Innovate for prosperity - Singapore's recipe for success

By Professor Kwong Dim-Lee, Executive Director, A*STAR's Institute for Infocomm Research

A quiet revolution is taking place in banks in Singapore. Inside these bastions of tradition and caution, where words like “experimental” and “unorthodox” would have once been frowned upon, innovative software is being tested - in real time, on real-life situations.

All sorts of predictive software and apps are being developed that could change the way banks do business, from trading shares, foreign exchange and even digital currency, to tracking trades to spot rogue traders.

Last month, DBS announced a tie-up with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research 's (A*Star) Institute for Infocomm Research and data management and analytics platform provider Cloudera, to detect fraud anomalies through big data analytics.

Such collaborations allow financial companies to tap technology experts for the latest in data prediction and analysis to serve customers better, and give researchers a chance to test new disruptive technology.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore, meanwhile, lends a helping hand by giving financial institutions greater flexibility in testing such technology.

This approach to innovation is perfectly in line with Singapore 's goal of turning itself into a Smart Nation. It is a future in which technology integrated into everyday functions and infrastructure not only improves the quality of life, but also boosts productivity and efficiency at environmental, social and economic levels.

But what more can be done?


At A*Star 's Institute of Microelectronics (IME), researchers are now looking at ways to squeeze more chips with various functions onto circuit boards, which form the brains of today 's electronic devices.

This will enable manufacturers to produce increasingly smaller devices with more functions at lower costs - mobile phones, for instance, that can measure your body 's vital statistics, check if an area is polluted, or assess whether you have drunk too much to drive.

Why is such research important?

A Smart Nation requires vehicles, buildings and infrastructure to be networked. This is the ultimate vision of technology 's next big thing - the Internet of Things (IoT) which links devices and physical objects in a real-time network so that they “talk” to each other and serve users more effectively.

At the heart of the IoT are smart devices, info-centric networks and real-time analysis. So for a Smart Nation to emerge, innovation needs to take place at all levels, right down to the smallest detail.

This is happening, for instance, in the testing of autonomous vehicles - or, in layman terms, driverless cars.

In the Smart City of the future, these vehicles could support private and public transport by ferrying people around safely and efficiently without using extra manpower. But the technology needed to make it happen is complex.

A driverless car needs a wide range of intelligent sensors to collect visual and other data, process this in real time, then hook up with the traffic network and other cars to navigate safely and efficiently.


Singapore 's dream of being a Smart Nation is entirely compatible with its focus on fostering innovation in a wide range of research fields in the last 20 years.

It has not only offered generous funding and facilities to test the latest technologies, but also created an ecosystem that encourages research and development (R&D) - innovation infrastructure that encompasses design, fabrication, packaging, testing and a supply chain. This allows companies to test new technologies, from laboratory work and trials to production and distribution.

As a result, the city-state has developed a global reputation for nurturing innovation, drawing companies to set up research labs here and further boost its brand name as a research hub.

Singapore 's early R&D and investment in packaging technology, for instance, played a key role in drawing US-based semiconductor giant Applied Materials out of America.

A*Star 's and Applied Materials ' partnership was seeded in 2011, when a Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Advanced Packaging was initiated with IME. In October last year, Applied Materials announced a second joint lab with three A*Star research institutes to develop advanced semiconductor technology.

The partnership has since culminated in Applied Materials ' and IME 's latest announcement on Sept 19 that they are extending their research collaboration at the CoE by five years.

The combined investment of this latest partnership is expected to total around S$190 million, streamlining the R&D scope on the fan-out wafer-level packaging technology which has the potential to make chips and devices more efficient.

This example shows how the process of innovation can boost Singapore 's economy, even before the end results of the research emerge.

It can happen in three ways: One, major foreign players enter to invest heavily in their own R&D and manufacturing; two, they may give the local industry a boost by outsourcing parts of the R&D and manufacturing; three, they could form joint ventures with local partners to create start-ups and generate future revenue.

What could we next expect?

Keep a close watch on the field of silicon photonics, which has drawn interest from companies looking to develop devices that are low on costs and power consumption, and move data around speedily, which could upend expensive, high-power data centres.

More innovations could also emerge from the Biopolis, which is dedicated to R&D in the biomedical field, or from ongoing studies on a nationwide satellite-based Electronic Road Pricing system - another example of how the entire nation could be wired up with new technologies.

Singapore has long developed a reputation for its foresight in investing in strategies ahead of their time, sometimes in the face of scepticism.

But this has borne fruit on many occasions, putting the country on the right path for building for the future.

Today, the challenges are to keep investing in R&D relevant to Singapore 's economy, to stay on course even if immediate results are not apparent and to encourage research in a wide range of fields, even when practical applications may not be obvious at first.

What is needed is patience and stamina - and a firm belief that innovation holds the key to the country 's prosperity. For innovation is not just science, but impactful science.


Professor Kwong Dim-Lee is the executive director of the Institute for Infocomm Research at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the National University of Singapore. In 2012, he was awarded the Singapore President 's Science and Technology Medal, the highest award bestowed on individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the development of Singapore.


This article first appeared in TODAY on October 12, 2016, with the headline 'Innovate for prosperity - Singapore's recipe for success '.