In the final 2016 issue of the Economist, Vienna was declared the city of the century for its intellectual and cultural accomplishments. Vienna was the city which won the accolade because it could employ the diversity of its population to create new ideas and philosophies so much so that writer Stefan Zweig commented that "There was sperm in the air. "
Singapore can potentially become an intellectual capital of the world with its world class PISA scores, cultural diversity and strong governance, but something is clearly holding us back. There is still very little "sperm in the air".
To try to examine this issue further, I spent a month in Ayer Rajah which aspires to become the Silicon Valley of Singapore.
a) Ayer Rajah Tech Cluster needs a gathering point every week.
The role of gathering engineers and investors used to be borne by an accelerator in Block 71. It is very expensive and unfair that this be sustained by the private sector. It may be worth using tax payers money to get everyone together for a networking session and showcase the latest government e-services or upcoming tenders to everyone. Not to mention allow the private sector to talk about their tech offerings for an advertisement fee.
b) Free internship systems should be encouraged.
I had a great time doing my free internship. Not getting paid gave me the freedom to choose the technology I want and I was able to get myself exposed to the MeteorJS Framework and Solidity smart contracts programming by exchanging a small part of the my legal research skills. The rest of the time, I hung out with BFP folks and swapped investment ideas which was located next door. The only thing lacking was that I did not have lawyer friends to exchange ideas with.
One idea at the back of my head is that if I were to insist on a small stipend for an internship, I might have spent a month doing PHP programming or Ruby on Rails ( Or god forbid, .NET, the framework for dinosaurs ! ), great technologies which pay but may not be the cutting edge technologies I want more exposure in.
One idea I have is that it will be great if someone consolidates a list of start-ups and share their technology expertise to give one-month stints to folks who complete, for example, a specialisation course in Coursera for students to continue working on a real-world project. Start-ups get free labour and interns get to network with each other.
( In such an arrangement, there is always fear of exploitation, but I did manage to use my new-found technical expertise to share it with my latest law firm interview and got one step closer to a training contract for the future. In asking for a free internship, I was also exploiting my Employer )
c) Rethink the relationship between technology professionals and food.
Food matters in creating intellectual capitals. If you work at Ayer Rajah, you will find out that Timbre+ is greatly overrated.
Business at Timbre+ is good in the afternoon with folks getting access to relatively cheap hawker food but the foot-fall does not come close compared to the Foodcourt at Blk 69, where I could get a plate of vegetarian bee-hoon at $2.70. The pragmatic engineers from India and China likes to gather and queue in such a zone to get access to cheap food.
If you ask around, most of the folks miss that old hawker centre and the prata shop in that area.
Policy makers should not underestimate the magical effects of cheap sarabat stalls and affordable prata. Vienna's intellectual strength arose partly due to its coffee culture. And intellectuals are not exactly money-minded individuals.
Engineers will alway be realists. Looking hip and appealing to poseurs may work in the short term but never will work in the long term.
Right now, Singapore is hardly the city of the century and intellectually, we are probably light years behind Vienna during its prime.
But who knows, Ayer Rajah might be tweaked in such a way that there will be indeed sperm in the air as our economy restructures. However, too much control and over-engineering the tech sector might cause this segment of the economy to go limp.
Or worse, there might be premature ejaculation.