Friday, June 27, 2008

Social networking across generations

To further expand on my last blog about the potential of social networking applications involving the elderly, consider one of the the biggest problems confronting most healthcare systems: the problem of medication compliance, which is particularly acute among elderly patients. Basically, many patients fail to take their medications as prescribed, either out of forgetfulness/laziness, or false sense of recovery (leading to premature termination of medicine taking). Because of non-compliance, many medication prescriptions fail to have their intended effects on the patients. In addition, the efficacy of many drugs cannot be scientifically verified because of the compounding effect of non-compliance.

There are no easy solution to this huge problem, although I have come across a number of interesting innovations trying to deal with it, including one by a Singapore-based start-up called RemindCap. As the name suggests, the company makes a medicine bottle that has a special cap fitted with electronics that can be programmed to beep when it is not opened at the prescribed time interval. While I like this innovation, it is not as creative as another one that came out of Japan: they also put a special cap on the medicine bottle meant for the elderly patients, but instead of just beeping, they add a network connection that links the cap opening to a digital pet belonging to the grandchildren of the patients (many Japanese children play such digital pet rearing games). If the cap is not opened at the prescribed times, the digital pet grows weaker and eventually die. So out of love for their grandchildren, the elderly patients become more diligent in adhering to the medicine taking schedule. I find this example fascinating, because it not only utilize digital technology (as does RemindCap), but also incorporates deep insights of the social bond between the patients and their grandchildren, and taps the power of grandparental love to overcome their own human weakness.

Of course we can see various limitaitons to this particular innovation as a business (e.g. not all elderly patients have grand children who play digital pets, so the addressable market is reduced...), but my basic point is that the internet and digital media have the power to leverage and enrich social relationships, even among people who are not IT-savvy in the literal sense. The issue is not technology; what we need is imagination, empathy for and understanding of human weaknesses, emotions and desires.

The example above pertains to social networking across generations, but one can easily think of many other forms of scoial links (e.g. imagine teenagers playing in a virtual world game, in which their avatars can only gain strength if their team-mates exercise on a treadmill machine...who knows what this may do to kids' obesity...). I do believe that the potential for using digital technology to connect the elderly and young children is particularly vast and untapped...if you think about it, which demographic groups have got the most amount of leisure time for play and social interaction? The elderly and their grandchildren! Indeed, they have more in common than they have with the middle generation (who are busy working). Sadly, these two generations are increasingly physically separated in most urbanized societies, as nuclear family becomes the norm. I hope a new generation of entrepreneurs will create the imaginative digital tools to help them re-connect with one another...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Reverse Mentoring

We all know that the culture of personal mentoring of new entrepreneurs by experienced investors and entrepreneurs has been a key part of the vibrancy of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial ecosystem. I am happy to see that this concept is beginning to take root in Singapore as well, with more young entrepreneurs looking for mentors, and an increasing number of experienced entrepreneurs and venture capitalists/angel investors learning to take on this role. Indeed, since about 2 years ago, my own organization (NUS Entrepreneurship Centre) has started to engage a number of mentors to help advise and coach some of our NUS spin-off companies. Besides recruiting a number of experienced investors based in Singapore, I have also engaged a number of "international visiting mentors" who are experienced entrepreneurs based in Silicon Valley, to tap their global business experience.

In a macro-sense, mentoring represents a kind of market process, albeit imperfect, to recycle the tacit knowledge and experience of one generation to another. The more efficient this recyling process, the more productive the entrepreneurial creation process is likely to be, as the new generation learns through their mentors how to avoid many of the mistakes made by the earlier generation. The growing interest in mentoring among the entrepreneurial community in Singapore thus augurs well, even though we are still at a nascent stage and there are still lots of room for improving the mentorship process in Singapore (e.g. while it is a widely accepted practice in Silicon Valley for entrepreneurs to provide stock options to mentors, this is seldom done in Singapore, and many mentor-mentee relationships are fuzzy and lack a disciplined process).

However, the purpose of my blog today is not to dwell on this issue (maybe it can be the subject of another blog...). Instead, I would like to suggest that we should start looking at promoting a different kind of mentoring -- that of reverse mentoring, i.e. mentoring of an older generation by a younger one.

