Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Why Jack Ma is wrong about education and innovation.

Jack Ma joins the list of very successful billionaires who laments about the education system he has gone through and has spoken very convincingly of why the Chinese education system must change in order for the country to make progress.

This is not a new idea. Einstein himself values imagination above knowledge.

Many successful business men and even our own minister talks about the value of creativity and imagination in creating a vibrant innovation driven economy. In fact, I count a large part of my academic achievements not so much by my mediocre exam taking skills but mostly through public speaking and class participation. My ability to think out of the box comes largely from my 30 years playing RPGs and Dungeons and Dragons. We spent years linking up class abilities, spells and magic items to resolve any scenario the Dungeon Master tosses at my party. The current generation will use the same mindset and thinking to plan their next Zerg rush or Warcraft raid attacks.

In spite of billionaires, famous scientists and top politicians who wax lyrical about imagination, innovation and creativity, I am inclined to think that they are all wrong.

The primary reason why this thinking is wrong is that while creativity and imagination allows a few individuals to really achieve quantum leap progress, we are not convinced that a system which fosters such out of the box thinking is good for the masses.

That is the dilemma faced by policy makers.

Creativity, imagination and innovation worked for me, Jack Ma and Albert Einstein. But does it work for Tan Chee Hong, a fictional Geylang Pimp,  who finds an interesting way to name his prostitutes to increase repeat customers by 30% ? How about the Chow Ah Beng, who experiments with colours and Surrealism by spraying a national monument to demonstrate his artistic talent? Or Roy Ngerng ?

Clearly the most innovative country in the world is America. It has Facebooks, Google, Apple and Microsoft - no other country can do that. But America is also the country where a liberal arts graduate will graduate with crippling bank loans and his best possible job is making coffee at Starbucks, why do we have private schools that trick him into a course where it's hard to get a decent job ? Where else you can be shot by a cop because of the colour of your skin or by a gun toting psycho because you are attending high school. You can also be raped by a comedian in the 80s or worse, have to listen to Justin Bieber.

I'm not going to take the position that creativity and innovation is bad. I think that it should be confined to a select few. How much, and who should be given such training is something I'd wish social science would be able to answer.

The problem of Asian societies and Singapore is not not whether creativity or innovation should be emphasised in educational training, the question is how many should be given this emphasis and how do we select these people. Western societies which desire to open the minds of everyone are taking the wrong approach - just look at Justin Bieber. Singapore's elitist approach emphasising academics may also be wrong, look at Dr. Eng Kai Er.

What we know is that most of the population need to be trained to follow instructions and run the bulk of the economy. That is to provide society with operational personnel, engineers and bureaucrats. There exists a sweet spot, a magic number of population where the Jack Ma's exist waiting for the system to unlock their potential.

Of course, taking my idea to it's logical conclusion runs the risk of adopting Plato's concept of the Philosopher King which can lead to a totalitarian regime. The moment you take the road to select people to be treated in a different way, you also run the risk of thinking that men of gold will produce children of gold, which I think is increasingly becoming a problem in Singapore.

Technology can provide the answer. Data analytics and the science of personality can isolate the traits of the Jack Ma's and Bill Gates and we can determine what are the traits which can make a difference. The answer may well radically differ from our government's fetish with academic ability.

We need to bring personality metrics, income and social economic status into a database for number crunching first, then we need our social scientists to work with our data scientists to determine what is that sweet spot.

That is the key to a truly Smart City.


  1. What is now proved was once only imagined. William Blake

    I like Jack for his determination and spirit of entrepreneurship in a competitive country like China.

    I too asked the question if all schools here will include creativity as a compulsory module, would it help the students ?

    with two young kids now, i am concerned they pick up life skills like communication, confidence and thinking rather than going for grades though it is a fine balance.

    Education is key to opening up minds of individuals to explore their potential, even if just one person could benefit like Jack.

  2. I am taking the opposite position because creativity and innovation is a double-edged sword. There is one Jack Ma, fine and good. There are thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs that deal with fake milk powder and gutter oil.

    Our software is gaining capabilities to tell the difference.

  3. The key to not only a smart city, but a better society/world is values education.

  4. Education is what is done to you and learning is what you do for yourself... Joi Ito - Medialabs MIT

    Currently believe the ability to rapidly prototype and fail or succeed and rapidly scale is the new paradigm very few in Singapore are pursuing... If we want a vibrant ecosystem we need to find places for the catapillars and butterflies....