Nobody in the world does it like that – Nobody in the world has problems like us

One of my favourite movies is a Bollywood flick called 3 Idiots, which tells the story of three college friends. One them turns out to be a brilliant mind called Phunsukh Wangdu, who invents a host of gadgets in a remote part of India. Not only did this movie made me laugh throughout, it also gave me a sense of happiness to see the simple Mr. Wangdu coming up triumphant against someone who had become a corporate big shot.

It turns out that the character of Phunsukh Wangdu was based on a real person, an inventor called Sonam Wangchuk, who is from the Ladakh, the Indian State which shares a border with Tibet. Mr. Wangchuk has essentially become famous for building a campus run entirely on renewable energy and a technique of storing fresh water using artificial glaciers. More on Mr. Wangchuk and his inventions can be found at: [LINK]

Mr. Wangchuk is what I’d call one of the best things to emerge in the science of development. He’s a local innovator, who creates solutions that are unique to a particular region. If you look at Mr. Wangchuk’s two key inventions, you will notice that they were perfect for the Himalayan region. Who else but someone who grew up in that part of the world could have come up with solutions for the issues faced by that part of the world?

While I believe that globalization has on balance been a positive force, there has been one major flaw. It’s worked on the assumption that what is good for the Western (mainly American) world has been good for the developing world. This has been clearly seen in business where global business has come to mean American multinationals and it’s also happened in the area of development – one only has to visit any given developing country to witness the number of “development” agents from Western NGOs hanging around.

This is not a bad thing in as much as both multinationals and NGOs do provide capital and training for the local population. I think of Singapore, a small island that has managed to achieve economic maturity within a generation. Part of our success has been due to the fact that our economy is built by multinationals and our people and businesses are placed in a situation where “best in Singapore” is not acceptable – you have to be best in the world.

There is however, one problem. When you get solutions from elsewhere, they don’t always in the local context and finding a solution to the solution ends up becoming a very expensive process for all parties involved. Business is many examples of how failing to take into account of the local context has failed. Ford forgot that locals in South America are Spanish speaking rather than English speaking. Hence, the launch of the Ford Nova was a failure. Who wants to buy a car called “No Go” (direct translation of Nova from Spanish). Closer to home, international burger chains found themselves getting beating in the Philippines because they didn’t adapt to local taste and got a kicking by the local player, Jollibee.

When this happens in business, its merely a case of the business failing to make the money they hopped they’d make. It’s a little more serious when it comes to development agencies and NGOs. When the foreign solution fails, the development agencies and NGOs ask for and get more money. However, the locals don’t see their lives improving. Hence, the common criticism of development agencies being that they only develop the employees of the development agencies.

Home grown solutions provided by the likes of Mr. Wangchuk tend to be more effective in the goal of helping the local community. The reason is simple, they understand the local context such as what the local communities will accept, the local geography and the available resources. I read an interview by Mr. Wangchuk who argued that his home province of Ladakh did not need the industrialization as the rest of India. The interview can be found at: [LINK]

Once again, I am by no means rejecting the role of the outside world in developing and creating prosperity. It’s vital for the world to be interconnected if it prospers. However, the most effective solutions cannot be imposed on a community because they worked elsewhere. The cost-effective ones are inevitably developed from the ground up by the people who understand the ground and aided by people with the skills to execute no matter where they come from.

My nation of Singapore has been thus far successful with imported solutions. However, we’re discovering that as the economy matures, we need a different way of solving problems. How do we do that? The answer is clearly to look to the people who understand what’s going on.

It will take time for a culture of encouraging home-grown innovation to develop, especially when the old method of importing solutions worked so well. I think of a local inventor who once developed something for our water utility. The civil servants told him, “Nobody else in the world does it the way you’ve proposed.” His reply was “Nobody else in the world has water issues like ours.” This is an answer that we need to apply to the way we do things if we are to encourage the development of necessary home grown innovation.

