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3 Ways Innovation in Asia is Different

There’s no doubt that plenty of innovation investment is taking place in Asia. Over the last decade, half of all global investment dollars were spent in Asia, and the region has given rise to 43% of the world’s 5000 largest companies. Yet we often hear our Asian clients ask:

“My people aren’t innovating. How can I teach them to innovate?”
“We want our leaders to innovate like Silicon Valley. How can we be a 20,000 people startup?”
“We talk about design thinking but no one is applying it. How do we change?”

Over the last 18 months, the Board of Innovation team in Singapore has doubled in size and partnered with some of the largest companies in Asia, while in a pandemic. This experience has taught us that innovation in Asia requires a different approach to Silicon Valley. It’s often tempting for Asian leaders to mimic the methods of Silicon Valley companies, but simply copying giants like Facebook or Google doesn’t work. We need to understand how Asian cultures differ and adapt to its norms and mindsets. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, there tends to be common themes.  So here are three ways innovation is different in Asia, and three ways to address them.

Three tips to encourage innovation in Asia

Culture doesn’t change overnight, and no magic bullet can shatter perceptions of power distance or failure. However, we can start by facing the reality of our culture and designing intentional workarounds.  While we often work with clients to assess their innovation readiness, there are simple litmus tests you can try as well. Here are some tell-tale signs to look out for:

  • Is the most senior person in a meeting usually speaking the most? Do other team members mostly stay silent?
  • Do people play down mistakes to avoid seeming weak? Do managers react to mistakes harshly?

If you’ve noticed these signs, here are some ways to address them:

EMBRACE CONFLICT

Instead of avoiding conflict, intentionally embrace it to create world-class ideas. Task specific members of your team to act as the devil’s advocate to find potential flaws in any idea or decision, and assign other team members to counter-propose how it can be improved to fix those flaws. Frequently rotate roles and set the expectation that feedback is provided for the idea, not the person.

One way to do this is to use our ‘Build it, Break it, Fix it’ tool to help steer the discussion. 

This gives your team an institutional mandate for conflict. You empower those in lower levels of power to challenge ideas from the top, and in doing so, make them better.  

CREATE A SAFE SPACE FOR IDEAS

Leaders need to create a welcoming environment for ideas. One option is an idea management system where anyone can submit ideas and be incentivised for successful ones — this frees the employee from fear of judgement or ‘repercussions’. For example, global semiconductor industry leader Micron rewards employees in Singapore for experimenting with new ways of doing things, such as through incentive programs that reach all the way to frontline factory workers. This empowers new improvements in safety and productivity without relying on top-down instructions. 

In addition to merely soliciting ideas, companies can take it one step further by establishing internal platforms to incubate innovation. One such example is Singapore Airlines. Staff can submit ideas for evaluation through their KrisLab platform, and once an idea has been approved, the digital innovation lab team provides seed funding and expertise to develop the idea into a proof of concept. 

Creating space to innovate doesn’t require a company-wide initiative. You can start in your own team. Try a ‘no judgement’ rule, where saying things like “that’s a bad idea” or “that won’t work” is disallowed. Invite experimentation by sharing your past mistakes and what you learnt from them. This sets the tone that mistakes are accepted, and welcomes learning from failure.

THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT

Instead of relying on the boss for the final say, rely on the customer instead. Embed constant customer feedback in the development of any new idea, and use it to strengthen ideas regardless of their source. 

One prime example comes from DBS’s user experience and design team. In response to a surge in log-ins near the end of the month, the DBS team introduced the ‘peek balance’ feature, where users were able to check that their salaries had been deposited without the hassle of logging in. While the team admitted that their stakeholders didn’t like it at first, the feature has since been used 17 million times per month in 2021.

While internal stakeholder management is important, it is also important to recognise that your boss may not always be right.

Unlock great innovation in Asia

The key to unlocking great innovation in Asia is understanding the unique opportunities and challenges Asian cultures offer. While organizational change doesn’t happen overnight, any of us can try these tips within our teams today to start seeing results tomorrow.

June 2021, CICO writer  Staff Reporter

How To Tell Stories That Are Emotional, Not Transactional

While storytelling is no longer the buzzword du jour, stories remain powerful vehicles in business settings for transporting audiences – engaging and ultimately persuading them. The science behind storytelling supports this sense of being lifted up and taken somewhere else. It turns out that when one hears a story, the region of their brain activates that corresponds to the story (e.g. the motor cortex engages when hearing about an intense bicycle ride across a city) and listeners have a felt sense of experience. Even more magical, the listener shares that cerebral experience with the storyteller, as if they were there in the moment together! For storytelling to work in professional settings, however, one can’t just keep it all business. (Cue personal tale of woe here – vulnerable and real – that ends in: “And that’s why you need to buy xyz product, perfect for all of your needs!” Also: cue facepalm.) Stories feel disingenuous if they become too transactional.  People are often shy about telling stories, sensing from those first few words that all of the attention is now on them and there’s an expectation that this is going somewhere. The result is that they often rush the beginning of a story, diving right into the tension-filled middle without taking time to set the scene.

