Harnessing the potential of the digital revolution

8 Mar 2018

The EDB Society and Singapore Management University hosted the second of the six-part Enterprise & Entrepreneur Series – Transforming Industries • Creating Value, on 6 March 2018 (Tuesday), with harnessing digital technology and innovation on the agenda.

More than 200 guests comprising business leaders, entrepreneurs, senior government officials, EDB alumni as well as SMU student entrepreneurs attended the forum at SMU’s Mochtar Riady Auditorium.

Themed Digital Business Platforms Transforming Industries, the forum was a timely opportunity to address the impact of digital transformation on businesses and the economy.  Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Finance, in the Budget 2018 speech, had talked about the goal of anchoring Singapore as a “Global-Asia node of technology, innovation and enterprise”.  The emergence of new technologies such as fintech and blockchain are radically altering business models and digital business platforms, in particular, are dramatically changing the economics and dynamics of competition across all sectors of business. 

With every enterprise and industry being impacted, the forum served as a platform to convene business leaders and academics in a pragmatic discussion on the issues at hand. Panellists comprised trailblazing entrepreneurs, a banker and a policy maker: Mr Lai Chang Wen, Co-founder CEO Ninja Van; Mr Wong Joo Seng, Founder CEO Spark Systems; Mr Joel Sng, CEO Co-founder honestbee; Ms Janet Young, MD and Head Group Channels & Digitalisation UOB; and Ms Gwenda Fong, Director, Strategy Division, Cyber Security Agency (CSA). The discussion was moderated by SMU Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Steven Miller.

The businesses that each panellist represented ranged in tenure but shared the common theme of being deeply embedded in technology and platforms. Spark Systems, offering fast and cost efficient FX trading platforms, was set up in 2016. honestbee, an on-demand lifestyle, concierge and delivery service and the Cyber Security Agency, a Singapore government agency with centralised oversight of national cyber security functions, started operations in 2015. Ninja Van, a logistics company powering businesses with innovative transport solutions, was launched in 2014. UOB, a leading bank in Asia with a global network of more than 500 offices in 19 countries and territories, marked its 82nd birthday last year. 

According to Mr Lai, the Ninja Van platform connects the experience consumers get when they shop online, with the experience they get when a parcel arrives on the doorstep. Although there is strong focus today on technology capabilities, and on “disruption”, “platforms” and “transformation”, he does not lose sight of the fact that he is running a people business. He said, “Ninja Van manages almost 2000 staff and thousands of drivers across 500 cities in Southeast Asia. Technology is important but so is people management.”

Ms Young highlighted the advantage of digital platforms, which was that everything from business to transactions could now be done much faster. Elaborating on the three fundamental pillars that made Alibaba a dominant force in the Chinese market, she identified the company’s mastery of the flow of goods (物流), flow of money (资金流) and flow of information(咨询流) as factors of success. Ms Young suggested that a mindset shift is needed for companies that want to transform through the use of technologies and technology solutions to improve business productivity or advance sales in growth. According to her, “Transformation requires a re-thinking, of the key and fundamental ways of looking at your businesses, and of what else is needed.”

Tackling topics from the vast opportunities in the usage of digital business platforms, to the challenges of security and risk management, the panellists provided multiple perspectives given their diverse backgrounds and experiences. This was followed by a Q&A session where members of the audience sought the panellists’ take on how digital technologies could be harnessed successfully.

“I gained insights into how the digital ecosystem is advancing and will be shaping our lives. The forum discussion featured both successful entrepreneurs and important representatives from UOB and CSA, which gave a holistic view on how the digital trends are impacting businesses and industries. It was interesting to note how UOB is tapping on technology and experimenting on the O2O concepts that are most often used in e-commerce to improve on their customer experience,” said student Don Yew, a Bachelor of Business Management undergraduate at SMU's Lee Kong Chian School of Business and founder of Beureka Pte Ltd.

Commenting on the relevance of the speakers to his current business venture, Don added: “Beureka is an online premium beauty e-tailer. We work with courier service providers such as Ninjavan and honestbee on a daily basis. It was great to meet the founders of both companies in the same venue, understand their views towards doing business and to also gain insights into how UOB is getting involved with start-ups and transforming industries.

I especially liked what Mr Lee Suan Hiang said about how it is no longer about the big beating the small. It is about the fast beating the slow. This illustrates an important trait that start-ups should possess which is speed to market and also the ability to scale.”

“For me, the biggest takeaway from the forum discussion is definitely the wisdom and experiences shared by the panellists. From Joo Seng’s explanation of how his company started by filling a market gap, to Janet's take on how a bank's service will always be needed for savings and surpluses. Each panellist’s positive outlook on the future and their discernible excitement towards disruptive technologies, is energising,” said Lim Chuan Siang, an undergraduate at SMU's School of Information Systems and co-founder of KahChing.

He commented, “Through this forum, we have learned that opportunities are everywhere and there is always a gap in every market for an entrepreneur to fill in. An entrepreneur should grasp every given opportunity that is related to his passion, to learn and get his hands dirty. Hands-on experience and knowledge give the edge that he or she will have against other entrepreneurs. The agility to pivot the startup will win hands down. KahChing has pivoted many times but its core purpose stays, which is to improve travellers’ experience.”

Chuan Siang’s favourite quote came from UOB’s Ms Young, who said: "It's the three flows: Money flow, Goods flow, Data flow.” According to Chuan Siang and his co-founder Keith Soon, “This statement is very true based on our market research and analysis. It is the reason for KahChing's birth as well. With KahChing, we aim to drastically reduce foreign exchange costs and improve travelling experiences, by reducing the amount of cash the traveller needs to hold and offering the convenience of picking up cash anytime.”

In concluding the forum, Prof Miller thanked each panellist for their honest and earnest sharing of experiences and exchange of views. Being an avid reader, he recommended “Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future” by MIT’s Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson as the perfect read for gaining an understanding on why platforms change the basis of competition.

According to Prof Miller, “This is a well-written book that says what’s driving the digital revolution now. It’s not just one thing. There’s data analytics and the changing relationship between machine minds and human minds. There’s platforms and what they do to economics. Thirdly, there’s crowd - the ability of companies to pick up data and ideas from a wide range of people. This book gives examples of how you bring together the machine intelligence, the data and the digital platforms – both online and offline – as well as the ability to use these platforms and analytics to bring in ideas from a wider array of people beyond your companies and vendors.”

The Enterprise & Entrepreneur Series aims to draw insights from inspiring entrepreneurs and industry leaders, explore how Singapore can exploit new opportunities leveraging on megatrends and growth themes, as well as to create a platform for sharing, learning and networking among business trailblazers with aspiring young entrepreneurs. The Series was launched on 31 January 2018 by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Finance. This initiative is supported by the Economic Development Board (EDB).

Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Enterprise & Entrepreneur Series, which will take place on 17 April 2018 at SMU. The discussion will be on the themes of advanced manufacturing, energy and urban solutions.


[Featured photo: Panelists at the Enterprise & Entrepreneur Series were (from left) Mr Lai Chang Wen, Co-founder CEO Ninja Van; Ms Gwenda Fong, Director, Strategy Division, Cyber Security Agency; SMU Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Steven Miller; Mr Joel Sng, CEO Co-founder honestbee; Mr Wong Joo Seng, Founder CEO, Spark Systems; and Ms Janet Young, MD and Head Group Channels & Digitalisation UOB.]







Last updated on 9 Mar 2018.

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