As technological disruption reshapes societies and economies the world over, industry leaders need to consider how technology can be harnessed for the public good, instead of just for a fortunate few.
In 2009, Mr Chow Yen-Lu was what many would consider a tech industry veteran, with years of experience under his belt at Apple and in the world of tech startups. But that year, Mr Chow’s life—and career—took an unexpected turn when his son took his own life after a long struggle with manic depression.
Moved to help other young people grappling with mental health conditions, Mr Chow and his wife set up the WholeTree Foundation, which, among other initiatives, uses interactive digital media technologies to promote youth wellness.
"My mission in life, my crusade, is to plant more seeds of happiness, healing, transformation and well-being in today’s society,” Mr Chow, now the Foundation’s executive chairman, told a packed audience at SGInnovate’s ‘Change The World: Tech For Good’ event.
We only have one life to live, so we have to give to the best of our ability to help change the world as best we can.
After his talk, Mr Chow was joined by Mr Dan Neary, Facebook’s vice president for Asia Pacific, and Mr Charlie Ang, ambassador for the Singapore chapter of Singularity University, for a wide-ranging panel discussion (moderated by SGInnovate’s Founding CEO Mr Steve Leonard) on how technology can be harnessed as an equaliser and a force for social good.
L-R: Steve Leonard, Founding CEO, SGInnovate; Chow Yen-Lu, Chairman, WholeTree Foundation; Charlie Ang, Ambassador, Singularity University; Dan Neary, Vice President for Asia Pacific, Facebook
A connected world is a better world
Technology, in particular, internet connectivity, has tremendous potential to improve the quality of life of millions of people around the world, said Mr Neary. He emphasized,
There are lots of studies that show that as individuals and communities become more connected, unemployment goes down, access to health and overall health increases, and education becomes better. It is a profound transformation.
But if the internet is to benefit society as a whole rather than just a small segment of the population, then it must be made accessible to more people around the globe, continued Mr Neary, who also noted that accelerating internet adoption remains a big part of his company’s mission. Indeed, Facebook estimates that some four billion people worldwide, mostly in developing countries, lack access to an internet connection.
In response to the question of what tech entrepreneurs could do to help these underserved communities and industries, Mr Neary again raised the importance of connectivity and of building communities.
“I think if you look at this through the lens of Kickstarter, at what you can do when you have very large communities—you can raise awareness of your cause, and there's probably no better time in history to do that than right now,” he said. “My advice is to look at broader communications platforms to get the word out... it’s about how you build that affinity, that community across like-minded individuals.”
Cultivating innovators, not managers
In order for future societies to remain resilient and inclusive, every individual, company, industry and nation will need to prepare themselves to adapt to an unrelenting onslaught of digital change, said Mr Ang. In his view of the ‘4.0’ future, intelligent technologies will quickly reinvent the existing ‘3.0’ paradigm upon which most industries and economies are now based. “We have to see that the challenges we are faced with are not one-dimensional but multidimensional… if we don't put our minds to it and create this 4.0 world by design, it could become very unpleasant,” said Mr Ang.
Today’s education systems, for example, are designed for training managers, who do excellent jobs of planning and executing the status quo, said Mr Ang. But the future doesn’t need more managers, he continued; instead, it needs innovators who can “create value from scratch” to solve onerous challenges.
We need our kids to be able to imagine and create a future—they must be innovators in order to benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Indeed, one critique commonly levied against Singapore is that the country’s famed order and efficiency come at the expense of the creativity of its people. But for Mr Ang, these two aspects are not mutually exclusive—an orderly society remains an important prerequisite for innovation to take root, he added later in the discussion. “At the infrastructure level, we need to be efficient—we can’t have things breaking down. But building on that base level of efficiency, we can then allow for a lot of creative applications,” he explained.
Despite challenges such as a small market and talent pool, Singapore has a lot going for it in terms of being a hub for innovation, reiterated Mr Leonard. “One of Singapore’s big strengths is that we are a magnet for talent from other places,” he said, noting that SGInnovate works with Singapore-based researchers and entrepreneurs from all over the world, many of whom came to Singapore for graduate studies. “Although we don't necessarily have a personal affinity to some of those markets, there are many people here who can lay the foundation for that.”
Mr Leonard believes that Singapore has everything it needs to be a place of amazing innovation
Mr Leonard wrapped up the discussion on an aspirational note. He said,
SGInnovate wouldn’t have been formed if we didn’t fundamentally believe that Singapore has everything it needs to be a place of amazing innovation.
“The market isn’t big, but that isn’t the point—we don’t build for Singapore, we build from Singapore… no matter where you live, you need to not be defined by that.”
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