A lithe, athletic figure took the stage. It was Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Acting Minister for Education. “Innovation is everything,” Ong said, as he took the podium to address some 70 tertiary students at the Singapore Invent 50 Competition award ceremony. Quoting Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, he continued, “Don’t be encumbered by history. Go out and do something wonderful.”
For the attending students this was a daunting proclamation, as they waited for the final verdict on the outputs of their tireless efforts. When this finally wraps up, maybe they could resume normal lives again.
Who could have anticipated what a seemingly simple assignment involving Intel Edison and Intel RealSense would cost them? Time off school, working late into early mornings, plenty of lost sleep. Mervyn Wee cast a side-glance at his teammates. He knew few of them were listening, too nervous with anticipation of the outcome.
Competitions like Singapore Invent 50 is to foster an environment in which innovation is accessible to anyone and everyone. The organisers at Intel are already seeing encouraging results.
“We had a team of three accountants – no engineering background,” says Anjan Ghosh, Regional Director, Corporate Affairs, Asia Pacific and Japan, Intel. “They were building a project on Intel Edison. Now that’s truly fascinating. It goes to show that Making or creating anything using technology is not reserved for the geeks. Anyone can do it.”
But can innovation be manufactured? Does it happen the way technology works – with one swipe, one flick, with the right factors under the right conditions, you somehow get the kind of outcome you are looking for?
Perhaps so in Singapore.
Often touted as the miracle city-state of Southeast Asia, Singapore is the poster child of economic success. In just 50 years, the country has transformed itself from third world to first.. The unflinching resolve that former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew held – a legacy that Singapore hopes to continue – was that there would be nothing this country would not do to achieve its goals and to be seen as a beacon of innovation.
Doing that requires investing heavily in its only resource – people. From 2011 to 2015, the Singapore government diverted over S$16.1 billion in its Research, Development and Enterprise plan. This has produced world first achievements, including technology to detect and treat early gastric cancer, as well as the world’s first electric taxi for tropical cities.
This is where Singapore’s recipe for innovation lies. It has built an eco-system in which the local education institutions are linked with the world’s brilliant minds. The economy is kept open so their research receives the financial support it needs to produce breakthroughs. Wherever there are gaps, the government pumps in a little extra dough. Somewhere in that brew, top-notch innovation bubbles through.
This formula has proven to work. In September 2015, Singapore was ranked seventh in the world, and first in the Asia Pacific region on the Global Innovation Index (GII). The GII is a global survey by Cornell University, INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organisation. It’s just one of several worldwide rankings that have placed the city-state on the forefront of innovation and what fostering it well should look like.
Meanwhile at the Singapore Invent 50 Competition, the dreams for Mervyn Wee and his team are much less grandiose. Placing third for a national project award would be a welcome achievement, considering the amount of research they had done. The team had built an Intel Edison-powered drone which monitors water quality levels at reservoirs.
The team won second place.
“We were surprised when they announced it,” Mervyn says. “We really didn’t know what to expect but yes, we’re very happy!”
When asked what got him started in projects like these, Mervyn smiles sheepishly.
“I really wanted to fly a drone,” Mervyn confesses. “Drones are pretty expensive and it’s not something you can just pick up easily.”
He adds that he may embark on another project, but it will probably require a lot more preparation before jumping in. There is so much to learn.
That’s usually the point when true innovation begins.
Singapore Invent 50 is a competition aimed at challenging tertiary students to contribute innovative ideas and solutions for societal problems faced in Singapore. It was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law, as well as Singapore’s Golden Jubilee of 50 years of independence. Singapore Invent 50 was organised by Intel, with the support of the Ministry of Education, Singapore.
Find out more about the Singapore Invent 50 Competition and some of the amazing ideas that came out of it here.