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Are Singapore & Sweden More Innovative Than The United States?

Who Is More Innovative? A Tale Of Three Countries

In two different recent articles, both Singapore and Sweden were singled out as leading the way in two completely different, very innovative directions, both of which seem disruptively innovative compared to the United States. Typically, when you see lists of the worlds most innovative countries, something like number of patent filings of new ideas is used to determine that number. Most times, the United States is far ahead in that regard, although China is catching up (it remains to be seen what China is actually patenting and whether or not it really is more innovative than what the United States and the rest of the world is doing).

Singapore Is More Innovative?

Singapore is aiming to become the first nation who not only allows the first self driving taxis, they are also looking to become the first nation to remove all non-autonomous vehicles. As in – no more drivers. At all. How is this possible? Well, the reality is that they have a number of factors already in their favor. For one, they are a very small nation, so there aren’t that many cars on the road as it is. Auto ownership is highly regulated and very expensive, and id like that due to the highly authoritarian state there. This is the same government that punishes gum chewing with lashes, remember? But I digress. One of the bugs (or features) of having the kind of regime that Singapore has is that the state has the power to sensor and surveil pretty much every inch of the country. The Singapore government has detailed plans of every square inch of the country, is has already likely has sensors and cameras most everywhere. So it already has a lot of data about its citizens, their movements, etc. Armed with this data, and the smart network which they have already built and are expanding, as well as a fairly compliant populace, it is quite easy for them to proclaim something (like no more drivers by 2018) and simply “make it so”. Doubtful that there will be much resistance, and the government will just make it happen. Autonomous vehicles will be launched, driving will be banned, and supposedly more innovation will follow. On having a country of fully autonomous vehicles, pretty disruptive to the rest of us, they are ahead.

What About Sweden?

In Sweden, that Björn guy (yes, the one from ABBA) is on a quest to rid the country of paper money (coins included). He seems to be on a personal vendetta to rid the country of crime, and in his mind, crime comes from people still using paper money. Crime only comes from people trying to steal paper money, and if there is no more paper money, then crime will disappear. He started on this quest a while back, and it became real for him when his son’s apartment was broken into by a thief looking for money. Björn is a big deal in Sweden, so he was able to use his political clout to get the banks to launch a service called Swish which replaces paper money transfers between friends (kind of like Venmo), but since it comes direct from the banks, then it is cheaper to transfer. Banks still make fees and things from those transfers though. Just like Singapore, the Swedes are into public safety and even though there’s already very little crime, they thought this was great because there would be even less. On eliminating actual cash money, which would be quite disruptive to the rest of the world, they are ahead.

Is The United States more innovative?

When it comes to the sheer number of patents, we are ahead, but as I said, China is gaining fast. My answer to that is “what exactly are they patenting?” Since I can’t know, I would assume that they are patenting ideas which have already been patented in other countries, and are now seeking patent protection in China. Now was for me to know, so I’m guessing. This does not mean that China is less innovative that the United States, its likely that there is new innovation in that flood of patents, and since some thought restrictions have been lifted, then we are seeing more leading innovations from China. But what about disruptive leadership in autonomous vehicles and eliminating cash. Why is the the supposedly most innovative country in the world, nowhere near where Singapore and Sweden are? It’s mostly math, politics and culture.

  • Big Vs Small: Singapore and Sweden are small – geographically and population wise. Mush easier to manage and implement innovative new things when you can control the outcomes better. The US is so big, and has so many stakeholders, good luck getting people in line in order to get an overarching initiative done
  • Authoritative vs Less Authoritative: (although the less can be argued) the governments in those countries have a much stronger hand in controlling public works projects, so they can push things through much easier that they can in our system. Can you imagine Republicans and Democrats agreeing to put sensors under every parking spot in the country?
  • Culture: both Singapore and Sweden are more socialistic and the populace is more compliant to government programs, no matter what they are. In the US, people would shoot government drones down, if they flew over their property, even if they were just surveying

Innovation Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Truth is – all of the three countries above are innovative in their own way, the only question is when it comes to the how of implementation. While Singapore and Sweden seem to be further ahead in those areas, is only due to the top down approach pushing things through. On the other hand, the US prefers a bottoms-up approach. The US is more likely to empower the average citizen to take action and innovate personally, or via a startup enterprise, where in the rest of the world, the innovation comes from state initiatives.

Both ways have merit, and in Steve Case’s latest book, he argues that the next wave (what he calls The Third Wave) of innovation will need to come from public/private partnerships, because the problems we are coming across now are too hard to be dealt with by only one of these two constituents. While that point can be argued, it’s true that some of the toughest problems to solve (major diseases, world hunger, terrorism etc) are still ahead of us.

It remains to be seen who can innovate better, but my money in on the US, and other places where the individual human is empowered and enhanced, by both other humans and technology, in order to solve these problems. Governments may be better at implementation of these innovations, but when it comes to the raw creation of new ideas and solving real problems, there is nothing like the empowered individual or team of inventors.