Singapore is terribly inefficient in innovating

In a recent ranking by Reuters of universities based on how innovative they are, NUS ranked 94 out of 100 universities, while NTU was not even ranked. The ranking was based on factors including how many patents were filed with local and global authorities, how often patent applications were granted, how often the university’s patents were cited by others, the percentage of their articles that feature and industry co-author, and how often their research papers were cited.

As expected, Singapore’s media included criticisms of the ranking methodology by various “experts”. CNA reported that Dr Stephen Murgatroyd, president of Murgatroyd Communications and Consulting and CEO of Collaborative Media Group, said: “Patents are a very poor measure of anything” CNA also reported that Future-Moves Group chief executive officer Devadas Krishnadas said patents are a “proxy measure” for innovation and pointed out that the “real measure” of innovations comes from the commercial deployment of new ideas or processes.

I agree that our universities should not be too obsessed with applying for and filing patents. Our universities serve broader functions than that. They are meant to be part of the machinery to stretch the potential of our people and increase their ability to contribute meaningfully to the economy and society of our nation.

That said, our universities do play a critical role in the economic transformation of our nation. We know that a key part of our economic transformation is to increase productivity. A critical component of increasing productivity is to be innovative. It is therefore important that we critically review how well our universities are helping Singapore be innovative.

A more interesting report that came out slightly before the ranking of universities according to ranking is the Global Innovation Index (GII) for 2015. Again CNA tries to give a positive spin to the story. The headline and most of the report about the GII 2015 focused on how the GII ranked Singapore as 7th most innovative in the world and top in Asia.

The GII is an annual survey published by Cornell University, INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organisation. It looks at 141 economies and uses 79 indicators across a range of themes to calculate four measures: the overall GII, the Input and Output sub-indices, and the Innovation Efficiency Ratio.

According to the GII 2015 report, these four measures are defined as:

  • The overall GII score is the simple average of the Input and Output Sub-Index scores.
  • The Innovation Input Sub-Index is comprised of five input pillars that capture elements of the national economy that enable innovative activities: (1) Institutions, (2) Human capital and research, (3) Infrastructure, (4) Market sophistication, and (5) Business sophistication.
  • The Innovation Output Sub- Index provides information about outputs that are the results of innovative activities within the economy. There are two output pillars: (6) Knowledge and technology outputs and (7) Creative outputs.
  • The Innovation Efficiency Ratio is the ratio of the Output Sub-Index score over the Input Sub-Index score. It shows how much innovation output a given country is getting for its inputs.

Singapore has been consistently ranked top in the world for the Innovation Input Sub-Index. However, despite the sheer amount of input we pump into being innovative, we do not fare as well in actually being innovative. In the GII2015, we ranked 20th in innovation output. Put together, this makes us terribly inefficient at being innovative, ranking 100th in terms of innovation efficiency.

What is going on here? Why is it that despite pumping in so many resources, despite having well-established institutions required for innovation, despite all the government policies that support innovation, we are still, relatively speaking not very innovative? And it seems to be getting worse. In 2011, we were ranked 3rd on the GII. We have since slipped to 7th.

Given the changing economic conditions in the region and the world, Singapore has to be more innovative in order to retain our competitive advantage. We need to be more productive, which again largely depends on us being more innovative. It is therefore imperative for us to figure out what it is that we are still lacking.

I suggest that one of the critical components that is lacking is the mindset of Singaporeans. This is something that is difficult to measure and hence most likely to be left out in any index or rankings. There are three aspects of the Singaporean mindset that, I think, inhibit innovation.

Firstly, we are not well trained to question. Singaporeans are, by and large, intelligent people. We have a world-class education system that results in most Singaporeans being highly educated (compared to the rest of the world). But that does not mean we readily put our education to use. That does not mean that we are willing to think critically. Instead, it appears that Singaporeans are not likely to challenge assumptions, to question things we read and see (otherwise why would we be concerned about chemically induced rain?), and to be critical of authority and established ways. Perhaps all these are because our education system trains us very well to find answers to defined problems, but does little to train us to be critical, skeptical and ask difficult questions.

Secondly, Singaporeans are generally contented with our lives. Yes, we do grumble. We do complain a lot. But for all practical purposes, we live relatively comfortable lives and most of us encounter very little suffering. And because we generally do not feel enough pain, either personally or of others, there are few reasons for us to venture out of our comfort zone to challenge the status quo. Without the burning desire to challenge the status quo, how can we hope to be innovative?

Lastly, Singaporeans have too much to lose. Because we are by and large contented with our lives, the risk of losing the things that we are contented with to be innovative scares us into inaction. Better to take the safe, tried and tested path. Do not come up with novel ideas or answers. Just do the Ten-Year Series, give the model answers, follow the Standard-Operating Procedures, never mind if they do not necessarily make sense or if there are better ways to do things.

How can we change all these? How can we improve? For the sake of our country and our future, that is something we really need to think very hard about. And the first step is to acknowledge that we have a problem: we are terribly inefficient at being innovative.

[Featured Image: Header of GII2015 report]


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