Ranked fifth on the 2018 Global Innovation Index, Singapore promotes collaboration among the government, research institutes, and universities through organizations such as A*STAR. Dr. You Huan Yeo, head of the International Division, shared his thoughts on how Singapore and Japan can learn from each other to spur innovation.
What have you observed in Japan’s approach to innovation?
Despite the many talented researchers and engineers in Japan, companies in the country tend to have a very cautious approach to R&D. Western companies hire as many as 200 research fellows right out of the gate, but there are no such cases in Japan. There is also a hesitation to actively seek collaboration overseas. It seems most organizations are hoping to kick off innovation efforts within Japan, perhaps for future development elsewhere.
What kind of mindset does Japan need to innovate more effectively?
It may sound strange to say this, but Japanese companies could benefit a lot from being a little greedier, in the sense of taking a more proactive approach. When we at A*STAR hear from a Japanese company, it’s often to set up appointments far in advance of their actual visit—as much as a whole month before! Businesspeople from other countries often call the day of and say, “Hey, I’m in Singapore. Can we have lunch?” This light, frank approach is really the perfect mindset.
It’s really important for innovators to be go-getters in order to secure funding for their projects. At A*STAR, for example, we turn our R&D people into marketing agents and send them out to all kinds of places to talk about their work. Some are reluctant, but there’s a lot of competition out there. Loads of people in Singapore want to devote themselves to research only in their specialty, but we really want to make sure they have knowledge of different subjects such as history, music, culinary arts, and such, so that they can create wider and deeper networks with various talents around the world.
What can Japan learn from Singapore to better promote innovation?
To really get people collaborating, just bringing them together isn’t enough. The “science parks” in Japan don’t really work because they act more as real estate agents. Whole institutions just move in and work in their separate corners. A*STAR strives to understand why each company originally came to Singapore and what they have to offer—then we introduce them to each other. We act as a facilitator.
Sometimes, we even connect competitors! This works really well if everyone looks to the future, focusing beyond their current business strategies. Competition happens in the present. Five or ten years down the road, every company will be working with different technology, so their interests won’t necessarily overlap. Basically, the fact that two companies are competitors today shouldn’t prevent them from collaborating on future technology.
What can Singapore learn from Japanese innovation?
Japan has a lot of fantastic innovative ideas that researchers and engineers anywhere can learn from—some in unexpected places. Take anime, for example—a treasure trove of innovation! Gundam, Doraemon, and Pokémon are all incredible products of imagination. Examine the unique characters of these shows, and you can get an idea for how they were dreamt up and developed.
There’s a lot to be learned from the imaginations of animators. Imagine what could come out of putting these dreamers together in the same room. Based on everything I’ve seen in my line of work, different worlds can influence each other for incredible results.