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What Singapore can learn from the Cambridge phenomenon

Singapore is on a mission to become a globally recognised ‘smart nation’. What lessons can it draw from the Cambridge innovation ecosystem?

What Singapore can learn from the Cambridge Phenomenon (Singapore cityscape)

In today’s knowledge economy there are leaders and there are followers. And in the race to occupy the leadership positions, it’s those countries and institutions that have innovation in their DNA that will win out. In this article we present the case of Singapore and its quest to become a globally recognised ‘smart nation’. There are lessons to be learned from other contexts, such as our own city and University of Cambridge.

On the face of it there isn’t much to connect Cambridge and Singapore but take a closer look – drawing on existing academic research and practical experience of working both in Cambridge and in Singapore, Leonard Kelleher, Javier Marcos and Henry Goodwin suggest the two may have more to learn from each other than you might think. Indeed, the synergies between the British and Singaporean innovation systems prompted the establishment of the ten-year Innovation and Research Partnership in October 2014, intended to benefit both nations.

And the key link is ‘innovation’. Singapore has already brought together some of the essential ingredients required for the development of an innovation ecosystem. Its internationally recognised academic institutions such as the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological Institute produce a great deal of valuable research. The recently launched Research, Innovation and Enterprise Plan will ensure that the science and technology research budget will rise to a record $19 billion in the next five years, with advanced manufacturing and engineering, health and biomedical sciences, services and digital economy, and urban solutions and sustainability sectors being prioritised. More recently, a new agency, SG-Innovate, was announced, alongside a US$3.2bn plan for innovation and robotics. SG-Innovate’s mission is to connect entrepreneurs with industry mentors, venture capitalists and research talent.

However, the authors have found that some questions remain. Do the academic institutions have the human capital to bring scientific discoveries closer to commercial application? And likewise, does the private sector possess the skillsets and networks required to access and understand the science base and then translate breakthroughs to prototypes? The WIPO Global Innovation Index 2015 suggests that further work needs to be done because despite its high ranking for domestic innovation, Singapore does not feature in the global top 10 for knowledge and technology outputs resulting from those innovative activities.

And that is where Cambridge may offer some pertinent and timely lessons to help identify where the alignment between managerial and governance mechanisms in Singaporean academic institutions could be improved. Cambridge is a relevant benchmark to achieve the ambition for innovation and entrepreneurship of this “Smart Nation”.

So what exactly are the barriers and enablers of university third mission activities in the UK? Following a systematic review of existing literature led by Leonard Kelleher,six key factors necessary to support the development and growth of a successful innovation system were identified.

  1. Human capital
    A motivated body of researchers who can simultaneously pursue academic excellence and knowledge commercialisation. For instance Cambridge Enterprise supported 1,320 academic researchers during 2013/14.
  2. Relevant knowledge
    A stock of potentially commercialisable knowledge, of interest to external partners and for the market.
  3. Business models
    A university business model which aligns its strategy and administrative procedures (e.g. recruitment, performance management and IPR) with its portfolio of formal and informal knowledge transfer and signalling channels.
  4. Supportive organisational structures
    Availability of dedicated supportive resources & capabilities (such as technology transfer offices, incubators, science parks).
  5. Active networks and network management
    A network of strategically congruent external (often local) organisations with the capability to cross boundaries, to understand and to co-create with academia in an environment where mutual trust and understanding can develop over time (Apple, Microsoft, HP, Amazon and Astra Zeneca all have research facilities located in Cambridge). Active network management, so that a cycle of existing knowledge exploitation and new knowledge exploration is continuously nurtured.
  6. Knowledge creation strategy
    A coherent regional knowledge economy strategy, with regional sources of venture capital and dedicated regional support services.

Happily, many of these factors are already being addressed by Singapore’s infocomm media sector. Koh Boon Hwee, Chairman of Singapore’s Infocomm Media Masterplan Steering Committee has commented that Singapore “will need to groom talent and cultivate a maker mind-set as well as encourage greater innovation among our enterprises so that they have the confidence to tackle big, complex and challenging problems.” This will require a focus on the internal ecosystem, its attractiveness to talent and inward investment in a highly competitive global marketplace, as well as a more extensive global network linking the city state to innovation hubs such as Cambridge.

Under its Infocomm Media Masterplan, Singapore has ambitious plans to turn the city state into “a living lab to entrepreneurs, growth companies and multinationals in the infocomm media space where they continually experiment and innovate to contribute to sustainable and quality economic growth” within the next decade.

There has never been a better time to connect the global innovation hubs of Cambridge and Singapore. As it has ably demonstrated over the past five decades, Singapore is more than capable of synthesising best practice from around the world in order to maintain its competitiveness. The “Smart Nation” vision will become reality when the rigorous pursuit of new knowledge can be combined with excellence in knowledge commercialisation. By encouraging an entrepreneurial culture and allowing progressive managerial and governance mechanisms to evolve in its knowledge creating institutions, these institutions can become more closely aligned with Singapore’s ambition to become a global hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. By learning from each other, Singapore and Cambridge are in a unique position to forge a powerful 21st century partnership.


Leonard Kelleher is a Cambridge-based expert in university innovation systems and currently pursuing his second doctorate at Cranfield University.

Javier Marcos is Director of Custom Programmes, Executive Education, and Senior Teaching Faculty, Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.

Henry Goodwin is Partner and Head of Asia at international law firm Taylor Vinters LLP.