On a recent interview on 28 February 2014, Lawrence shared his views on design as business strategy and how it will impact the future of Singapore.

André Ahchak (AA)

“The urge to become more productive, the need to redesign business processes, jobs and even the physical design of establishments to fulfill productivity goals has become even more important. The government is providing incentives for productivity and innovation.  “How can businesses delving into design concepts help you keep ahead of the competition and remain sustainable in the long-term, through innovation and productivity?”

 Susan Ng (SN): 

“Well, next month up to 500 business leaders and top designers are expected to come for the inaugural Singapore Design Business Summit (SDBS) which will be held here in Singapore, from March 12th to 14th.  “Now, during the three day summit which is hosted by the Design Business Chamber Singapore (DBCS), you’ll learn what it takes to lead your organisation to become competitive through design globally, and get the chance to exchange ideas, discuss business concepts with established entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and design mavericks.

“And we have with us today Lawrence Chong, who is immediate past President of the DBCS, he is also one of the moderator of the Design Business Summit. Mr Chong himself is also a designer, CEO of Consulus Pte Ltd. This is an innovation consultancy. They have business management and multidisciplinary design capabilities.”

AA: 

“Lawrence, good to see you again.”

Lawrence Chong (LC):

“Good to be here, good to see you guys.”   

AA:

“Now, let’s go straight into this. Lawrence, what are the various types and applications of design that will be explored and even showcased at this particular Summit? And what gets businesses wanting to be involved in design?”

LC:

“Well, I think what will be very, very interesting – I must say we are very excited about the Summit – is that probably a lot of people are very used to the idea of seeing design as physical objects, interiors and all those things.

“But right now, we are talking about design as a strategy, design in the heart of business. And what I am saying is, if you noticed recently, this big talk about the internet of things – how internet is connecting objects, smart watches and all those things.

“Some of those fascinating ideas of how design is driving business change. And we all know, seriously, Apple sort of ‘closed the deal’ when it became one of the most successful company in the world through design. Samsung is very much into it as well, growing into a powerhouse essentially. Singapore Airlines also announced new design experiences for its lounges, for its business class, first class.

“So you can see, design is really at the heart of business – so that’s what the Summit is all about.”

 SN:

“It is important, isn’t it?”

AA: 

“Okay, when I first spoke to you about design in business, it was a concept to me at first. A concept. Then when you explained it, it made a whole lot of sense. But do people – do businessmen these days, do many of them still understand what this concept of business design is truly about?”

LC:

“Well, the good news is that, I think..”

AA: 

“It’s not just a physicality that you are talking about..”

LC:

“It’s not just a physicality. I think in the encounters with CEOs in the last decade, it has been an amazing change in the Singapore business scene. You have CEOs coming to talk to us and say(ing), ‘we need to collaborate’. They used to talk to us as practitioners, as contractors. But now you have CEOs who are very informed, who knows that design has to be embedded in the business strategy and yes, it is a process. It’s not about coming in and ‘how much is this, I want to buy this’.

“So it’s really encouraging. And then you have a new generation of business leaders, who they themselves are applying design approaches. So you see new concepts of retail, you see new concepts in food and beverage, you see new concepts in technology.

“There is a whole new generation of startups in Singapore that is really, really incredible, that is combining design, technology, the idea of the human experiences. How do you transform with that, that two perspectives, this is an incredible time to be in Singapore.”

SN: 

“Absolutely.” 

AA: 

“Inevitably, this new design concept that we are talking has made an impact – the design of business is going to impact the economy. Can you share with us how much of an impact this is going to be?”

LC:

“Well, I think, one beautiful thing is that if you look at Singapore – where we are at now and where we are situated in this whole change in ASEAN. Of course, there is all this thing about identity – who we are, and what are we going to do about it.

“I think Singapore has been, so called ‘designed for this moment’, because of our inclusiveness. And you know, for great design to work, you have to be inclusive. And the openness for talent, the openness for technology, our infrastructure – that creates a wonderful base for this emergence of this new identity and this new aspiration.

