One of the objectives of http://www.techandpublicgood.com is to bridge the worlds of tech and Government so that technology can be deployed for maximum public good.
Today I welcome a contribution by Kaijie Ng, a friend and previous co-worker, who is currently Strategy Director at Carousell (one of Southeast Asia’s most promising tech start-ups). At Carousell, he’s delivering public good outside the Government, leveraging technology. I love his insights on how Governments can learn from the mindsets of technology companies, and how the future lies in public-private-people collaboration so that technology can be maximally beneficial for everyone, not just the privileged few. The Covid situation has provided a great laboratory for this.
5 Insights Doing Tech for Public Good, for a Post-COVID Reality
Kaijie is currently seconded to Carousell, one of the world’s fastest growing classifieds marketplace start-ups, from the Government of Singapore. He heads up the Strategy Team, overseeing corporate strategy for a start-up valued at $850M. Prior to this, he worked with across three Ministries, including developing an applied education pathway for the future of work, tackling a real-world economic question of regulating a natural monopoly to ensure service standards and fiscal sustainability, and developing a future-forward foreign workforce policy for Singapore’s economic arrowheads.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal , and do not reflect that of any organisation.
When I first got seconded to Carousell, the key learning objective was clear: To understand the tech start-up sector and bring back fresh perspectives to improve policy development and service delivery.
I also had a personal learning objective: To see how tech start-ups, which are some of the foremost harbingers of change today, can power the public good, whether it be in manpower and economic development, social support, and even the environment.
Then COVID-19 hit, and it all became very real in my dual responsibilities as a public servant, and in Carousell’s Strategy Team, to do what we can to help from the outside, in. With Singapore moving into Phase 1 re-opening, it’s a good time to share some personal reflections , doing work on the other side of the fence — feel free to hit my up for a discussion!
1. The problem is global, but the solution can be local.
Let’s face it — efficiency has won over effectiveness is almost all aspects of our lives — we emphasise scale and mass reach, at the expense of targeted, and potentially greater delivery of value (though for every “Scaling to Your First 100k/Million (add as many zeroes as you like) Users” article, there’s also one on how it’s more important to have 100 users love you, rather than a million like you).
But COVID-19 changed that, with the breakdown of established global and mass supply chains (read: masks embargoes, buying of electronics, fitness gear, books). Even market leaders have challenges providing enough delivery slots to cope with demand, while remaining sustainable.
It is in this context that hyperlocal apps like Goodhood have sprung up, to more effectively request and provide help between users in a community, bridged by proximity and trust.
China, which many look at as the future of tech, has also shown a remarkable rise in community e-commerce, as community-based group purchase are on the rise with lower prices and greater proximity, and citizens stranded at home turn to WeChat to deliver groceries to their doorsteps.
However, long-term financial sustainability could be a concern, especially if this requires dedicated resourcing from the private sector alone. And this is where companies need to look at their values as their guiding star, or work with public/people sectors to bring more resources to bear. For instance, Fairprice on Wheels, which brings grocery shopping nearer to residents in 5 mature estates, is an initiative that likely doesn’t scale. It would also likely not make sense to, but it is equally, if not more, important for the vulnerable among us.
And that is why Carousell rallied the local community and #supportlocal, be it for casuals, businesses, or non-profit organisations. As a platform, it can deliver greater help to end-users by bridging giver and receiver, much more than going it alone. This becomes more amplified with hyperlocal sensitivities, by surfacing organic user behaviour that is genuine, and ground-up. Take for example the items for free category, which was started after noticing users giving away masks and sanitisers for free, amidst price gouging.
2. We crave 0 to 1s, but we have to accept 0.5s that are dead simple.
Digitalisation can be an intimidating word, especially for brick-and-mortar businesses who have not started the journey yet. This is made worse by the mainstream expectation that business transformation needs to be from 0 to 1, and something incredibly new, from physical retailing to AI-powered, automated fulfillment.
This actually scares the heck out of businesses who prefer the past tried-and-test ways. They are now caught on the backfoot by COVID, and struggling with both the mental stress. How would they be able to spare the cognitive load needed to understand new, untested (at least to them) technologies?
Funding support to lower the financial barrier to entry has been the established way, and we’re seeing more user-centric approaches to lower the mental barrier.
