Being Human in an Age of Disruption

Jul 21, 2018

DesignSingapore Council’s Executive Director, Mark Wee, spoke recently at a conference organised by design consultancy R/GA and Singularity University Singapore. In his speech, he highlights how being human and having a design mindset will help us ride the wave of disruption.


Good evening. I am sure that the word “disruption” is not new to any one of us here today. 


For some time now, we have been seeing major shifts in the way we do things – a large part of which can be attributed to the exponential way technology has evolved and become very much a part of our lives.


We get restless when webpages don’t load in 3 seconds or grumble when there’s spotty 4G connection. Instead of calling a hotline, we tweet a complaint and expect a prompt reply. Today, poor reviews on TripAdvisor have very real effects on businesses with consumers making choices based on the slew of information or misinformation online. This is the modern day “word of mouth” marketing.


Welcome to the Age of the Customer where “experience” is key. Customers yearn for a direct connection with businesses, and businesses are using Artificial Intelligence to roll out proactive and personalised customer experience. I’ve just returned from a work trip in San Francisco where much of the future is being built – this is where many successful startups are based or have roots in – Airbnb for instance.


Now hugely successful, Airbnb was a struggling start up 10 years ago. Its founders were based in San Francisco, where they were trying all ways to turn the business around.  When their advisor Paul Graham (of Y Combinator) tried to figure out what wasn’t working, he asked them where their customers were. When he found out that the largest number of airbnb hosts were in New York, he asked them “What are you still doing here? Go to New York. Go meet your people.”


“Go to your users” was the single best piece of advice they ever got. In New York, they asked hosts to share their challenges and collected lots of feedback to improve Airbnb. Joe Gebbia – a trained designer – also rented a professional camera and took pictures of the listings for free.


What happened next was “magical” according to the founders – once the pictures were uploaded and changes made to Airbnb’s website and service offerings, the numbers just shot up. The rest, as they say, is history.


The need to be “human-centred” in today’s economy is quite clear.


In fact, “being human” may be what will keep us relevant in a world experiencing exponential change and disruption – especially with the spectre of robots and AI taking over jobs. There will indeed be some jobs lost, but unlikely those that demand creativity, social skills, human interactions, connections and empathy.


This is why we need to understand and address the pressing issues that we will face in the near future – something that Singularity U and R/GA are doing. We have to be prepared for change that will define a different world but - we must also be ready to take advantage of the opportunities.


But are we poised to do that? In the IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking 2018, Singapore dropped from its overall 1st ranking to 2nd position – behind the USA. We’re still 1st place in knowledge and technology factors but worryingly, we’re 15th in future readiness. Our attitude or mindset towards the adoption of technologies is ranked 20th, while the agility of business to take advantage of digital transformation is at 18th position.


How will we ensure that we don’t miss the opportunities brought about by disruption?


For DesignSingapore, our proposition is that a design mindset is one of the skills that will help us ride the wave of tech and Big Data to come out as frontrunners for human-centred solutions, be it in health care services or retail.


Having a design mindset means to approach problems with an open mind and to be comfortable with uncertainty and excited about discovery. It is to look to various sources, especially customers, for insights and possible solutions by understanding their experiences and their desires. Then, comes the ideas and prototypes that are put through rapid cycles of tests and improvements.


Now, you don’t have to be a “designer” – in the traditional sense – to have this mindset – and you can certainly hone this reflex by practising it often.


This is an exciting time for design. As the Airbnb example shows, as digital services become more integrated into our daily lives and we move into an omnichannel world, emerging design fields such as service and experience design will become increasingly invaluable.


Today, design is no longer just about styling or form making but also a way of thinking that can inform strategy and create new value for enterprises and organisations. The Council, in fact, has an Innovation By Design programme where we work with design consultants such as R/GA to help our large local enterprises to use design to transform their businesses. 


Just two months ago, our Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, when speaking at a local university said this and I quote: “Good design thinking was a key reason for Singapore’s successful journey from third world to first, and it will be critical in the country’s future transformation, for it to remain an outstanding city in the world.”


So as we shape Singapore for its next 50 years, a human-centred design approach to creating desirable solutions for a better Singapore and the world will be critical.


I wish every speaker today my best, and look forward to them sharing their views into the future for all of us.


Written on : 21 Jul 2018

Media Room