Tourist numbers have dwindled as travel restrictions continue. To tackle this challenge, Singapore’s National Heritage Board has called on the local tech community to help build a 5G-powered virtual platform that would allow users to remotely experience the island’s tourism and heritage sites.

The virtual platform will “extend the same experience that you get within the physical space, online” and give the gig economy and small medium enterprises an opportunity to contribute, said Mohamed Hardi, Singapore’s National Heritage Board’s Director and Chief Innovation Officer, at GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation.

The agency has built the new tech through the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s Open Innovation Platform for agile procurement. Edwin Low, Director of Innovation & Technology Ecosystem at IMDA, shares how the platform shakes up the procurement process and accelerates innovation.

An innovation accelerator

Government agencies are keen to explore new tech, says Low, but face two main barriers. They have limited access to capable tech providers, and a lack of knowledge when it comes to embarking on an innovation project, he adds. So, they often go for tried-and-tested products already available in the market.

The Open Innovation Platform was launched in 2018 and reduces the barriers and risks to buy tech, so agencies can “look beyond the tried-and-tested and focus on finding the best fit for their needs.”

The platform uses an agile, “outcome-based” approach to procurement, says Low. Agencies specify the outcomes they want, instead of spelling out product specifications. Vendors are awarded with contracts only after creating a working prototype. This way, agencies can determine whether a proposed solution is suitable before negotiating a further contract.

“When we launched OIP two years ago, the concept of open innovation was still new to the industry,” Low says. There was “some uncertainty” on whether agencies were ready to adopt an iterative model of innovation, as opposed to traditional methods of buying only market-tested products. However, the platform has gained “good traction” over time, he adds.

How it works

First, IMDA works with government agencies to better define their needs, objectives and parameters. It then publishes problem statements on the platform’s website as part of an Innovation Call.

The platform reaches a diverse pool of tech providers, who are invited to submit proposals online. There are over 9,500 solution providers as of October, Low says.

Any company regardless of industry background or expertise can take part in the innovation calls, he adds. This creates more possibilities when applying cross-industry expertise.

At the end of each call, IMDA evaluates all proposals with the relevant government agencies, which takes about 1-2 months. It selects finalists to build prototypes of the project. IMDA provides finalists with access to resources such as usability testing labs and subsidies for project-based coaching.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore used the platform to look for solutions that would optimise mooring buoys at Marina South Pier. The buoys are typically used to secure stationary launches or water taxis.

MPA eventually chose to work with a startup specialising in asset tracking for the mining industry, Low says. “While the solutions are still in the early stages of deployment, results are encouraging and MPA is exploring to deploy the solution in future.”

Scaling the platform

Multinational corporations have used the platform to “complement their existing internal R&D efforts”, says Low. SOMPO Insurance Singapore has used the platform to look for solutions that could automate the handling of a high volume of customer queries.

Tech start-up Zumata developed an AI-powered chatbot that now handles nearly 97 per cent of SOMPO’s chats – as much as 450 chat customers daily.

The platform has also enabled start-ups to venture beyond their area of expertise and make inroads into new sectors, says Low. “OIP has been successful in growing a vibrant open innovation ecosystem in Singapore, matching tech solutions to real world industry challenges.”

IMDA will continue to review the platform and consider how it can be improved, he adds. In the next phase, Low’s team will look at how the OIP can scale to become the “key innovation platform for industry players and tech providers”.

“IMDA is always looking out for opportunities to work with more agencies as problem owners and facilitate cross-government collaboration.”

An iterative model of innovation allows ideas to fail small and fast. That will be key to accelerating the speed governments build technology and respond to pressing challenges.