BT EXCLUSIVE

EDB moves from being investment-led to innovation-driven

Singapore 

ONE of Singapore's oldest government agencies is reinventing the way it does things in a bid to keep pace with digital disruption and mould Singapore into Asia's digital capital.

The Economic Development Board (EDB), set up in 1961 to undertake investment promotion and bring foreign companies into Singapore, is pivoting from its long-time strategy of being "investment-led" to being "innovation-driven".

It is no longer focused on just attracting multinational corporations (MNCs) to invest and set up base in Singapore, but will now also nurture digital capabilities in local large enterprises and startups, said Kiren Kumar, an assistant managing director at the agency.

He told The Business Times in an exclusive interview: "Ten years ago, we were very much investment-led, which has brought us tremendous benefits: investments, jobs and capabilities. We now want to be more innovation-driven to grow our infocomm media (ICM) and digital economy.

"We need to start thinking differently on how we work with companies - both global and local."

For instance, he said, with EDB's support, MNCs with regional headquarters in Singapore are increasingly moving away from traditional "headquarters activity", such as finance, human resources and strategic planning, to the development of digital technologies from Singapore.

Google, when it opened its new office in Mapletree Business City II in 2016, based an engineering pool here to be closer to the growing South-east Asian market.

It also based its "Next Billion Users" division here, which will work on projects that bring the Internet to more people, by, for example, enabling offline use of Google Maps in places with limited mobile access.

In 2016, IBM opened IBM Studios Singapore, its regional hub and design centre to help companies analyse their business challenges and co-create new business models and offerings.

The facility, located at Marina Bay Financial Centre, hosts more than 100 designers and digital experts from IBM's Interactive Experience team.

Mr Kumar said: "EDB is working with the same MNCs or companies - not just to create jobs but to work with us to train Singaporeans for future technologies."

To boot, more MNCs are launching corporate venture-capital initiatives in Singapore, with support from EDB.

Among these are Unilever, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Paypal, which "all want to work with our local small startups" and would "only do it in cities with interesting startup ideas", said Mr Kumar. "We see a good momentum in that, and so in the last two years, have been driving a lot of such co-innovation and partnerships in a more deliberate fashion."

EDB has also begun working with a new segment of companies - local firms that are developing their own digital capabilities.

These include large enterprises such as Singtel (with which EDB built a cyber security business) and Changi Airport Group (with which EDB built a "living lab" for airport solutions), as well as startups such as Grab and Lazada (which EDB is supporting in their overseas expansion plans).

Mr Kumar said: "We want to help our fast-growing companies build their capabilities ... and help Singapore companies use digital technologies to become more efficient and create new businesses.

"For Singapore to become a digital capital in Asia, it needs to find its own niche to be globally relevant, and to have the right policies and innovation partners."

One of EDB's roles is thus to "stitch the ecosystem more effectively to drive innovation", he said.

He identified four key technologies that will impact Singapore: artificial intelligence and analytics; cybersecurity; Internet of Things; and immersive media.

"Digital has got a long wave. This disruption is an exciting opportunity in terms of how we look at the future and how we can change the way we do things. As a government agency, we cannot sit still. We have to reinvent the way we do things."