On Overdrive: Our Potential to Progress Through Innovation

By Dzuleira Abu Bakar, Chief Executive Officer, MaGIC,

It’s been well over a year since we’ve begun grappling with the once alien virus Sars-CoV-2, which turned into a full-fledged invisible Covid-19 war. Shocking, frustrating, devastating, sobering yet disruptive and transformative are just a few profound words that can encapsulate the phenomenon of Covid-19. Countries saw their economic power shrunk by half, unemployment at unprecedented levels, jobs that were once in demand and topped the pyramid of must-haves were wiped out almost completely, families lost their sole income, thousands of kids around the world were out of touch with education, at least in the most accessible ways. I think we can all agree that the adverse effects of Covid-19 tipped the balance.

But, beyond that lies the life-changing truth of the words of Einstein, “in the middle of adversity there is opportunity”. An opportunity that can be only maximised fully through harnessing the true power of technology and understanding innovation in its truest sense.

If Einstein were alive, I bet my last ringgit that he’d agree with me. Technology is a tool underpinned by science, and it must be looked at as a tool which has the power to provide access and has the ability to solve worlds biggest problems and now more than ever, bridge societies.

With technology and innovation, we witnessed the development of vaccines in just under a year. We witnessed how e-commerce and communication technologies swept across the world whilst pulling the rug under our feet in terms of the ways we did business and communicated in the past. It was also the birth of new business models, along with an entirely newfound meaning to pivoting.

The wave of innovation and speed of technological advancement is like never before. Perhaps the closest would be the speed of covid infection rates. Countries and organisations that fail to catch its current will not only will glide down the pecking order, they would also be responsible for charting their own demise.

What we (Malaysia) do next as a country will determine whether we achieve the vision of a fully developed nation in every sense. Realising this vision takes the effort of the entire country, each and every component and societal layer of this country. And it also starts by building a keen understanding and awareness of what technology and innovation can do for us. In a rudimentary manner, just creating awareness starting in one’s home, village, community, businesses, jobs then moving on to grander important goals like industries and country at large.

The Rise of Asia

For this grandeur vision to be materialised, we need to be able capitalise on the megatrends that are blazing new pathways. But even before that, we need to build solid foundations of technology well within the economy. Which includes foundations that are being built by academia, various initiatives by the Government and demand from the industry. A strong linkage is needed to move coherently with the rising megatrends.

Malaysia with all of its advantages, is placed by another strong advantage by being in SEA/ ASIA which is increasingly becoming the economic powerhouse of the world with the highest number of global population. That in itself is a megatrend; involves Asia’s rise as the world’s most dominant economic force. Driven by rapid population growth and economic development over the last few decades, Asia is slowly switching from becoming a participant in global trade to a chief architect in its future course.

Over half of the world’s unicorns are Asian. Half of the world’s middle class are found in Asia, and we’re growing richer and more integrated.

Malaysia is uniquely positioned to capitalise on this first trend. In fact, our main opportunity lies in leveraging the ASEAN platform as a foundation for growth. As the world’s fifth-largest economy in 2018, Malaysia has access to a market of close to 630 million people and a GDP of around US$3 trillion. The ASEAN market is expected to skyrocket to US$5.2 trillion by 2025.

Accelerating innovation in Malaysia may mean we produce better products faster, or develop cutting-edge technologies we can supply to the ASEAN economies.

The Urgency for Sustainable Solutions

The second megatrend we could potentially leverage comes from solving our sustainability challenges of the future.

From a population of just 2.5 billion people in the 1950s, we’ve grown to 7 billion in 2011, and we’re set to add 2 billion more in 30 years. This growth spurt comes with some alarming symptoms, from the intensifying effects of climate change to a lack of access to food, water, shelter, education, healthcare and employment.

With foresight, the Malaysian government launched the National Technology and Innovation Sandbox (NTIS), to drive the creation, commercialisation, and proliferation of key local technologies that may solve our country’s greatest challenges.

A good example of the NTIS in action is its recent collaboration with FELDA to address looming food security challenges. The NTIS has mobilised five advanced technology startups to explore how cutting edge drone and robotic solutions may revolutionise the agriculture sector.

Using FELDA’s oil palm sites as a testbed, the collaboration aims to develop new ways of harvesting, maintenance, and fertilisation that may increase yield, find new efficiencies, and diversify income streams to benefit the wider sector. MaGIC is honoured to be heading up the Secretariat in this regard, connecting the various key players in the ecosystem and catalysing the commercialisation of new technologies.

The Digitalisation of Everything

The last megatrend crucial for Malaysian progress is the rising digitalisation of everything. And it encompasses every conceivable thing. Your cities. Your vehicles. Your living room. And soon, we may even have digitised help around our workplaces, factories, and homes (just ask Boston Dynamics).

In this regard, COVID-19 has put us on overdrive. Over the past year, virtual learning was a vital component for all levels of education. Telemedicine and robotics came into prominence to deliver care remotely, ensuring the safety of patients and healthcare practitioners. Lockdowns also forced congregations of businesses to go online for the first time.

The almost-wholesale transformation of everything is a good opportunity for local innovations to rise, and we’re currently in a good position. A recent report highlighted Malaysia’s digital economy contributes to one-fifth of our GDP, and we’re the “second-most digitally advanced” nation in Southeast Asia. To get to the next level, Malaysia needs to focus on the development of highly-skilled technical talents locally so they may drive our tech and innovation sector.

The Innovation Blueprint for Malaysia’s Future

The race is on as governments across the world are sprinting to implement policies and build infrastructure to secure an increasingly digitalised future. And the Malaysian government has a solid plan to keep pace.

Through the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MOSTI), the Malaysian government has introduced a new strategy to drive its progress through innovation. The new National Policy on Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTIN 2021-2030) is a bold plan to leverage these megatrends and more, transforming Malaysia into a high-tech, high-income nation.

DSTIN 2021-2030 aims to propel Malaysia from being technology users to technology developers, and it outlines six thrusts to trigger this shift:

  1. STI governance
  2. The empowerment of Research, Development, Commercialisation & Innovation
  3. Increasing the use of local technology by industry
  4. STI talent development
  5. Embracing STI and Economy – or STIE, a term coined by MOSTI
  6. And promoting Malaysian STI to the world

To help Malaysia realise these plans, the Malaysian Academy of Sciences developed the 10-10 MySTIE Framework, which identifies 10 technological trends to complement 10 socio-economic drivers central to our growth as a nation. These socio-economic drivers feature important sectors like manufacturing, healthcare, agriculture, energy, and water & food. Aligned to these drivers are technological trends that may propel them such as advanced intelligence systems, sensor technology, blockchain, and 5G/6G.

As the Malaysian government sets the tone for growth over the next decade, we will need a concerted effort from all corners of the country to ensure the success of this innovation strategy. We need to identify and back innovators with the right support structures, not just from a funding perspective, but also from a capacity-building one. We need to inspire new graduates and upskill the existing workforce to take up the STI challenge, ensuring we have enough talents in the field.

Covid-19 may have disrupted our progress, but it has altered our course of progress. It is one that’s powered by a renewed deference for high-tech solutions to overcome and thrive amid our challenges.

Indeed, the time is ripe for a surge of Malaysian-made technologies.

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