“So what is going to be key right now is, we need to put the pieces together. We need to put the funds, we need to put the talents, we need to put the policy-makers, we need to put the buyers, we need to put the users, all in one. So that is what we are trying to do with the Summit, the Summit is this – putting together the mosaic..”

AA:

“It is an amalgamation of everyone.”

LC:

“Yes, amalgamation is important, putting it together, making it work. And I think we have to get it done, we have to go at it very, very seriously, because we have a real shot at this thing.”

SN:

“Actually, making it work is what is important, because we have many small enterprises in Singapore, small and medium enterprises. And business, especially the way you are talking about it, design in business is something you don’t really think about, when you are so small? You just want to get on and do your business, bottom-line is important. But what you are saying makes sense, go forward as we move on to the next century perhaps, maybe even the next decade. How will this help us, how will it impact our productivity – will it increase our productivity?”

LC:

“You will be happy to know that because we have a younger generation that is very well-informed, that is so used to technology and design.

You have entrepreneurs now who start business using smartphones – payment models via mobile, loyalty programmes and they are very, very used to that technology and design. And it is so much easier because their incorporation of design and technology is almost from Day One.

“It’s a good time to be a startup, it’s a good time to be a SME. So it’s different from the previous generation of SMEs, where they think of design and technology as a ‘Whooh’. This new generation is like ‘Yes’. So you know, it’s really, really different when you talk to the younger generation. When they are starting out a new business, starting out a café, or they are trying to sell a product. Immediately, they are coming us and saying, ‘we need design’ at the start. ‘We need good design, we need good technology’, right at the start.”

AA:

“So it’s not an afterthought.”

LC:

“It’s not an afterthought anymore. We are still at a transition phase, but I would say that there are three generations of entrepreneurs in Singapore. There is that first generation which is the ‘hardknocks’, you’ve got to do it the hard way. Then you’ve got the second generation who knew how to scale. Then you’ve got the third generation now, which is what we called the ‘exponentials’ – they learned how to use design and technology to exponentially drive their business upwards.

“And then you are going to see a lot of incredible scalability because these guys are so good at putting the pieces together and making it work. This thing about making it work, is what the Summit is trying to say. It is not about what you have, it is about how you put it together to make it work.”

AA:

“Of course, I think the question is going to be, how much money do you need to put into this before it works, and whether we can even start this designing of the business.”

LC:

“It is interesting you say that. If you look at the new CEO, Nadella of Microsoft. He said this thing – which I thought is incredible – at the New York Times interview. It’s not about – we cannot have this attitude that we sort of figured it out already. We have to have this attitude that we haven’t figured it out and we got to be able to try new things.

“The truth is, it’s not about how much money. It’s whether you are willing to take the attitude to say that, ‘Look, we haven’t understood the problem enough, we are going to be happy to relook at it, we are going to look at it from different angles’. And I think that’s key. And you will realise that actually, good design-thinking saves you a lot of money. And it is smart thinking. And it is good business principles / fundamentals.

“Because when you look at a problem and you are not taking anything for granted, you are looking at it from a multi-dimensional point-of-view – from the user point-of-view, process point-of-view and the opportunities point-of-view, and then you start to map that, and you are going to see realities that people have not seen, simply because you work harder and you’re looking at it at all angles. It’s like what Steve Jobs said right, you want to care about the details, and the details really matter. And this is, in a sense, very Singaporean.

“You know, my friends come here, and I bring them around. And they go like, ‘Wow, your parks, your housing – they fit, they really fit. How do you do something like that?” I said, ‘It’s design. We are so small, we’ve got to design ourselves to be special”. So that exceptionalism.. So I always tell fellow Singaporeans that design has always been in our DNA, just that we don’t talk about it like it’s design.”

AA:

“We don’t think of it.”

SN:

“We don’t’ even think about it a lot anyway, yeah?”

LC:

“But our friends, sometimes they come and they go, “Wow, we can’t really do what you do, in this way, it fits. That attention to detail, it fits, making it work. Multidisciplinary is very Singaporean.” 

AA:

“So basically, if we think about a Lego set, it is the building block of business, it is the building block of society, it is the building block of the economy as well. When we come back, we give you some examples of maybe how companies can actually do this a little bit better, when we come back right here, on the Breakfast Club.”

