Phi Van Nguyen, Chairwoman, Open Innovation Vietnam, Vietnam
By Yun Xuan Poon
Women in GovTech Special Report 2019.
How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.
Every nation wants to label themselves as a startup nation, and it is totally OK to have such a vision and drive economic growth towards the creative economy. As leaders, we are all aware of the needs to build such an exciting future for our nations.
However, if we look very closely, beneath all the superficial excitement of startup and innovation events and programs lie the strangely unchanged lives of our normal citizens. They are totally not aware of the changes. They have absolutely no idea how close they are to being displaced by AI and automation. It is business as usual at that little mom and pop shop around the corner. And their kids, their grandchildren are still going to the same schools, learning the same curriculum and dreaming the same dreams to get an accountant job or become a shop owner.
Something is very wrong here, don’t you think? While politicians get to showcase their achievement in startup and innovation, less than 1% of the population has anything to do with startup and innovation. Are they completely ignorant of the changes, or are they deliberately left behind in this digital race towards a so-called exciting future of industry 4.0? Is it their fault or ours that our citizens are left behind?
In that context, and while policies and systems are too heavy to make quick turns to address this issue, as Board Advisor of Project 844 – Building a startup & innovation ecosystem for Vietnam, a project under Ministry of Science & Technology of Vietnam, in January 2019 I have published a book, with the support of the Ministry and UNDP Vietnam, titled “I, The Future and The World”. The book is written in conversational language for normal people, providing them with the full picture of what’s going on in the world of science and technology, what the risks and opportunities are and what every normal citizen could do to integrate themselves through life-long learning into such a future.
To our surprise, the book has sparked an enormous movement from schools, institutions, colleges and universities to adopt it as a textbook and reference material. It has become a best-seller and best companion for normal people at all ages, from 12 to 60 across Vietnam. Since then, “I, The Future & The World” has been published as e-book, audio book, and a Youtube channel has been initiated to reach millions more in 2020.
What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2019?
I believe the future belongs to our next generations. It is always the most exciting if we could work on preparing future leaders today, for a better world for humanity.
In 2018, together with Unicef, we created an exciting project called Children Innovate – Smart & Child-friendly City for Vietnamese kids to participate in designing their version of smart cities. In every leader’s amazement and in the public’s awe, children from diverse backgrounds and from all walks of life, even under-privileged kids, get to come together to envision, design, build, and present their future sustainable cities and communities.
This project has created huge social impact on mindset change by giving the rights to create to our future leaders today. The project was awarded CFCI Inspire Award (Child-friendly City Initiatives) at The Global Mayors’ Summit in Cologne in October 2019.
Inspired by this achievement, we just launched another nation-wide social innovation program called FutureU, encouraging Vietnamese young people from 12-18 years old to solve real-life social problems today using innovation skills. Social and community issues are submitted by normal citizens through an online platform. Young people can then team up, register their participation, select challenges from the community submissions, and will be incubated as a social startup to create practical solutions. Winning solutions shall be crowd-funded for project implementation.
This program not only raises awareness for social issues but also engages our next generation in creating practical solutions using startup and innovation skills, while helping them to learn, integrate, and shape their 21st century skills and qualities. This will spark essential learning from normal citizens about new ways of creative problem solving in the era of 4.0.
What is the best thing you have experienced in your career?
When you are approached on the street by a stranger, a normal citizen, saying thank you for the work that you’ve done, even though you have never thought about being appreciated. To me that is the most amazing experience in my career. I have come to realise that happiness is very simple. It is simply a thank-you, a smile on a stranger’s face, or an appreciative look in the eyes of your fellow countryman. For too long, leaders of nations seem to have forgotten the simple things that make them great leaders, when their titles no longer exist.
If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2019, what would it be?
I would say, everyone, every normal citizen, every child and young person anywhere on earth possesses the same limitless creative power. Don’t under-estimate them! The creative economy needs to start with them, the foundation of a nation, not with some elite self-interest groups.
What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2020?
I think AI is the one technology that will create the most impact on the future of the world, the planet, and the existential question of the human race. Done right, it is the most powerful tool to allow humans to evolve to the next phase of living meaningful lives with pure creativity, love and joy.
Done wrong, it will create an absolutely horrible era of planet lords and a caste of second-class citizens. Such a fine line in a leader’s decision to decide the fate of their citizens is in fact unthinkably scary.
What are your priorities for 2020?
2020 for me is the devotion to non-traditional, innovative approaches to education for the masses, including digital skilling, re-skilling, and relearning how to be human again. I believe it takes real, purpose-led humans to tackle the complexity of a blended future ahead – where virtual and digital lives are intertwined with physical existence – with the aim of leaving no one behind.
What is one challenge you would like to take on in 2020?
Going against the current is a challenge I am willing to continue to take in 2020. While everyone is head over heels about unicorns, about getting rich overnight, about disrupting the disrupting, we as human beings have forgotten about the limitation of our lifetime; about the why of being born to this world; and about the simplicity of happiness. How nations and governments strike this balance between economic growth and happiness growth is a complex problem that I am most interested in.
What has been your fondest memory from the past year?
It is when a stranger approached me while I was waiting for transport to go and speak at a UN’s Innovation event in Hanoi, saying “You are my favorite writer”. Despite all my work with the government, with international organisations in SME development, in startup and innovation spheres, normal people don’t give a damn. To them, the most impactful work I have contributed to this nation is my writing, whether through my published books or my blogs. That makes you realise how simple life can be in making an impact to the world and the community around you. No one has to be any VIP or carry any title to create a social impact, nor should they think so.