Driving Economic Recovery with Innovation (GovInsider Festival of Innovation)

Created on

July 20 2022

Created by Medha Basu. This summary was largely done for my own note-taking, sharing it just in case it adds more value to other people. Any errors are mine :)


I moderated a panel on ‘Driving Economic Recovery with Innovation’ at GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation 2022 @July 13, 2022. Below are some of my notes from the conversation.


  • Ms Tay PeiChin, Policy Lead (Digital Government), Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
  • Mr Jonathan Wong, Chief of Technology and Innovation, Trade, Investment and Innovation Division, UNESCAP
  • Mr Kok Kitt-Wai, Managing Director, IPOS International
  • Mr Omar Rafik, Director, Solutions Engineering, Public Sector US, SolarWinds


  • The pandemic has revealed a fractured economy. Throughout the pandemic, we saw tech stocks soaring, while some of the poorest were unable to make ends meet. Over 2 billion people in Asia Pacific continue to lack digital access.
  • Intangible assets are contributing to an increasing portion of companies’ valuation. Singapore wants to position itself as regional hub to help companies use these assets to grow.
  • The current global debate around classification of gig workers is not sustainable, given the broader changes underway in employment models. To understand the problem, we must first ask the right questions.
  • Inclusivity must be at the heart of digital transformation strategies and new economic frameworks by governments. These policies must be strategic and deliberate.
  • When done right, they can turn development challenges into business opportunities


Lessons from the pandemic

Jonathan: Covid-19 led to digitisation of services like social protection and healthcare at scale, and digitised businesses fared better during the pandemic, compared to traditional ones.

  • The pandemic has revealed a fractured economy. Throughout the pandemic, we saw tech stocks soaring while some of the poorest were unable to make ends meet. Over 2 billion people in Asia Pacific continue to lack digital access.
  • Inclusivity must be at the heart of digital transformation strategies and new economic frameworks by governments. These policies must be strategic and deliberate.
  • For post pandemic recovery, UNESCAP would like to see and work with governments to incentivise businesses to look at purpose, along with profit. Specific steps have already been taken in some countries to spur the growth of models such as social enterprises, inclusive businesses and impact investment.

PeiChin: Trust in governments has declined over the course of the pandemic. One the key lessons is that governments need to respond to future crises at scale and speed, while safeguarding trust and transparency.

  • One of the key drivers of trust is a government’s level of competency and ability to deliver.
  • We’ve found that governments that employed a human-centred design approach to tackling the crisis have been more successful.
    • For eg, the US used sentiment analysis to understand reasons for vaccine hesitancy to shape more appropriate campaigns to drive up vaccine rates.
    • In Singapore, the Open Government Products team in GovTech has used ethnographic research methods and inclusive design in things like the health management and vaccine appointment systems.
  • Singapore is on the right track. The right solution is not to grow the public sector, but rather to grow and leverage partnerships.

Omar: Early in the pandemic in 2020 SolarWinds faced a major cyber attack. Experts agree that it was a state-sponsored attack.

  • Biggest learning was to be transparent. We shared what we found, what we did about it, and what we’re doing with the rest of the industry.
  • Moving forward, there has to be a better partnership between industry and government, and within industry itself, to share data to protect the nation.

Kitt-Wai: IPOS International helps businesses use intangible assets to grow. At the regional level, looking at how Singapore can be positioned as an IP hub.

  • For eg, we are embarking on a study to see how we can have better policies on trade secrets.
  • As a node to ASEAN, we want to see how to better collaborate to have interoperability of our IP systems.
  • We would like to grow and position Singapore as an an IP dispute resolution hub.

Policy, business and tech innovation models

Jonathan: We’re seeing the next gen of entrepreneurs. For eg, we’re seeing growth in social entrepreneurship in the region.

  • We’re also seeing a shift towards inclusive businesses - businesses that see what the UN calls development challenges as business opportunities.
  • Along with this, we’re also seeing a different breed of investors who are thinking more about ESG impact.

PeiChin: We’re doing a very comprehensive research on digital labour platforms. There are currently around 1.1 billion gig workers globally, including cloud workers.