 

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

 

 

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7 Responses to “Nobody in the world does it like that – Nobody in the world has problems like us”

  • Wangchuk : state of the heart:

    Yeah, it’s not Goliath the enemy at war, that David has to worry about – that’s all done with in one brief epic encounter – but more so the neurotic King Saul that will give David the giant-slayer no peace after the Israelite victory – he was green with unwarranted envy.

    In our Sinchiapor Incorporated, Emperor and Dowager holds sway over all genius and clowns.

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  • Sojoürner:

    Keep it simple otherwise we lose sight of the one thing we did: taking the ecology and turning it into the economy, hammer and tong.

    Actually what India’s Sonam Wangchuk or America’s Elon Musk are doing is not that much different than the proponents of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. When Smith referred to the invisible hand, he was referring to the aggregate effect of a large number of anonymous decisions made by independent players in a free market. The collective effect seems to be one of intent, yet is merely an aggregate effect, the so-called wisdom of crowds, championed by a few talented individuals. Nonetheless, Singapore has no such wisdom at work.

    The future of politics biological improvement of species. I would say, the “first best” option would solve the problem. Then, because of political (or other) factors, the “first best” option isn’t tenable, the “second best” option must be considered.

    The more gifted minds connecting the world at the expense of the less intelligent biologically. With the advance of genetic science we can predict an arms race of the mind, each society trying to genetically improve its people so as not to economically fall behind and not to mention a collapse.

    The world is becoming interconnected by the more brilliant minds in various societies. The benefits go to these interconnected minds and not the bottoms of their respective societies. The positive aspect about these interconnected minds at top is they connect societies in more of a brain competition than a primitive one.

    The global economic problems facing our century are neither straightforward nor fully comprehended. Mainly because their very heart is hidden in darkness. There are people who point out at this ‘vampire elephant’ in the room. But I would prefer to focus on less troubling propositions that allow us to ignore the ugly animal. We all know who it is.

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  • patriot of TUMASIK:

    we INVENTED NuWater…turning toilet and shit water into drinking water to be self-sustaining and made Hyflux into what it is today…Belly-UP…The Elites an AristoCraps during only water from bottles with PH 7+ or private reservoirs @ Istana annexe facing Newton “Protected Area” pump from resources where shit & toilet water are NOT mixed…India??? look at the Doms and Little India…speak for itself

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  • patriot of TUMASIK:

    patriot of TUMASIK:
    we INVENTED NuWater…turning toilet and shit water into drinking water to be self-sustaining and made Hyflux into what it is today…Belly-UP…The Elites an AristoCraps during only water from bottles with PH 7+ or private reservoirs @ Istana annexe facing Newton “Protected Area” pump from resources where shit & toilet water are NOT mixed…India??? look at the Doms and Little India…speak for itself

    CORRECTION: “The Elites and AristoCraps “DRINK” only water from bottles with PH 7+…”…

    POINT: To each his OWN no comparison…Ladakh has Mountain Stream we have Toilet Water

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  • TKL doppelganger, Tan Kim Lan:

    Now I am enlightened why TKL and 70% of Singaporeans are becoming daftier by the days AND India come out so many geniuses. MUST be the water!!!

    patriot of TUMASIK: CORRECTION: “The Elites and AristoCraps “DRINK” only water from bottles with PH 7+…”…

    POINT: To each his OWN no comparison…Ladakh has Mountain Stream we have Toilet Water

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  • trublu:

    Group-thinking NON-THINKER$ will eventually pull down the whole nation.
    Scholars on paper,daft in REALITY(PRACTICE).

    TLCs is the IMPEDIMENT TO CREATIVITY AMONG THE SMEs here.
    Without GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES N MUCH CONSTRAINTS,THE TLCs(thus the HOLEE PARTNERSHIP) is hindering the growth n creativity of our entrepreneurs,by n large.

    Worse,eveb in govt,monkeys merely do what monkeys see?

    Any good sg with opposing or differing ideas are quickly exterminated as *tebels*,a danger to society?

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  • Support local talent:

    Need to support and develop local talent.
    Give more POC projects to local startup…
    Give them space to survive..curb the reach of our GLC.Limit their involvement where local SMEs companies can do the job and not compete with them.

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