Exploring the New Normal at IIE’s inaugural Changemakers Conversations

SMU’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE) organised the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition (LKYGBPC) Changemakers Conversations virtually on 30 September 2020 to a global audience of over 460, including young innovators, founders, business titans, thought leaders, and venture capitalists.

The 4-part series brings together internationally-renowned and respected scholars and business leaders to discuss and debate issues of contemporary interest and significance, particularly to the start-ups. This is part of IIE’s continuous efforts to support the government’s research and innovation initiatives to create new growth opportunities for Singapore. At the same time, it enables IIE to engage the local and international innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) community in the lead-up to the LKYGBPC Competition Finals Week – BLAZE that will be held in Singapore in March 2021.

The first Changemakers Conversation expounded on the opportunities and challenges for start-ups in our new normal, taking into account recent trends such as the technology cold war and the dominance of Big Tech.

In the midst of chaos, there lies opportunity

SMU President Professor Lily Kong kicked off the Conversation with her welcome address, citing a famous adage by Sun Tzu, “In the midst of chaos, there lies opportunity”, going on to reaffirm the university’s goal in developing the next generation of change agents.

“Our current global environment is marked by one defining characteristic: change. Cities and societies are being influenced by megatrends such as the rise of Asia, climate change and resource scarcity, rapid urbanisation and technological disruptions. The crises of the pandemic and the looming economic recession had only accelerated change and its effects in both scale and complexity across the globe. In the face of this is an impetus and opportunity for progress.

“There is no question that universities have a role to play, and an evolving one at that. Beyond the creation and dissemination of knowledge, universities of today have to put on multiple hats to prepare our students for an increasingly volatile and complex world. At the Singapore Management University, we will be responding and refocusing our resources and energies by prioritizing Digital Transformation, Sustainable Living and Growth in Asia, which are of economic and social relevance to our nation and the region. We are committed to imbue and develop in our future change agents the qualities of innovation, resilience and adaptability so that they will thrive in the world of today and tomorrow”, said Prof Kong.

This was followed by opening remarks by Shirley Wong, Chairperson of the 10th LKYGBPC Steering Committee, who encouraged start-ups to look for opportunities in the face of intersecting global trends.

“The reimagining of smart, sustainable and resilient cities requires the mobilization of young innovators, thought leaders and trailblazers to propel meaningful change. This is why, the Changemakers Conversations convenes stakeholders across the spheres of industry, faculty and government for cross-disciplinary exchange that will inspire the visionaries of tomorrow”, said Shirley.

Innovation is the name of the game

The next segment was a keynote by Mr. Oliver Tonby, Asia Chair, McKinsey & Company, who contended that “innovation is the name of the game”. He shared how Asia shows no sign of slowing down as the epicentre of a global technology transformation, attributable to high internet penetration, technology adoption, and innovation. Mr. Tonby highlighted four technology-driven macro trends, which are  reimagining of the consumer experience, turning manufacturing strength into technology leadership, expansion of technology-driven businesses and the growth of renewables. In conclusion, Mr. Tonby emphasised  the need for start-ups to focus on Speed, Collaboration and Resilience to stay ahead in uncertain times.

Beyond resilience

The final segment of the Changemakers Conversation was a panel discussion. Professor Gerry George, Dean of SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business, moderated the panel discussion comprising Mr Oliver Tonby; Mr Piyush Gupta, CEO & Director, DBS Group; and Mr Foo Jixun, Managing Partner, GGV Capital.

Prof Gerry George kickstarted the discussion by asking the audience to think beyond "resilience", explaining that the word 'resilience' actually meant recovering to its original form. He highlighted that businesses and entrepreneurs should look beyond staying resilient for success. Mr Piyush Gupta spoke of four big trends for entrepreneurs and start-ups to reflect on, including hyper digitalisation, smart cities and sustainability. In particular, he shared that as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, DBS saw a 30-40% increase in digital banking activity, including a four-fold uptake by customers aged 60 and above. On the implications of the tech cold war between China and USA, Mr Foo Jixun opined that entrepreneurs looking to expand overseas are actively trying to figure out how to decouple themselves in order to pre-empt and avoid geopolitical concerns, lest they end up like TikTok in the US. From his close working relationships with start-ups as a venture capitalist, he sees many opportunities for collaboration, as start-ups looking to localise in a foreign context will need partners and entrepreneurs on the ground to help them adapt and scale.

How should young entrepreneurs start preparing for 2021?

Mr Piyush Gupta encouraged young innovators to look for opportunities to collaborate with and provide solutions in the public sector. Mr Foo Jixun encouraged the audience to be open-minded to navigate a rapidly evolving global landscape. Succinctly rounding off the panel discussion, Mr Tonby said that because the world is going to be what it is going to be, changemakers should focus on what they can control: their perseverance and adaptability and perhaps a little bit of luck.

To watch the full Changemakers Conversations: Our New Normal, visit: https://www.smu.edu.sg/lky/changemakers-conversations-our-new-normal

The next three Changemakers Conversations will be held in December 2020 and March 2021.

Organised by SMU Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the 10th LKYGBPC is Asia’s leading university start-up competition with the finals week, BLAZE taking place from 15 to 19 March 2021 in Singapore. Join over 1,000 of the world’s brightest minds in innovation to learn, collaborate and connect.