That’s where we could temper our expectations, and start with the user in mind. How might we create tools that are dead simple, with clear and direct feedback loops, so that they can ramp up , and realise the value quickly (rather than having to use spreadsheets or APIs)?
I sat in chats with Carousell sellers, and this was a great reminder: the affinity for Carousell was down to it being simple to use, easy to improve visibility, and that leads to more business. Often, we forget that digitalisation is a journey that we need to bring everyone along, as a society. How many times have we expressed irritation at our parents or grandparents, who are struggling with features familiar with us digital natives?
IMDA’s work to bring Tekka Market online via Facebook is an inspiration of how we don’t need to reinvent the wheel by creating new apps/platforms, but to repurpose existing ones, where the features have already become second-nature, for other uses. For sure, these are not 1s. It does not radically transform the way we do business, or enable all merchant aspects.
There is nothing wrong in tech to continue to pursue 1s. but in public policy, and harnessing tech for public good, 0.5s are absolutely essential, to get over that first mental hurdle with our users.
3. Don’t be afraid of launching with 0.5s or even less, as long as you learn from them.
A general observation is that we are sometimes so caught up with full-cooked perfection. We think we can/want to get it right with the best features from the get-go. Anything lesser would be a disaster.
But this is not always the case, especially during the COVID crisis, where speed is of the essence to deliver much-needed value to users. It’s not wrong to be hacky with existing limitations, as long as users can see that you genuinely care.
In response to the F&B challenges with the circuit breaker and high delivery fees, Carousell created a new F&B category to help hawkers and restaurants list for free and reach a bigger base of diners. It was a small SWAT team which worked with constrained resources and managed expectations that this was intended to help and learn quickly.
Having this small sampan brought the team closer to the users, and a better understanding of the F&B sector’s challenges. We crafted an informational approach by engaging amplifiers, including a step-by-step WhatsApp message that hawkers could use to onboard and forward to their friends. This was nowhere near a 1 or 0.5, but the value proposition (free) and our involved execution gave users the sense that we cared, and deep insights about a category that we were largely unfamiliar with, without over-committing at the start.
4. Public-private-people partnerships can be real, and democratised.
We often think of 3Ps as only public-private partnerships. Even then, there are many that catch the public eye for the wrong reasons (so much so that HBR has to write an article on the key success factors). But the People sector has been one that has stepped up during this episode.
Each side has their strengths — the public sector in coordinating and directing the weight of Government resources and signaling to bear, the private sector in responding nimbly, and the people sector in having the most direct understanding of on-ground problems.
Carousell was the private player and platform inbridging the SG COVID-19 Creative/Cultural Professionals & Freelancers Support Group with the Singapore Brand Office in a Made in SG campaign. This allowed creative freelancers, who found their jobs cancelled, to have an avenue to continue to pursue their passions by selling their merchandise online. It was a way of providing help, with dignity and skin in the game, across three parties.
People can be the platform too. In the early stages of COVID, when Singaporean students found their internships and exchanges cancelled, Adriel Yong created a scrappy spreadsheet to compile internships for these affected students. This got many organisations, including start-ups and government agencies on board, and generated more than 200 positions.
Sure, this is less than 1% of the the positions provided through the SGUnited Traineeships (which is a very meaningful programme that I fully support), but it was done by an undergrad, with a public Google Forms and Sheets tool, and could inspire the likes of Bytedance and Temasek to action. The scope for partnerships is becoming much flatter, with the power of the tool.
5. Can we build an open-source partnership platform, for a more resilient society?
This is more an open question. If anything, the various responses has given me more optimism for the future.
All we need, is to suspend judgement and assume best intentions. So that the usual cynicism and arms-length can be held at bay. And the amount of collaboration across organisations has shown that COVID-19 has, ironically, brought everyone closer.
We are already seeing communities such as better.sg building open source products to bring out the best in society, and events such as the GovTech Idea Sprint for COVID-19. The question is, how can we harness these energies, and create a platform where we can build this understanding on a regular basis, and develop the capacity to respond even more quickly and effectively? Who could provide this platform, and how would it be designed? Each generation of Singaporeans had a lasting legacy attuned to their times — the pioneers who built the foundation, the Merdeka who strengthened them.
What do we want our generation to be known for?