Craig Wightman CDO

Global Perspective: Innovation in Asia

Innovation in Asia

At the   Global Innovation Forum    held in Singapore last week, the Kinneir Dufort team enjoyed a valuable opportunity to gauge Asian perspectives on innovation in 2018. With attendees representing a range of businesses and industry areas, the presentations and dialogue provided a unique snapshot of what’s happening in this vibrant region. As part of the conference, KD’s CEO Merle Hall, chaired a panel discussion “Why Asia is the Innovation Hub of the World”.

Here are some key themes and takeouts from the conference:

Asian Tigers Roaring


From the vantage point of Singapore, surrounded by Southeast Asia neighbours, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines and Thailand, as well as regional economic superpowers China and India nearby, it’s easy to see why a fertile business climate exists for innovation in the region. With consistently strong growth over the last 10 years, there’s a palpable feeling of confidence and energy.

As Nicky Gho, Principal Innovation Lead at Medtronic, APAC put it: “Where there’s growth, there’s funding (for innovation)”.

Millennials and Mobiles

Innovation Asia

A key feature of many Asian populations is the high proportion of Millennials. Currently making up around 45% of the population and rising, it is estimated that by 2020, 60% of the world’s Millennials will live in Asia. For businesses and brands looking to innovate, this places an even greater need to understand Millennials’ attitudes and behaviours. This generation in Asia has strongly adopted a digital, “phone-first” culture, so brands, products and services must be channelled and targeted to suit. Traditional channels for advertising, information and services have quickly become irrelevant. As Naimh Byrne, Head of Customer and Digital Experience at Citi noted, 33% of Millennials believe banks are no longer needed, and that Citi, like others in the banking market, are having to adapt their offer to that reality.

Polarisation & One Size Fits One

May Seow, Story Director at Facebook Creative Shop challenged business to be more adaptable to survive in this dynamic environment. She identified that, whilst luxury brands continue to thrive, there is a “disappearing middle ground”, where established “safe” brands have been swept aside by new players meeting needs in new ways by reducing friction and pain points and changing behaviours. Consumers are also continuing to curate their own portfolio of products and experience, tailored to their individual needs and preferences.

Startup Partnerships

Asia Workspace

Like the established hotbed of the US West Coast, there is a strongly emerging start-up culture in Asia, and, rather than stand by waiting for the next Uber to emerge eating their lunch, big business is embracing a spirit of partnership with the startup scene. Examples of this include Unilever and start-up enabler, Padang and Co, whose Level 3 workspace incubator currently houses 50 start-ups. Housed in a floor of Unilever’s Singapore HQ, there is ready opportunity for successful ventures to scale up in partnership. Big businesses are also adopting a different approach to acquisition, by seeking to retain the culture of the purchased start-ups, both to inspire start-up behaviours within the parent, as well as to retain the characteristics that appealed to consumers in the first place.

The Right Innovation

The responsibility for engendering a spirit and culture of innovation within large organisations is a significant challenge, and is one that many of the delegates carried in their roles. One panellist noted that, despite the strong growth, emerging markets in Asia need to make innovation count by avoiding expensive solutions and by seeking to adapt or utilise available technology platforms, and in many cases, seeking to mirror consumer behaviours, rather than searching for a highly disruptive, game-changing solution. In his lively talk, Eric Tachibana, Asia Practice Manager for Amazon Web Services, extolled the virtues of lean innovation, and (argued?) to test smart by considering a minimal viable product (MVP) to be, not a product, but the cheapest and quickest way to experiment, on route to discovering the best product to market fit.

Culture of Learning

The Lean Start Up

A key common attribute of many Asian countries is the determined commitment to education. As well as creating an impressive generation of smart business leaders and managers, there exists a strong culture of learning. Almost all attendees at the conference were conversant with innovation bibles such as The Lean Startup and were talking the language of learning from failure as a key part of achieving success, as well as fostering a culture of innovation.

The over-riding impression of the inaugural GIF Asia was one of a vibrant region, riding a wave of change, with exciting times ahead for those who can adapt and innovate. As Richa Goswami, Chief Digital Officer of Johnson & Johnson, quoting a Chinese proverb put it: “When the wind of change blows, some people build walls, others build windmills”.

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