The main aim of reverse mentoring is to overcome a major flip-side of experience -- as the world is constantly changing, often times experience gained at one time period may no longer be applicable to a later time period, and indeed, an over-reliance on past experience can close one's mind to fresh perspectives and prevents one from innovating new approaches. Just as the greenhorn can benefit from coaching by the experienced, the experienced can also benefit from coaching by the young, who often are much more attuned to new developments and new possibilities in the world, particularly new technologies, new social trends and new cultural values.

While the concept of reverse mentoring is not really new -- e.g. Tom Kelley, the founder of the famous design company in Silicon Valley, IDEO, has a good discussion of it in his recent book, The Ten Faces of Innovation -- it has not caught on yet in any significant way, even in Silicon Valley.

My prediction is that reverse mentoring will become a major new phenomenon over the next 10 years: while the full potential of the digital revolution as a transformational force in both the enterprise and consumer market is becoming ripe to be exploited over the next decade, many of the senior managers in my generation who are still occupying position of influence over the key strategic business decisions of their organizations have NOT personally learned and embraced many of the new emerging digital media and technologies themselves. In contrast, the new digital media and technologies -- be it social network, virtual world, re-mix, etc. -- have become second nature to the generation of younsters who are only now entering the labor market. There is thus a great need -- and a great opportunity -- for the reverse transfer of knowledge, whereby the managers & policy makers of my generation can learn from the tech-savvy generation of youngsters -- be they students, employees or entrepreneurs -- the potentials and nuances of the new digital media and technologies, through the same process of personal mentoring, except that it is now the young teaching the old.

One of the great privilege of being an academic professor in a university like NUS is the opportunity to learn from the continuous flow of bright students who hail from the new digital generation. Indeed, the free, open-enquiry academic environment of a university provides a wonderful context for reverse mentoring to be practiced -- provided that the professors come with the open-mind to learn, reverse mentoring can naturally occur. In contrast, in business corporate and government departmental settings where relationships are more hierarchical, reverse mentoring goes against the grain of the organizational authority pyramid, and will usually not occur unless there is explicit recognition by senior management that learning from the new generation need to be an integral part of their organizational culture, and that specific formal mechanisms are put in place within the organization to facilitate it.

As Tom Kelley pointed out, reverse mentoring should be an integral part of a truly innovative culture. To those of you who are like me, I encourage you to consider having one or more reverse mentors for yourself, to help you refresh your mind to the changes in the world. To underline my own commitment to this idea, I have started the process of recruiting a number of my NUS students to serve as reverse mentor in digital media/technologies for me and my management team at my organization (NUS Entrepreneurship Centre). (Incidentally, I have started my blog with my 14-year old daughter as my reverse mentor.)

To those of you from the digital generation, I encourage you to consider the entrepreneurial opportunities of creating new reverse-mentoring businesses for the baby-boomer generation. With reference to my previous blog, I believe that those of you who can innovate ways to get the elderly and soon-to-be-elderly to embrace more effectively the new digital technologies -- in their own idiosyncratic ways -- will be well positioned to exploit the much larger opportunities of the globally exploding elderly and soon-to-be-elderly market.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Follow the Big Waves, but Think Contrarian

We are now in the midst of the Web 2.0 craze, and every other entrepreneur I meet these days is trying to start a new Social networking site. Never mind that even the most talked about ones -- Facebook, Youtube, Second Life, Twitter -- have not turned profitable yet.

I do believe that Web2.0 and Social Networking will become big, indeed much, much bigger than what we can even imagine today. But I very much agree with the advice offered by Peter Thiel, the ex-CEO of Paypal and currently founder and president of Clarium Capital Management (which was the early investor in Facebook), when he spoke at the recent TIECON 2008 that I was fortunate to be able to attend. His advice -- yes, follow the big waves, but think contrarian: meaning, don't do what everyone is thinking of doing, or can easily think of doing. Just as anyone could think of starting a pet dog food portal in the Web 1.0 days, most of the social networking sites I get pitched these days have the same feel -- it's too obvious, so even if it works, there'll be many others around the world who have, or will have, started the same thing.

My own contrarian thinking is that, while everyone sees the young and tech savvy generation as the natural targets for Web2.0 -- after all, most people my generation are considered lost cause as we "just don't get it" -- some of the most significant value creation will be found in applying the power of social networking to the elderly generation today. I think it is a fallacy that, just because many of the people in that generation (and I'm trending towards that soon...) are IT illiterate, they won't be able to benefit from the social networking power of the internet.

