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Building a new era of global innovation

IN August, the chairman of Enterprise Singapore, Peter Ong, suggested a simple but radical idea. In the future, he said, Singaporean firms should see innovation and internationalisation as one process, not two separate tracks.

As the first Her Majesty's Trade Commissioner for Asia-Pacific, based here in Singapore, this is an idea I believe has far-reaching potential for both our countries, and especially so as we grapple with how to innovate and succeed in a new era of rapid but turbulent globalisation.

Mr Ong's idea might not sound radical at first, but it is. His point is simple. Historically, rich industrial countries like ours thought of innovation as a fundamentally a domestic process. First you came up with products or services at home, typically via companies and universities. Then you exported them.

But Singapore's experience tells us that this is no longer quite right. In fact, the two processes are deeply linked.

Companies that venture abroad are more likely to become innovative, as they learn and pick up new ideas. At the same time, by looking to innovate at home, you are also more likely to go abroad, in part to develop the kinds of partnerships and joint ventures upon which global innovation often depends.

Getting this balance of innovation and internationalisation right is critical to countries like the UK and Singapore, both of which are export-driven trading economies that know that they must keep pushing forward to develop the kind of ideas, products and technologies upon which innovation depends.

To begin this process, the UK has recently created a new network of nine Her Majesty's Trade Commissioners around the world to strengthen partnerships in overseas markets. My role covers North-east Asia, South-east Asia and Australasia and I am thrilled to be based in Singapore as this is not only a great landing point for innovative UK firms but also a fantastic launch-pad for the opportunities of the Asia-Pacific.

One of my first commitments here is to welcome more than 30 leading UK tech companies to a joint showcase event with PwC Singapore, bringing expertise in areas from AI and smart cities to health tech and cyber security.

Some of these companies are already winning business. Take Metasphere, an innovative British venture specialising in telemetry and robotics, which is now working with Singaporean telcoms companies on smart cities. Or cyber security specialists Digital Shadows, which have chosen Singapore as their first location in the region.

Yet there is still a good deal the UK can learn from Singapore. As part of its own process of innovation and internationalisation, Singapore recently launched its Industry Transformation Maps, to develop important industries, as well as a new International Partnership Fund, to help domestic firms scale up globally. The formation of Enterprise Singapore, a merger between IE Singapore and SPRING Singapore, as the agency championing enterprise and industry development, provides a further basis for UK-Singapore collaboration to strengthen, not only here but across the region.

The UK's strengths in technology and innovation flow from our universities and research capabilities, our incubators and accelerators and our great technology companies. We are home to some of the world's strongest university research groups in areas like AI and cyber security. We are by far Europe's leading destination for tech investors too. Since June 2016, London alone received over £5 billion (S$9 billion) in VC funding, more than France, Germany and Sweden combined.

Part of the UK's approach is to build on this by forging new, long-term strategic partnerships between business, academia and government, which can tackle barriers to growth and boost productivity in specific sectors. Six such deals have been announced so far, in areas such as AI and life sciences. The AI deal alone is worth almost £1 billion and includes nearly £300 million of private investment.

But we want to do more, especially to promote exports. Research suggests that companies that export grow faster, offer better paid jobs and are more productive. This is a lesson Singapore learned as it developed, namely the discipline that comes from competing with the world's best is also one of the best routes to building an innovative economy. It is also why the UK's export strategy sets out ambitious plans to increase exports from 30 per cent to 35 per cent of our GDP, putting us towards the top of the G-7.

In both of our countries there is a clear role for government to help create the conditions for this kind of success. Estimates suggest 400,000 UK businesses, most of them SMEs, believe they could export, but do not. Singapore too surely has many commercial talents waiting to be tapped among its many fast-growing businesses. In this and other ways, our two nations can learn from each other as we forge this new path - and learn that economic prosperity at home and innovative connections abroad are now linked more closely than ever before.

  • The writer is the first Her Majesty's Trade Commissioner for Asia-Pacific and is based in Singapore. @natalieblackuk


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