Wanted: Innovative and visionary ideas to change the world
The evaluation panels are led by Ms Kwee (top left); Prof Chesterman (bottom left); Ms Tan (top middle); Prof Goh (bottom middle); Prof Koh (top right); and Prof Phoon (bottom right)
The chairpersons evaluating the submissions for the NUS Resilience and Growth (R&G) Innovation Challenge say they hope to see visionary ideas that can change the world after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the Innovation Challenge, recent NUS graduates are invited to submit project proposals under one of three categories. Each category has its own evaluation panel, helmed by domain experts with years of relevant experience:
- National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) CEO Ms Melissa Kwee;
- NUS Law Dean Professor Simon Chesterman;
- National Council of Social Service (NCSS) CEO Designate Ms Tan Li San;
- NUS Arts and Social Sciences Dean Professor Robbie Goh;
- NUS Tembusu College’s Rector Professor Tommy Koh; and
- NUS Senior Vice Provost (Academic Affairs) Professor Phoon Kok Kwang.
They hope to see impactful ideas for the pressing challenges facing Singapore and the world, including climate change, conservation, fighting future pandemics, inequality, mental health issues, and supporting vulnerable groups.
Make Our People Better
Projects in this category aim to improve quality of life for people. Ideas could include improving home-based learning for students and adults, strengthening mental well-being, and developing ways to maximise human potential.
The evaluation panel is led by co-chairs Ms Melissa Kwee, CEO of the NVPC, and Professor Simon Chesterman, Dean of NUS Law.
Under Ms Kwee’s charge, NVPC launched the SG Cares app in 2018 to make volunteering and charity donations easier for Singaporeans. It also launched the City of Good vision for Singapore, where individuals, organisations, and leaders come together to give their best for others. A Justice of the Peace, Ms Kwee volunteers with Beautiful People, and is a board member of Crest Secondary School and Prison Fellowship.
“This crisis presents an opportunity for society to look at ourselves and reveal what we are ultimately made of. Though societal fissures have become cracks, we can take this opportunity to practice response-ability and re-imagine the future where we dignify and uplift all together,” said Ms Kwee.
She added that the R&G Innovation Challenge “manifests good foresight and agility to respond to the current situation and will ultimately boost this graduating cohort's resilience”.
“I believe this generation may be the greatest generation yet.”
On his part, Prof Chesterman has taught around the world, including periods at Melbourne, Oxford, Southampton, Columbia, New York University, and Sciences Po. An expert in international law and global governance, Prof Chesterman was previously a Senior Associate at the International Peace Academy and Director of UN Relations at the International Crisis Group in New York. He also previously worked for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yugoslavia.
Prof Chesterman noted that the past month has shown the benefits and the limitations of home-based learning. Less publicly, it has also revealed stresses on mental well-being during the circuit breaker period.
“The Innovation Challenge’s Make Our People Better theme will encourage out-of-the-box thinking to address these and other challenges, with an eye to maximising human potential – particularly of those who are less privileged as well as our ageing population.”
Prof Chesterman added, “I look forward to seeing solutions both high tech and low tech, from cunning adaptations of existing tools to clear blue sky thinking. Most of all, I’m looking forward to being surprised – as I often am – by the ingenuity and the passion of our NUS graduates.”
Make Our Society Better
This category is for projects that make society more cohesive and purposeful. Ideas could include fostering togetherness, reducing inequality, improving happiness and giving society greater meaning and purpose.
The co-chairpersons are Ms Tan Li San, CEO Designate of the NCSS, and Professor Robbie Goh, Dean of NUS Arts and Social Sciences.
Ms Tan will take on the role of NCSS CEO on 1 June. She was previously Deputy Secretary of Industry and Information at the Ministry of Communications and Information – a role which she held from 2013 to earlier this year. Ms Tan used to sit on the boards of social sector agencies including the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore. She was also a member of the Steering Committee that developed the Social Service Sector Strategic Thrusts, a vision and roadmap to develop stronger social purpose entities, and develop the social service ecosystem to remain relevant to Singapore’s needs.
“Although this has been a challenging period for all of us, we have witnessed a lot of creativity and innovation in the way people and the social service sector have responded,” she said.
“It is an honour for me to be involved in this Innovation Challenge, and I hope to see ideas from our youth on how we can better support the vulnerable members of our community, bring different partners together to achieve greater social impact, and as a society, to emerge stronger and more cohesive.”
