IDA urges telecoms to take greater risks on innovation

04 Jun 2015

The telecom sector must get over its fear of experimentation and failure if it wants to truly embrace technology innovation and lead in the coming digital era of smart networks and cities.

That was the message from Steve Leonard, executive deputy chairman of Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, during the opening keynotes of the CommunicAsia2015 Summit on Wednesday.

Leonard noted that people often express fear and alarm over innovations such as sensors in pills that report to doctors after you’ve swallowed them. “That sounds scary, but 50% of people who require regular medication don’t take it, or don’t take it correctly. And most countries are facing a growing elderly population. The question is: How can technology help that? And if it can help, should we be scared?”

Another example is autonomous vehicles, which alarms some people who envision out-of-control cars running over cats. “But that already happens now with humans at the wheel. So do we remain scared, or do we accept that the benefits outweigh the risks?”

There is also fear from companies that want to adopt the latest technologies, but only under the most risk-free conditions possible. However, that’s an unrealistic attitude that flies in the face of genuine innovation, said Leonard.

Referring to the invention of flight, he said, “There were many failures before that first 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk, and from there it took 65 years for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to land on the moon. That’s an amazing achievement, but it took a lot of experimentation to get there.”

That experimentation involved a lot of risk and unknown-factors - at that time, scientists had no real idea what might happen when humans leave the earth’s gravitational pull. “Scientists had no idea if it was possible to swallow in space without gravity, for example. Yet within a short period, we did it. Experimentation means accepting some risk, and some unknowns.”

Leonard acknowledged that inertia can be difficult to overcome, but it must be if innovation is going to achieve anything meaningful beyond marginal improvements in technologies and services.

“We have to think bigger. If we’re going to innovate, let’s do it big - not 5% better. Let’s make it ten times better and ten times cheaper,” Leonard said. “We have to experiment, and we have to accept the risks involved and the bumps in the road we will encounter.”

Leonard also defended the IDA’s hands-on approach to innovation projects like Singapore’s “Smart Nation” initiative. Amid the general ideological debate over whether or not government regulation and technology policies stifle innovation, Leonard insisted that innovation and regulation don’t have to be at loggerheads.

“Policy gives a framework for innovation to thoughtfully and productively occur. If you take a Wild West approach, you can end up with unintended consequences,” he said.

“The question to ask is: is the policy right for the era? You have to continuously look at it. Yes, policy can fall behind the pace of technological innovation and has to catch up, but it doesn’t mean they have to be enemies.”


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