Designing the Future

A Special Feature on Social Innovation in Europe – Insights for Singapore’s Next 50

End February 2015, I said farewell to the Halogen team. My four years there were rich, meaningful and heartfelt. Before I left, I penned an article titled “15 unexpected lessons from working in a charity”.

In mid-February, an opportunity popped up for me to travel to Europe. Iwanted more than a mere leisure trip as I felt I’ve poured out much in that four years and needed an opportunity to refuel my creative tank. Therefore, I designed my trip as a quest for fresh ideas and experiences, creative input and historical context.

With a short time to prepare for the trip, it was a frenzy of airbnb bookings, Google Doc-ing itineraries, Trip It syncs, Trip Advisor reviews and Skyscanner scans. On top of that, I emailed, tweeted and Facebook messaged the people I wanted to meet in Europe. I asked these social entrepreneurs, design-thinking practitioners and charity workers if I could interview them to share with Singaporean educators and most of them said ‘Yes!’.

This 28-day trip across Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Barcelona and London, has been a journey of discoveries. Almost like Christopher Columbus who set foot in Barcelona, I felt like I uncovered a treasure cove and gathered many gems.

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History – Beautiful and Bloody
Prior to heading there, I’ve seen and heard of the beautiful aspects of Europe – The picturesque towns, the rich ancient culture, civilisations and way of life. Truly it is beautiful. Be it Antonio Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, Munich’s historical buildings, Berlin’s tasteful graffiti or London’s restaurants, Europe is glorious.

Yet,with such richness, Europe has a history that is as bloody as the Game of Thrones. The World Wars and the Cold War used to be something I only knew from my history books. After having visited the DDR museum, touched the Berlin Wall, seen the Memorial to the Jews, the gravity of these historical incidents sank in deeply. It no longer were just words on a textbook, it came alive for me. For the peace that they experience was not without bloodshed. I hear the stories and imagine the sheer hard work of rebuilding these cities, with the people pressing forward and shedding its baggage.

Building a City – Peace comes with a Price
As I observed and read up on the European reports, I realised in-situ that it was not just Singapore who is tackling with immigration integration challenges. On the metro in Germany and Barcelona, it felt terribly strange being the only Asian. On the London tube, though it was a mish-mash of cultures squeezed together during the peak-hour jam, yet, the interactions felt so distant, unlike that of Singapore and even New York. Europe has a lot to deal with – from the immigration wave of the Turkish immigrants in the 60’s to the current Middle-Eastern and African ones, E.U. integration challenges to rising unemployment rates.

Mid-trip, while I was in Munich, Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away. It was hard not being with my fellow Singaporeans in this critical time. I couldn’t pay my respects as the Singapore embassy was in Berlin. I spent time reflecting and remembering him and the pioneer generation who helped built Singapore. Be it having heard facts and stories from my Sandelman Tour Guides on how Munich was rebuilt, or having seen how the BMW products and brand was built over the years, I appreciated so much more the work that went (and goes) behind building a city like Singapore. It was a deliberate effort, built on a clear and informed vision, strong tenacity and a lot of hard work.

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In the last four years in Halogen, I’m thankful for the opportunity to to be part of INSPIRIT, a selected community of young adult leaders who advocates for youth interest on national and community issues and champion youth causes. INSPIRIT was launched in 2012 by the National Youth Council (NYC), in partnership with the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF). I had the chance to go on learning journeys to places such as the Prisons, Port Authority of Singapore, Jurong Rock Caverns, have dialogues with Ministers and also facilitate youth dialogues. It opened my mind to realise that running a country is indeed not easy and the responsibility does not just lie with the government, but also with the citizens.

Designing The Future – Entrepreneurship and Experience Design
What Singapore needs now, as mooted by Peter Ho (Senior adviser to the Centre for Strategic Futures), is a new pioneer generation bold enough to change mindsets and will remain unfazed at our current challenges, and work together to create a Singapore we want and love.

In Halogen, I saw the importance of building youths (and young adults) with an entrepreneurial mindset and leadership skills. The question for us is how can we do so? As trainers, we couldn’t go into a classroom demanding that students listen to us based on our authority. In order to engage and encourage retention, we needed to design and facilitate the experience.

Though I had moved on from Halogen, I still carry the heart of an educator – I still want to grow and champion youths to own their lives and where Singapore heads. I want to see youths who see challenges and dare to generate innovative solutions to meet the needs.

This was one reason why I wanted to meet self-motivated and entrepreneurial individuals in Europe. Against a backdrop of a struggling economy, high unemployment rates and social challenges, these individuals were making the future.

“I believe that we as educators, have the responsibility to raise young entrepreneurial leaders who will make the future.”

At the back of my mind, I’d often ask this question – How can we educate, inspire and empower our new pioneer generation better? One thing stood out for me as I went on walking tours, visited classical, modern art museums, brand museums like Heineken and BMW was this – the experience design was brilliant. The storytelling through intentional navigation, interaction, visual design brought edutainment to a new level. It certainly inspired me to take up an online course on design thinking course and work on my storytelling skills. It further also fueled my vision to groom the next generation leaders to be future-ready, competent, of good character, so as to positively impact Singapore and the world.

As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in 1961, “In a society where old maps and old compass are no longer valid and the people are on the march and on the move, at that particular moment in history it is the younger people who assume leadership.”, I believe that we as educators, have the responsibility to raise young entrepreneurial leaders who will make the future.

– Article by Jael Chng
Photos contributed by Jael Chng