed as a National Treasure). The NUS poets tended to speak with a westernised accent. The music is very western and European. But my enjoyment isn't any less because of that.

BTW, the ELMlab is not a University credit course. They are an extra-curricular activity and their members were there because of interest. Check out their music. They also wrote that "If you want to pursue a career in Electronic Music, you should be warned that the audience (or market) in Singapore and South-East Asia is still pretty small. So don't quit your day job yet." This also illustrates why Singapore seems to lack in creativity. Our mindset is very localised. We don't see possibilities beyond our shores, and/ or are not willing to take that risk to try.

The more I think about it, the more I feel all this have less to do with innovation or creativity but more an issue with a Singaporean Identity in a globalised world.

Singapore can and should benchmark with Silicon Valley (recognised for technology innovation) and San Francisco Bay area (acknowledged as the global center for arts, books, photography and music). But let's be realistic and not beat ourselves up just because we are not like them yet. I mean, it's ok to compare an apple with an orange to get a sense of the difference, but an apple cannot hope to be exactly like an orange, even after enough time has lapsed.

I'm not advocating that we drop all efforts to try to invent the Next Big Thing in whatever industry. What I'm saying is that while we strive to reach that kind of sophistication, we should not forget to "have fun" while doing it.

Where "innovation" is concerned, I feel that Singapore is going through a natural phase of our development. I remember reading that South Korea, in the 80s, were known more for copying the designs invented by other people. But today, they are big players in consumer electronic products.

I also take heart with Shel's comments that there is an upside to our seemingly lack of creativity. He shared that much of America's great innovation was a response to suffering. He explained that:
American Jazz and Blues would not resonate with blue notes without the century of cultural abuse suffered by Afro-Americans... The American Blues writer David Bromberg once sang the advice: 'You've got to suffer if you want to sing the blues.' I imagine you also have to be really pissed off to play heavy metal or perhaps overly opiated to write "Alice in Wonderland", or weird enough to develop a system code called Linux that exists mostly because people want to put Microsoft out of business.

Singapore needs time to find our self-confidence to celebrate what we are different. We lack that confidence to really shout to the world, "This is uniquely Singapore!". Heck, we don't even dare tell it to ourselves. We think we don't have a unique Singaporean-culture, so we adopt the ways of others.

There is no timeframe for developing a National Identity. What I feel deeply is that the more we try to look, the more elusive it will be. Trying to seek the Singaporean Identify is like what they say about "Happiness" -- that it is not an objective but an outcome. If we try to seek happiness, we'd never find it. But if we live our lives honestly and to the best of our true abilities, then it's happiness that we inevitably achieve.

When I was younger, someone told me that one cannot find or seek love. The more one looks, the more elusive it is. So Singapore's constant strive for innovation and creativity will never have an end-state, because it's the process and incremental outcomes that matters.

I wrote to Shel that Singapore would not have been able to reach where it is today if her citizens weren't creative, and only relied on top-down government directives. But people can get too comfortable, become risk-adverse and not that gung-ho to try new things. That is slowly changing. I hope more people get to read and hear honest comments like Shel's. Singaporeans need to know what we've done right, so that we continue doing it. More important, we need to know what we're not so good at, so that we wake from our complacency.

Incidentally, I attended a 3-hour Flash Animation introductory workshop, as part of a MICA led "Innovation Fiesta". A week later, I obtained a (legal) copy of Flash and now I've my first Flash movie on the web. Creativity in application, but creativity none the less.

Shel says that if he ever get back to Singapore, he'd like me to take him on a tour to show Singapore's innovation. Well, I'd be happy to give Shel a tour anytime. Showing him the innovative part is just an aside. Anyway, I think trying to arrange for an "Innovation Tour" would be difficult because from what I see, the innovativeness and creativity Singaporeans display is something more subtle.

Plus I can't bring him into the NTU or NTU labs. What I do plan to bring him is to the HDB heartlands -- the hawker centres, the food stalls. First, have a good time. See how we live, eat and play. Then we "worry" about innovation and creativity.

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  1. This was shared by Dr Anthony Fergurson:
    ... I wanted to comment on Hong Kong's creativity index but I don't think I
    know enough. Yet, in my library I find people are creative if it is safe to be -- this issue of not being safe, e.g., the boss may not want creativity seems to be a problem. But not everyone worries about this. As a boss I
    am torn sometimes between wanting to give constructive criticism or praise --
    both of which will reveal I am watching. This might be no different from the States -- yet, the path to getting ahead through innovation is strong enough to encourage at least younger people to create. Tony
    Thanks Tony!

  2. Anonymous9:03 am

    On creativity and innovation, I just thought the best way to start is to fire every child's imagination in school. Remember how we were always asked to use our imagination (something I never quite had) when writing compositions back in school. I believe IMAGINATION is the bedrock to a creative and innovative nation. once you get people's imagination all fired up, you can't stop them. At worst they uproot and go to a place where their imagination counts. Of course, like anything in life, it's not one thing that will lead us to be more creative. It will always have to be multi-pronged. A risk-taking culture will still be necessary to foster creativity and innovation. With deeper pockets now in Singapore's coffers, we can definitely afford a little more failures. I completed a book "Corporate Creativity" recently, and one of the criteria to being creative is "diverse stimuli", and things such as sabbaticals will be important. To be immersed in a completely different environment may just spur new ideas sometimes. And it seems to produce some concrete results for Hallmark. Afterall, creativity is not really to create something out of nothing. It's more like building on existing ideas, but marrying them in a way not done previously.


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