May 2021, CICO writer  Staff Reporter Japan RegionJen Jamula

From Sustainable Materials To Disaster And Pandemic Measures, Startups Are Addressing Social Issues In Japan’s Tohoku

In 2011, the Tohoku region in northern Japan was devastated by one of the most powerful earthquakes on record, causing thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in damage. Ten years later, however, Tohoku is continuing to rebuild and recover. In 2020, the Japanese government’s J-Startup program, which seeks to foster internationally competitive startup companies, was extended to support businesses in regional areas including Tohoku. Today, a number of local entrepreneurs are acting as changemakers by introducing unique products and services.

A growing startup ecosystem and sustainable business

“Startups are receiving greater recognition as leaders of the new era, creators of the future, and workplaces to build new careers in Japan,” says Horie Ari, CEO and founder of Silicon Valley-based Women’s Startup Lab. “However, they still face small early-stage investments. The Japanese government is actively working to fortify startup ecosystems by providing intensive support for regional areas, and I’m looking forward to the results.” Horie, an industry veteran who has nurtured many entrepreneurs, focuses on a J-Startup business called Fermenstation. This Tokyo biotechnology company has a lab in Tohoku and produces ethanol from organic rice grown in fields that were formerly unused. The ethanol can be used to produce cosmetics as well as sanitizing wipes, an essential product amid the coronavirus pandemic, while rice fermentation byproducts can be turned into feed for livestock. Founded in 2009 by entrepreneur Sakai Lina, the company uses its fermentation technology to foster a circular society and a zero-waste business model. It has been selling its cosmetics, including soaps and scented sprays, online and in shops across Japan. Horie notes that Fermenstation’s raw materials cost is very low, allowing it to scale its business quickly. Having a female CEO is another big plus because reflecting the diverse needs of society places the company on a path to success, she adds. “What we’re trying to do is to put resources that remain unused in society to effective use by using them to produce ethanol and sediment left from fermentation,” Sakai was quoted as saying by METI Journal in The Japan Times. “We want to develop an ultimate recycling model through this process.”

Responding to local needs in the pandemic

Another regional J-Startup company is Forte, an IT solutions provider in the city of Aomori in northern Tohoku. Since its establishment in 2005, Forte has developed a range of products including navigation devices, GPS trackers and bone-conduction wireless headsets. It’s now focused on measures to prevent coronavirus infections. One is Midera, which employs artificial intelligence and contactless technology to monitor health and coronavirus precautions. Midera is a face-recognition system that can be deployed in network cameras or tablets, and can automatically detect people’s temperatures, faces and whether they are wearing masks. Potential users include medical institutions, clinics, restaurants and event spaces. The company has sold more than 5,000 units amid the pandemic. “People ask why we are based in Aomori, a prefecture whose main industries are agriculture and tourism,” says CEO Kasai Jun, who worked at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) for 25 years before founding Forte. “It’s because in regional areas where communities are often smaller, we can easily grasp the issues that people face and we benefit from intimate business exchanges for developing new solutions. There are fewer people here, but digital transformation can save on human resources. Implementing digital transformation in Tohoku has a lot more impact than in a large metropolis.” One example of how Forte is responding to local needs is a product aimed at enabling safe restaurant dining. As local eateries have seen revenues plummet while customers stay home, Forte wanted to help by encouraging diners to minimize chatting at the table, a precaution that may reduce virus transmission. Forte developed a system called Shizuka Gozen, a name that implies “silent dining.” The AI-powered device tracks exhalation pressure and sound, alerting customers when they’re speaking too loudly. It also checks ambient CO2 levels and can automatically activate connected ventilation systems. After a successful 10-day test in a seafood restaurant, Forte is being prepared for commercialization. “We are also developing smart glasses products and lithium solid-state batteries to respond to the needs of businesses and consumers,” says Kasai. “We believe in the importance of community building by talking to people in the street and understanding their needs. With those things in mind, we focus on whatever challenge we want to tackle and build on our experience to realize a solution.”

