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SMU Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship's Changemakers Conversations were part of the 10th Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition
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Digital Transformation

COVID 19: An accelerator for digital transformation

Published on 18 February 2021

The effects of COVID-19 have rippled through the social fabric of communities the world over. Businesses and investments, in particular, have been shaken by the economic uncertainty that arose from the pandemic, with several industries transformed by the exceptional events of the past year.

On 30 September 2020, the SMU Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship hosted the Changemakers Conversations virtual panel to discuss the challenges of ‘Our New Normal’. The online session explored how the pandemic has acted as an accelerator for digital transformation in both the public and private sectors in Asia, as well as insights into how businesses can take advantage of this trend to spur growth and innovation in the era of the ‘new normal’. This virtual panel discussion is part of the 10th Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition that aims to bring together the most talented and entrepreneurial to share knowledge and tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

Joined by students, young professionals and entrepreneurs from across the region, the event featured a line-up of expert speakers including Mr Oliver Tonby, Asia Chair of McKinsey & Co.; Mr Foo Jixun, Managing Partner at GGV Capital; and Mr Piyush Gupta, Chief Executive Officer & Director of the DBS Group. The session was moderated by Professor Gerard George, Dean of the SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business.

“In the midst of chaos lies opportunity”

Quoting Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, SMU President Professor Lily Kong opened the event by highlighting the importance of cultivating change and creating meaningful impact. As Prof Kong explained, “Changemakers Conversations provides a platform and a springboard for SMU and the global audience to engage in inter-generational and cross-disciplinary discussions.”

During her welcoming remarks, LKYGBPC Steering Committee Chairperson Shirley Wong also underscored the need for businesses and investors to remain resilient as they navigate through this volatile climate, and spot opportunities in the face of intersecting global change.

Asia as the Epicentre of the Technology Revolution

COVID-19 has acted as a major accelerator and differentiator of technology, with Asia increasingly taking the lead in emerging technologies and innovation initiatives, noted Mr Tonby. The widespread adoption of tech and increased propensity for mobile services during the pandemic indicates that consumer sectors are ripe for digital disruption.

In fact, research from global consultancy McKinsey found that by aggregating funding for entrepreneurship, innovation and R&D, Asian companies can be poised to not just survive, but thrive in the post-pandemic era. McKinsey identified four technology-led opportunities that Asian businesses and entrepreneurs can use to leapfrog traditional growth barriers in this new landscape:

  •  Reimagining the customer experience: To thrive in the ‘new normal’, businesses may rethink customer journeys by gaining insights into best practices for digitising products and services.
  •  Turning manufacturing strength into tech leadership: A good starting point is to optimise business processes by fully embracing digital technologies. Enterprises, whether big or small, should adopt a ‘tech first’ mind-set — a change that needs to come from the top down, driven by senior leadership.
  •  Expanding business technology services: A firm that understands how technology and innovation can improve supply chains can open up possibilities for business expansion that were previously out of reach.
  •  Leading the energy transition: Asia currently holds about half of the world’s renewable capacity, and this is expected to account for 64 per cent of the global increase in capacity by 2040. Adopting sustainable practices and switching to green energy will be critical for businesses to help reduce their overall costs and emissions.

Mr Tonby concluded his keynote address by providing strategic business recommendations to help organisations adapt to the ‘new normal’, such as adopting organisational agility, embracing new ways of working and building resilience by optimising supply chains in the post-pandemic environment.

The demand for ‘going global’ will continue to rise

A major theme that arose from the discussion was the accelerated rate of digitisation currently taking place. Industries like healthcare, education, gov-tech and fin-tech have undergone digital disruption over the past year. Asian companies are poised to sit at the forefront of these rapidly changing industries and take their innovative solutions to the global market, but in doing so, they have to be prepared to compete with Big Tech. The dominance of the world’s largest tech companies could be a potential barrier to the creation of a vibrant and diverse global innovation ecosystem. Hence, there lies a need for a robust support system to promote and further technopreneurship in the region.

According to Mr Gupta, businesses and entrepreneurs should look to the government and the public sector to help address these challenges. The rise of techno-nationalism—the belief that technological innovation is fundamental to a nation’s ability to prosper—means that entrepreneurs and start-ups across the region have adopted more proactive strategies when it comes to capitalising on technology and innovation.

Furthermore, the market is becoming more receptive to Smart City and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions that centre on sustainability and improving urban infrastructures, presenting another area of growth for Asian companies. Such a confluence of events makes this the perfect time for businesses to engage with government bodies, and develop collaborative partnerships between the private and public sectors to advance digital transformation initiatives.

Every challenge gives rise to an opportunity

At such a pivotal time in history, Asia is establishing itself as a critical player in the global value chain. Governments in the region have doubled down in their support for digital transformation, and industry collaborations are becoming increasingly prevalent, helping drive further innovative technological advances in both the public and private sectors.

To close the session, the panellists’ advice for young entrepreneurs was to keep an open mind and seize new opportunities.

“The world is changing so fast, and technology is dramatically bringing new possibilities,” said Foo Jixun, Managing Partner at GGV Capital.

“The geopolitical environment and social tensions are all real issues, so we have to keep an open mind to navigate the challenges. Therein lies the opportunity. Capitalise on it.”

About the Changemakers Conversations

The Changemakers Conversations is a series of discussions highlighting key issues that shape our times, and it was hosted for the first time as part of the 10th Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition (LKYGBPC). It is a free, virtual event that is open to the public.

The last two Changemakers Conversations will be happening on 18 March 2021 as part of the LKYGBPC finals, BLAZE. For more information on the engaging topics that will be discussed, please visit

See also: Exploring the new normal at IIE’s inaugural Changemakers Conversations