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A Second Look at Asia’s Most Innovative Cities

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Asia Life

A Second Look at Asia’s Most Innovative Cities

Singapore has been ranked the Asia-Pacific’s most innovative city, but the concept is malleable.

It’s been a good year so far for Singapore. This month its Changi Airport was awarded the world’s highest accolade for an international flight hub. And just before that, business development consultancy Solidiance declared the “Lion City” to be the Asia-Pacific’s most innovative urban center.

According to Damien Duhamel of Solidiance, Singapore was an easy choice: “Today, Singapore is bold, fast and successful – and Singapore Inc. will follow the same path. Singapore has no other choice; it must adapt, stay opened and lead change if it is to remain relevant in the 21st century.”

Innovation is a tough concept to pin down. People move, demographics shift, industries are created and destroyed, cultures mix to create new ideas. Education, infrastructure and civic society underpin all of these efforts, only to upend the old and dream up the new on an ongoing basis. But these unpredictable variables haven’t stopped think tanks and media from trying to quantify innovation.

According to the Solidiance study, six key indicators were factored into its findings. In no particular order, they include: a skilled talent base, high-caliber education system (knowledge creation), a tech-savvy populace with gadgets and networks to stay connected (technology), a socio-cultural atmosphere that encourages art and freedom of expression (society), governance that facilitates financial freedom (government) and global integration.

In a similar attempt to quantify “innovation,” the Wall Street Journal, Citigroup and the Urban Land Institute, crunched data, engaged heavily on social media and oversaw a contest between 200 cities around the world to see who ended up on top. Their findings, released in March: Medellín, Colombia, is the most innovative city in the world.

Once the stronghold of near mythical drug lord Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel, the city went on to reinvent itself in every respect. It reduced its homicide rate by nearly 80 percent between 1991 and 2010. It built a slew of public facilities (libraries, parks, schools), as well as public transport links from its poorer hillside neighborhoods to downtown via gondolas and a giant escalator shuttle system, purportedly cutting some commute times from a few hours to a few minutes. Essentially, Medellín shows us that innovation is fundamentally about change, which is also the reason that Singapore won its spot in the Asia-Pacific.

Living by the credo of change to one degree or another, Sydney (prized for its global outlook, talented, tech savvy populace and open society), Melbourne (touted for its livability, diversity and talent), Hong Kong (which received kudos for its ease of doing business) and Auckland (livable, tolerant, talented) rounded out the top five. Tokyo ranked a surprisingly low sixth (held back by its lack of openness to outside ideas and its “tolerance for failure,” but placing first in knowledge creation), followed by Seoul, Osaka, Pusan and Taipei.

Further down the list (11th-16th) were Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok from the ASEAN block, Beijing and Shanghai from Mainland China, and Mumbai and New Delhi from the subcontinent. In the cases of China and India, the Asian Century Institute says its cities have “grown by default without proper vision or planning”.

A detailed look at each city’s strengths and weaknesses can be seen here.

Explaining Singapore’s no. 1 ranking, the report reads, “Singapore sits on top of this ranking because it has made dramatic and perpetual improvements for the past 25 years. It looks as if the city somehow lives by the Jack Welch formula: ‘Get better or get beaten’.” The World Bank concurs, placing Singapore first in the world for ease of doing business in 2013.

The study drops names of companies with headquarters in Singapore – Eu Yan Sang, Breadtalk, Hyflux and TWG Tea – as evidence of the city’s “attractive ecosystem for companies”. It also mentions the city-state’s reputation as a cultural melting pot, which it sees as a sign of its openness.

But is a free financial system and smart people all that it takes to innovate? Singapore may have a stellar business ecosystem and is indeed diverse, but some say tolerance lags in the city-state where homosexuality remains illegal and tensions simmer beneath its multi-ethnic surface. Other issues of concern in Singapore’s socio-cultural sphere include worries over privacy infringement online and alleged limitations on academic freedom, brought to the fore by the recent tenure rejection of Dr. Cherian George at Nanyang Technological University.

In the long-term, restricting freedom in some areas may lead to stunted creativity in others. Conversely, in principle at least, societies with the most tolerance and true openness to diversity may unleash the most creativity, contributing to innovation in turn. While it may not perform as strongly in other criteria, Bangkok is king of this realm, ranking first in the society category.

Bangkok is “hard to define and hard to grasp,” its blurb reads in the Solidiance study. “Among our Asia-Pacific city list we believe Bangkok has the most potential to climb in the ranking in the future.” And here is the kicker: “An open mind is a basic requirement to build an innovative ecosystem and Bangkok has proven to be very open.”

Could this be a glimpse of the shape of Asia’s innovation centers to come?