  • The current debate is focused on the classification of workers. This is not sustainable, given the massive changes that will come in the way work is structured. Across the global, all workers - not just gig workers - are demanding flexibility in the way they work.
  • We are taking a participatory appraoch, and directly engaging with gig workers to understand the problems and collectively co-design policy recommendations.
    • This participatory approach was used in vTaiwan to generate Uber regulations.
  • At the heart of this is helping policymakers ask the right questions. Because sometimes, we fall in love with the solutions before we understand the problem.
I wrote about vTaiwan in 2018. Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Shuyang Lin, co-founder of Taiwan’s Public Digital Innovation Space:
Every Wednesday, the government rents a space where citizens, practitioners, academics and civil servants come together to propose ideas to the government. Apart from the need to address a public issue, “there’s no agenda set from the beginning,” Lin adds. Participants must come from diverse backgrounds to ensure that every possible point of view is represented in the conversation. There are also no education or skills requirements; any citizen can be an expert. “If I’m a janitor, and if there’s a policy about cleaning or about housing, then I am one of the very key stakeholders to this issue,” she explains.

Kitt-Wai: Increasingly, innovative companies are made up of intangibles, and we want to help them understand and unlock the value of these intangibles.

  • More than 90% of the value of S&P 500 companies comes from intangible assets - compared to 30 years ago, when about a third was from intangibles.
    • With the growing important of intangibles, we’re developing guidelines for companies to self-assess and developing sector-specific programmes to help them demonstrate and use their IP.

Omar: To ensure nations’ digital infrastructure is more resilient, they must adopt security by design.

  • Often, security is an afterthought, with performance and cost taking precedence.
  • Trying to apply or force security into the product afterwards is not going to work. It must be inherent in the product.

Next generation of innovation

Kitt-Wai: One of the things we’re focused on doing is ensuring business can self-help. We’re pooling and categorising content online to address specific needs.

PeiChin: One of the consistent challenges to digital transformation we’re seeing is around digital skills limitations. But we must not forget about soft skills.

  • Worked in London on a digital talent programme to upskill London’s tech talent pipeline, and one of the consistent and clear needs was soft skills - including creativity, communications and problem solving.
  • In order to do that kind of system-level change, we need to work in partnership with employers to consider how soft skills can be considered in addition to other qualifications when recruiting talent.

Omar: The number 1 thing that keeps security professionals up at night is careless and uninformed users - not malicious users.

Jonathan: Governments can play a role in ensuring incentives for inclusion are strategic and deliberate. I talk about government’s role in three ways:

  • Market participant: Governments can put green credentials for tech that governments buy through procurement. For eg, with Bangladesh’s sovereign venture fund, we put in place objectives around investing in women-led entrepreneurs.
  • Regulator: Governments can put in place tax incentives. In the Philippines, we’re looking at an accreditation system for inclusive businesses. If you’re accredited, you’ll get tax incentives.
  • Market facilitator: We’ve seen countries experiments with social stock exchanges as an alternative system for entrepreneurs with a social purpose.

Audience Q&A

How does one level up an entire country to meet the needs of the digital economy when educators themselves are also grappling with pace of innovation?

  • PeiChin: We did a study looking into the ‘education trilemma’: how do we meet the demands of skills, quality and costs, while employing tech at the heart of those solutions. Two key recommendations from it:
    • We need more equal investment in different pillars for infrastructure, educators, learners, and carers/parents. This takes a more system-level approach.
    • Second is that technology can help us personalise learning. Our current way of teaching students is similar to the Victorian era, where we put swathes of kids through the same curriculum, delivery method and exam.

How much should states think about geopolitics when creating their technology strategy?

  • Jonathan: Innovation is political; we can’t hide from that. For eg, the issues with Huawei and the semiconductor market’s shift from the US to Asia.
    • But the positive side is that these problems transcend country boundaries. Climate change and Covid have brought countries closer together.
    • We’re seeing competitive as a driver of more open and collaborative forms of innovation. Think about how the genomic sequence for Covid-19 was made open to the world in a matter of weeks.