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The Business Times


Technology is dead. It only comes alive when it is plugged into human activities, declared Chris Colbert, the managing director of One Eighty Global Innovation, who was the moderator of a Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) panel discussion, which I was a participant recently.

Sir Robin Saxby, the emeritus chairman of the UK semiconductor and software group, Arm Holdings observed that while computers perform much faster than humans, there are nuances in human behavior that are difficult to replicate such as in the realm of ethics and aesthetics. The third panelist, Prof Isaac Ben-Israel, director of the Blavatanik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center expressed his concerns over the unintended consequences of artificial intelligence if left to their own devices, as well as the abuse of data and information by bad actors.

In our discussion on innovation and technology and their impact to change the world for the better, we did unanimously agree that technology by its nature is agnostic – it can have positive, negative and neutral effects on our daily lives. The challenges we face will be that of navigating the inherent contradictions and complexities on the global stage, which run the gamut from economic inequality, environmental impact, unequal distribution of resources to cultural and behavourial dissimilarities and yet retain the ability to harness and steer technology towards net positive outcomes, in other words the greater good, to make the world a better place to live.

For Prof Israel, the challenge is one which he equated to that of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy – trying to seek reconciliation and striking balances on different levels such as citizen privacy versus threat, regulation versus innovation, while taking into consideration myriad elements from education to culture and finance to law in the building of technological ecosystems.

As a panel, we arrived at a consensus that the key to unlocking innovative instincts will have to come from collaboration. Collaboration that has to take place at all levels – be it corporate-to-corporate, corporate-to-government, between large and small enterprises or start-ups with linkages to research institutions and universities across geographies. Once mutual benefits emerge and trust builds up, we will see that collaboration will beget more and higher levels of collaboration.

In short, it is with collective wisdom that ecosystems can be set up to come up with better and human-centric innovations that will improve lives – as in the case for example with Smart City solutions where collaboration between disparate parties from business to government and municipals is necessary to mitigate and deal with complex issues associated with urbanisation. Such ecosystems are vital to sustainable growth as they provide the participatory frameworks to support and instil the habits and mindset to transmit and transfer ‘stakeholdership’ from businesses to the larger society.

At corporate levels, we have already seen the benefits of the formation of partnerships such as Refrigerants, Naturally!, among competing players to create a platform for positive changes by promoting more sustainable refrigeration technology to mitigate the effects of climate change. In the realm of satellite communications where ST Engineering is expanding its global footprint, we have also witnessed the launch of public-private initiatives including the forming of the C-Band Alliance among satellite operators to share bandwidths with 5G players in order to improve connectivity and promote harmonisation.

On the global level, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Kiat spoke at SWITCH of the need to incorporate the three principles in the use of technology that will shape the future. First, to put people first or the importance of taking a human-centric approach. Secondly, collaboration through international partnerships to work on common challenges in an open and connected environment and finally good governance that allows us to create a safe and trusted environment that fosters innovation in technology.

On my part, I would like to share my views on how companies can clearly define their organisational purpose to do good for humanity by leveraging on technology innovation while at the same time motivating their employees to develop the same mindset.

Let me use my company’s examples to illustrate this point. At ST Engineering, we are deeply involved in the business of using technology and employing engineering solutions on land, sea, air and space to solve real-world problems to improve lives.

They range from developing smart mobility solutions – both rail and roads – to ease traffic flow and improve commuter experiences, which in turn help to mitigate the impact of vehicle emissions on the environment; Internet of Things (IoT) applications such as smart street lightings to reduce energy consumption and improve maintenance for public utilities. In other words, we strive to play a part in enabling our customers to cut back on energy and water consumption, or produce less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions not just for their businesses but also for environment sustainability.

As a publicly listed company, ST Engineering has to deliver profits that will not only attract investment but also provide drivers for long-term resilience and sustainability in our business operations that benefit both shareholders and stakeholders. A sustainable company is one whose corporate purpose and actions are equally grounded in financial, environmental and social concerns. For an authentic and inspiring purpose to thrive, there has to be first a constant and consistent sense of focus. One that fosters a strong emotional engagement within the company as well as externally with customers and partners in a manner that leads to long-term value creation.

For the same reason, my fellow SWITCH panellists and I concur that the most sustainable way to create value is to continually invest in our capabilities in technological and engineering solutions that will contribute to the larger good of society.

It is also my firm belief that a business that carries out sustainable practices by pursuing ideas and developing real-world solutions that improve daily lives stands a better chance of being more successful tomorrow than it is today, not just for years, but for decades to come.

The writer is president and CEO of ST Engineering

The article was first published in The Business Times.