Practical solutions based on disaster experiences

ONETABLE is another regional J-Startup company that is responding to local needs. It’s a disaster-prevention business with diversified products and services. ONETABLE was founded by Shimada Masayuki, whose life was changed after experiencing the 2011 tsunami in his hometown of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture. Even before that day, Shimada had been interested in food entrepreneurship. The catastrophe motivated him to help distribute emergency food aid and become an active player in economic revitalization. Since then, ONETABLE has fostered businesses on land that was redeveloped after the tsunami. They include a resort hotel and a factory that employs people with disabilities. The latter turns out a unique product inspired by the disaster: LIFE STOCK, an energy jelly drink developed in collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). LIFE STOCK can be used both as emergency rations and as an everyday energy boost or nutrition supplement. It has a shelf life of five and a half years, much more than other emergency foods, which are typically rice or biscuits. In another project, ONETABLE provided consulting for the production of a six-wheeled cart to transport kindergarteners in emergencies. Its ergonomic design allows teachers to bring children to higher ground in the event of a tsunami warning. “My idea of disaster prevention is that it’s got to be something for everyday use,” says Shimada. “The cart can be used to take kids to parks and it’s easier to handle than conventional carts. Our jelly drinks can be consumed for school lunches, patient recovery following surgery, elderly care or even baby food. We need to do away with the division between products intended for disaster prevention and those for everyday use.” Apart from JAXA, ONETABLE collaborates with businesses in fields as diverse as education, elderly care and design. It is also cooperating with municipal governments on disaster preparedness. One service under development is a simulation system that can track the number of residents in a municipality and their food, shelter and other needs in a disaster, as well as mobility and other factors. These are compared to the municipality’s stockpile of emergency supplies so that governments can get a comprehensive understanding of how to better respond when disaster strikes. ONETABLE has completed the first phase of the project with local partners and plans to eventually roll out the service across Japan.  “In a way, experiencing the 2011 disaster is an asset because it can give rise to new industries,” says Shimada. “Japan has more disasters than just about anywhere, but we can use this to generate new products. We see the concept of disaster prevention as a driver for social innovation.”

April 2021, CICO writer  Staff Reporter Japan Region

Democracy Strikes Back!

Shh…please be quiet, democracy is sleeping

When was the last time you voted in an election? Last year? Last month? Never?  If the answer is the latter, then you’re definitely not alone. Chances are, if you are young, you are unlikely to vote.  It’s a fact that is presented to us time and time again in football league-style election turnout stats. “Look, youth are coming last in the ranking (again).” The shaky relationship between young people and the ballot box is not exactly a recent development either. It’s a phenomenon that has been pondered over and analysed many times. Type “young people” and “voting” into Google and you’ll be met with thousands of articles attempting to break down all the possible reasons why the young demographic consistently fail to cast their ballot in elections. Are we really a lost generation of voters?  There are approximately 3.5 billion of us young people, making up over half of the world’s population. We are, or should be, a critical majority when it comes to shaping the world that we live in. However, the potential influence of our generation on the outcome of elections too often does not translate into actual votes – whether it be at local, national or even European level. In the minds of our political leaders this makes us less of a priority in their campaigns, manifestos and policy decisions. Despite all of this, I am here to argue that young people should still be considered a force to be reckoned with. Here’s why.

Don’t ask what youth can do for democracy, but rather what can democracy can do for youth

Young people face significant challenges and barriers linked to their age. They are most exposed, for example, to precarious working conditions, poverty, and lack of adequate housing, to name a few. This is in addition to other forms of discrimination they might face based on their different identifies, such as their racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender and other backgrounds.  You could be forgiven then, as a young person, for having ‘active citizenship’ and ‘political engagement’ down in your list of priorities. Even less motivating is when you feel like your elected representatives are not hearing you, acting to address your needs, hopes for the future, or challenges in accessing rights.  One might think that the simple solution would be for young people to wake up and smell the coffee: they need to get more active and engage in those institutional politics and decision making processes if they want to increase their political influence and be heard.  It is just not that simple.  If we want to start rebuilding a democratic system that is befitting of today’s realities, and ready to face future challenges in a more sustainable way, the democratic system needs first to address these issues of power imbalance, and give a meaningful way of participating to those who are and feel excluded from democratic life, including young people

The end of democracy as we know it?

We need to change the status quo.  Rather than putting all decision-making power in the hands of elected officials – likely to prioritise policies that create short term political gains – a revitalised democratic system should also allow for the needs of future generations to be considered. They might not be born yet, but will certainly be affected the most by bad policies and decisions made today. Democracy, one might say, seems to have rested on its laurels for too long, and forgotten that its reason to be and own legitimacy depends on it listening to citizens’ voices – and of all people, all groups, and not the privileged few who are the most vocal.

A New Hope!

Contrary to popular misconceptions of the “apathetic youth”, young people use their creativity and innovation in how they choose to engage in the political process.  Young people’s increased participation in alternative forms of political action, including signing a petition, protests, boycotting or supporting certain products and brands, social media campaigning, shows that this generation of young people is interested in politics – perhaps more than ever.  In other words, choosing to stay away from the more established, recognised, forms of democracy, like voting, must not be taken as the reality..  From examples of participatory budgeting to citizens assemblies, to sortition (random selection of officials from citizens groups), there are countless numbers of success stories that have managed, through innovation, to revitalise democracy and get young people back on board. These need to become the mainstream however, and not just a few exceptional cases by a handful of progressive politicians. And this change needs to happen now, and at all levels of governance.

The Return of the Youth

UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake: “The youth can be a force for democracy”  The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises young people as “critical agents of change”. But for them to take this active and leading role they need the right support, willing political institutions, and the right tools. Only when these conditions are met can we expect young people to take a leading role in building new, future-proof and sustainable democratic systems, and become the heroes of democracy we all need them to be.

March 2021, CICO writer  Staff Reporter Kristen Aigro