Reflections on A Week Studying Innovation in Singapore – Monday

By: Phil Gibbs, Principal, The Disruption Lab

The Disruption Lab’s Executive Innovation Program in Singapore, along with our LAB|2025 Healthcare Innovation Academy, started today. We will be spending a week immersed in the innovation ecosystem of one of the ten most innovative countries in the world according to the recently published Global Innovation Index 2019. We have traveled from the US to learn from established companies, startups and enablers of innovation in this unique city-state. Over the course of the week, I will offer some reflections on our experience each day. Note that the image above is not a stock photo–the iconic Marina Bay area is real, it does look like the stock photos, and we are here.

Pre-Program Assessment As part of the preparation for the program, participants were asked to respond to a Pre-Program Assessment. Questions included:

  • In terms of innovation practices, my organization compares favorably with other organizations . . . in our industry? . . . across industries?
  • Our executives and managers have the knowledge and skills related to innovation and growth to compete on a global basis.
  • Our executives have a clear understanding of the “job” our customers “hire” our customers products and services to do.
  • Our company has a good grasp of new business models and technologies that could disrupt our industry.
  • We have a clearly defined, lean process for validating innovation initiatives before moving them into operations and scaling.
  • Our company distinguishes between different types of innovation including sustaining and disruptive innovation, and effectively manages the different types.
  • Lessons I hope to learn and apply in my organization

After visiting with and learning from innovative, global companies here in Singapore, it will be interesting to see how our perspectives on these question change over the course of the week.

Context Innovation can only be understood in context. Today was billed as a cultural tour of Singapore, but it was much more than that. Our guide, Lawrence Hoe, an engineer, historian and award winning tour guide, provided much more than a cultural tour–he reset our thinking regarding what can be. Here are a few takeaways from today:

The 5,000 Year Problem – We stopped at a store in China Town where Lawrence described a Chinese custom that has been practiced for 5,000 years. The store sells products that support the custom, but Lawrence explained that the the children of the store owner did not want to continue operating the store and there was no one to take over. Every product and service has a life cycle. Most are not close to 5,000 years, but executives sometimes act as if what is working today will be around for 5,000 years. The reality is that lifecycles have never been shorter, and unless new products and services are being developed while existing products are still growing, it it game over–the store will be closing.

The Reclaimed Land Challenge – Singapore is a small but growing country . . . yes literally. Much of the development that is so spectacular today is on land that did not exist a few years ago. And the sand used to build the land had to be imported. When your challenge is that you want to grow and the only way, because you are a tiny island, is to import sand and create land in the ocean, you know it is going to take more than a few meetings to pull that off. The fact that Singapore has done this tells us all we need to know about a culture that is not deterred by big challenges.

It is Not an Accidental Success – When you look at the city today, it is not an accident. Have I pointed out that it is a small island? It has few natural resources. Except perhaps for its location, there are few explanations for the success Singapore has experienced, except one. The first Prime Minister of Singapore had an amazing vision for what it could become and he provided the leadership to execute on that vision. Innovation and great success cannot happen without strong leadership guided by a grand vision.

Thirty Year Planning Cycle – A great vision without a continual planning will fail. Singapore operates on a thirty year planning cycle with ten year updates. That means there is time to prepare for what is on the horizon, and even create physical models of the city where every building is to scale. Most challenges involving 5.6 million people cannot be solved over night. With the accelerating pace of change, the ten year updates will likely become much more frequent in the future.

One Nation from Many Roots – Today we experienced the multiple religious and ethnic communities that form the cultural heritage of Singapore, touring the Malays and Arab districts along with Chinatown and Little India. While these historical religious and ethnic communities still exist, the reality is that through policy decisions–housing, education, etc.– made by the leaders working together, these communities have been brought together and live in harmony. Diversity is a way of life in this modern city-state.

And there is more. Singapore is a clean city and safe city. There is no graffiti and there are no homeless. There are no above group utilities. There are no garbage trucks on the streets–garbage is sucked underground. There is no government deficit and vast sums are invested around the globe. For more, view this short video.

Singapore is not perfect. They continue to work to improve. It is in this context that we begin our deep dive into the innovation that drives Singapore.

Phil is the founding Principal of The Disruption Lab, where he focuses on disruptive innovation and corporate growth. For over a decade, he led Executive Learning, one of the country’s leading firms supporting continual improvement (sustaining and efficiency innovation), particularly in healthcare, and including work with industry leader HCA and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI).

His entrepreneurial experience includes co-founding multiple companies, including E|SPACES and LifeFilez. In addition to his startup experience, Phil has served as a principal in an early-stage investment firm and worked in/consulted with multiple large organizations, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory early in his career. His interest in innovation began with his doctoral research at The Ohio State University focused on understanding how organizations achieve both high productivity and high innovation.

You can connect with or ask Phil a question through The Disruption Lab community at


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