Prof Goh is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature. He has published extensively on Singapore literature and culture, Indian Anglophone literature, and religion, and has won a number of awards for his teaching. Prof Goh has advised Singapore's Ministry of Education on English literature curricular matters, and has served the National Arts Council as a manuscript reviewer, in chairing events, and on its Committee on Arts Education.
He has also served as a volunteer in the social services sector, through the Methodist Church in Singapore and Metropolitan YMCA.
“I hope to see projects that will not only benefit vulnerable groups, but also identify and reach out to what we might call ‘newly vulnerable’ groups that have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 situation and other recent circumstances,” he said.
“To me, making our society better involves developing a better understanding of evolving social needs, and nurturing more of a heart of service and empathy in Singapore.”
Make the World Better
Projects in this category aim to make the world better by mitigating the effects of climate change, enhancing food security, and ensuring post-COVID-19 safety. The panel will be led by Professor Tommy Koh, Rector of NUS Tembusu College; and Professor Phoon Kok Kwang, NUS Senior Vice Provost (Academic Affairs).
Prof Koh has a wealth of experience dealing with global issues as Ambassador-at-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is also Chairman of the Centre for International Law of NUS; and Special Advisor of the Institute of Policy Studies at NUS. A veteran diplomat and academic, Prof Koh’s former roles include being Dean of NUS Law, Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and Singapore’s Chief Negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement.
“I hope that we will receive good applications to fund projects on climate change, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of the oceans, cooperation to fight against future pandemics and to make this a more just and equal world,” said Prof Koh.
Prof Phoon is a Distinguished Professor whose work in academic affairs includes recruitment and development, benchmarking and resource allocation. He is a geotechnical engineer from NUS Civil and Environmental Engineering, and was the Head of the Department from May 2013 to August 2015.
“Making the world better for who and to what purpose? I am equally looking forward to the questions as well as the audacious ideas,” said Prof Phoon.
Graduating students welcomed the chance to participate in the Innovation Challenge.
“I’ve finished school and have not found a job yet. I thought it would be a good way to engage myself meaningfully while I figure out what to do next,” said Frieda Goh, a fourth-year NUS Social Work student.
Frieda feels that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened inequality, poverty, homelessness and the working conditions of social workers – and is keen to undertake a project to explore the impact of the crisis and possible solutions.
Her social work seniors are continuing to support their clients while working remotely from home. With the increased stress faced by the underprivileged, social workers face numerous challenges in helping them to cope.
“The nation is collectively experiencing a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. While social workers need to cope with their own anxiety, they also need to help their clients through these issues… This might be overwhelming for them.”
As such, one possible project topic that she may explore would be ways to improve the working situation for social workers.
Frieda also feels passionately about poor families which face numerous stressors like finances and health during this period. That is another possible project topic.
Year 4 NUS Mathematics student Jaymond Tan says he will consider applying for the R&G Innovation Challenge, after thinking about whether he has a suitable project topic and like-minded group mates that he can recruit, and taking into consideration any developments in the job market.
Jaymond is passionate about youth and migrant worker issues, and any application will probably be on these issues, under Make Our People Better or Make Our Society Better.
“The support is very useful, and I can think about some initiatives related to what I’ve worked on,” he said. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Jaymond is part of a team that has created videos and booklets to provide entertainment for migrant workers, as they may be bored in their dormitories. His team has also created material for youth to learn more about the perspectives and lives of migrant workers.
The R&G Innovation Challenge was also praised by alumni who have gone through the process of developing budding ideas into life-changing solutions.
Ms Audrey Tan had graduated amid the 2008 Financial Crisis from NUS Communications and New Media. But rather than letting the bleak economic conditions deter her, she went on to co-found PlayMoolah, which employs technology to empower individuals with financial literacy knowledge.
"We spent much time understanding the needs of the customer before we developed anything. We learned through a customer development model and put that into practice to gather as many data points around the need we are trying to solve. I've learnt this one critical lesson – to fall in love with the pain point that you are solving, rather than the solution you are building,” she said of her start-up experience.
“This COVID-19 crisis has presented us with many challenges, but in those challenges lie opportunities for innovators and creatives to respond if you listen closely to what your customers are telling you. Seek first to listen, than to be understood!"
Find out more about the NUS R&G Innovation Challenge.