One example from Japan that I like very much is the thermo-flask maker who adds an internet connection to the flask. The old parent living alone in their rural home in Japan start their day pouring hot water from the flask to make tea. If for some reason the flask is not activated, the flask is programmed to send an alert to their son working in Tokyo, who can then call back to find out if there is anything unusual. We are obviously not even scratching the full power of social networking and user-generated content in this case, but you get the idea.

My contrarian bet is on the start-up that exploits the intersection of the two exploding sets -- social networking and aging population -- while others are mostly looking at the young and cool. Send me your business plan if you have one sitting in this sweet spot!

In arriving at this contrarian bet I'm connecting two different dots -- the fact that I'm part of the aging population myself, becoming increasingly aware of the challenges I will face soon as an elderly, and the fact that my involvement in NUS Entrepreneurship Centre and in angel investing keep me constantly exposed to new web2.0 ideas; in particular, the NUS Overseas College (NOC) students that I come into contact with often keep me abreast with the latest developments in Web2.0 from Silicon Valley, China as well as right here in Singapore. One such group of NOC returnee students in Singapore, who called themselves the E27, is now running an incubator for interactive digital media (IDM) for my centre (Garag3). I would encourage you to visit their E27 website to find out the latest happenings in the web2.0 community in Singapore.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I recently received this beautiful "farewell letter" written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian Nobel laureate in literature who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. When I was an undergraduate student at MIT, I used to read and love Gabriel's books -- those were the days when we were all passionate about changing the world and righting the world's injustice, and his writings stoked the fire in our belly. Reading his letter now brings back bitter-sweet memories of my Cambridge days, and helps me to connect back to an earlier dot in my life.

The friend who sent it to me is a Malaysian (part of the Malaysian-who-studied-in New Zealand friendship network of my wife who studied in New Zealand...) whose wife had recently died of cancer. I have forwarded it to one of my NUS students who is completing a one-year internship program in Silicon Valley (the NUS Overseas College Program), and he in turn has posted it on a new web-portal that he and several other NOC and Stanford classmates have developed called spread-the-love ( They hope to make it into a platform for people to "discover, share and collaborate around the things that they love".

I recommend you to go to this spread-the-love web-site to read Gabriel's touching letter, as well as to learn more about what that portal is trying to do, and hopefully you can contribute towards their effort as well. For those of you who have not read Gabriel's books before, I would strongly recommend them as well.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Connecting the Dots

The title of my blog is inspired by the "Connecting the Dots" speech by Steve Job at the 2005 Stanford University commencement. Being someone with an unusual background and diverse interests, I certainly have many dots to connect. I am part of the overseas ethnic Chinese diaspora -- born in Malaysia, but now a Singapore citizen. I studied physics and electrical engineering/computer science for my BSc's and MSc at MIT, and completed my PhD there in regional planning/industrial policy. I was an entrepreneur, a social activist, and now an active business angel investor and public policy consultant, while holding a day-job at the National University of Singapore (NUS) as a tenured, full professor in both the NUS Business School and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where I teach and research on both high tech entrepreneurship and innovation strategy/competitiveness policy. I am also the director of the NUS Entrepreneurship Centre, where I spearhead the university's wide range of programs -- incubator, seed funds, mentoring, etc. -- to nurture entrepreneurship among NUS professors and students. I have strong links to the Silicon Valley, having spent sabbatical leaves at U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University, but also the Nordic countries, as well as Korea, Taiwan and China. Notwithstanding my strong intellectual conviction in the positivist scientific world view, I am philosophically a Buddhist, and a learner of Qigong.

In this blog, I will try to share my intellectual journeys in connecting the diverse dots of my own life to arrive at my somewhat unconventional perspectives on various issues, but in particular on how Asia is being transformed by the forces of technological AND social innovation and entrepreneurship, where the technological and social entrepreneurial venturing opportunities will lie (and what I am doing to invest in them), and what the key socio-economic challenges we will need to look out for (and the kind of public policy innovations that I am advocating for Singapore and other Asian states to adopt). Like Steve, I believe that great insights come from the synergy of diverse experiences, and our ability to empathize (from personal experience) is just as important as our ability to conceptualize (from intellectual analysis). I am also a big fan of the Small World, Strength of Weak Ties perspective, and the serendipity of knowledge discovery and innovation (see the book by James Burke).

As I begin my blog journeys, I welcome your comments and look forward to seeing how your dots and mine can begin to connect...