— COMMERCIAL BREAK —

AA:

“So design transforms businesses, enhances competitiveness and long-term sustainability through value creation, and it’s not just physicality that we are talking about. We are talking about business processes. In the studio with us is Lawrence Chong, he is the immediate past President of the DBCS, and one of the moderators of the Design Business Summit that is going to be happening in Singapore, we will tell you a little bit more about that.

“Lawrence is also the CEO of Consulus Pte Ltd, which is an innovation consultancy with business management and multidisciplinary design capabilities, and he has got fantastic people in his office, because I’ve visited him before.

“Lawrence okay, so we are talking about how SMEs – can you give us examples of how SMEs really can use this design method as a whole, and really bring them maybe, leaps and bounds forward in their own businesses.”

LC:

“Well, I think if you look at the much more famous examples, the Singapore brands that is really using design to drive competitiveness. You look at a company like OSIM, it’s incredible, massage chairs – come on, the whole idea! It is now a regional powerhouse. And if you look at a startup like TWG, which Mr Ron Sim also owns – how you use design to transform an entire way of drinking tea in a sense. Nobody knew that, it is actually Singaporean.”

SN:

“A lot of people don’t know.”

LC:

“They don’t know, exactly. And if you look at all these different applications, it is proven that Singaporeans want to buy well-designed concepts and ideas. I mean, if you look at the amount of money we spend on our homes and the kind of decisions that drive the entire processes, it is incredible. But here’s a big shift that is coming. How can we profit from the fact that we have all the existing infrastructure as we said earlier, how can we take this to the next level? And I think that is what we are trying to discuss and cover. And the next big thing is the area of technology, if you talk about for example, Social Media.

“But Social Media is really just at the top tier. Beneath all of that is just this whole idea of data infrastructure. It’s going to be extremely magical, the connectedness of all things – Smart watches, homes, TVs. You’re going to have very, very smart interfaces. And I think Singapore is really prepared for that kind of experiences. We’re going to go in a big way.”

AA:

“Now I understand that you will be working with, or DBCS is going to be working with youths, students as well as mid-career professionals thinking of making a career switch, to attract them to take up careers in design. What are the industry needs at the moment?”

LC:

“I think the big space that they can fill is that we need the SMEs and we need Singaporean companies to hire more designers, not just as a staff doing graphics, or at that level. We need designers rising to the level of joining management. That means you need to have designers in the boardroom. And that is the benchmark that Singaporean companies need to have now.

“When we compare ourselves to international firms, you look at Starbucks, you look at Apple. They have senior Vice-President Positions for design. You look at Philips. And Cheaw Hwei – we are very proud of Cheaw Hwei because Cheaw Hwei is a Singaporean example, because he sits in a very, very highly influential position in Philips as a Global Creative Chief.

“And so, we have this capacity and the good news is to tell students, to go like ‘You shouldn’t really come into the design industry if you think your entire life is about / at the outcome level, but really going into the strategy level.” And we need that to in order to do active transformation, so, embedded design.”

AA:

“So we may have Chief Designers on the boardroom?”

LC:

“Everywhere, everywhere.. We want to push that in a very big way.”

AA:

“Alright. Very quickly before we end. What do you want to achieve in this inaugural Singapore Design Business Summit?”

LC:

“Well, I think the key thing is – I was sharing earlier on is – we have all the different pieces and we have all the different aspects, the infrastructure and the people,  and how do we make it work?  We need to come together, next year is SG50, and I think the exciting thing is that if we can redesign Singapore to go after the opportunities of the future. That’s what we hope to contribute to the SG50 discussion. Not more productivity actually, but more imagination.”

AA:

“But with that imagination will come the productivity.”

SN:

“That’s right! That’s right!”

LC:

“Exactly.”

AA:

“The inaugural Singapore Design Business Summit (SDBS) will be held from March 12th to 14th. Registration is open from now till March 10th. For details, you can go to www.dbcsingapore.org   Thank you very much Lawrence for joining us this morning.”

LC:

“Thank you.”