What can we learn from tech innovation in Asia?


The spirit of MOD Wellington is people. It’s about embracing, exploring and learning from the experiences and mindsets of the diverse population of Wellington city. During this year’s festival the Asia New Zealand Foundation and Creative HQ partnered for a session focused on tech innovation in Asia. Featuring a panel of five entrepreneurs who have personal experiences across Asia as participants through Asia New Zealand’s programmes, they brought together unique perspectives on the state of tech innovation in Asia and the lessons we can bring home to New Zealand.


So what can we say about tech in Asia?

It’s fair to state that tech innovation is thriving across a wide range of industries including payments, data collection and data privacy. While these developments may not be in the league of science fiction just yet, what is in stark contrast is the speed and reflex with which progress can be made. This is especially true of the public sector. The govtech space is thriving and governments are embracing the need for fast action on the issues facing their people.


Leveraging scale and influence

Singapore is an excellent example of a government using smart solutions to complex problems. They have made significant efforts to automate aspects of government through robotic process automation. They have also been working on a unified innovation strategy for the public sector. Where often progress is seen as the antithesis of the public sector, the Singapore government are challenging this notion by becoming quicker and more reflexive in dealing with issues.


An example of this is the payments network which utilises universal QR codes around the country. Already a popular payment method in Asia, the QR code stepped in when user frustration grew as a result of inconsistent coverage across the country. Imagine going to swipe your credit card only to find that the store doesn’t accept it.


The Singapore government responded by unifying a disjointed system for the betterment of their people’s lives. Using their size to their advantage rather than letting it get in the way, the results were much more significant thanks to the ability to create something universal – from the top down. This is in contrast to New Zealand startup Choice who are on a mission to create a similar network here. As a startup, they simply lack the resources to implement their solution at scale. The value of listening and responding quickly to the needs of the public is huge in the govtech space. Just imagine the value that could be unlocked for the relatively small population of New Zealand if this sort of initiative was rolled out in the right way.


The Ethics of Convenience

Another example of a ubiquitous approach to payments technology is the use of facial recognition in China through QR payments platform WeChat. The service is being trialed in some retail stores around the country. Given that the move to QR payments took place rapidly, overtaking card payments in just five years in China, there is a strong possibility that facial recognition technology will become more widespread in the near future.


There are both positive and negative consequences that accompany this sort of technology. It is hard to deny the convenience of such an offering. Imagine being able to load up your shopping bags and simply walk out of the store knowing that RFID tags identified your chosen products and that your face has authorised your payment. It would help to combat theft – a big appeal for business owners.


On the other hand, there is a lack of privacy that is required by such a system which can be of concern, particularly in a post “The Great Hack” world. This can be seen in a real life programme in China which uses facial recognition to measure how well individuals adhere to good behaviour norms. Points are added or deducted for good or bad behaviour respectively. A high point score can give you access to benefits like lower interest rates on finance and access to better hotels while low scores can prevent you from accessing flights and trains.


The scheme appears to be acceptable to the Chinese public, but it may have a less friendly reception if attempted here. This highlights one of the challenges of bridging the gap between Asia and New Zealand. The technology may be very similar, but the cultural applications do not always align. This is why human centred design matters. We should always be asking ourselves if we are keeping people in mind when designing, and try to always create real value for those we look to serve.


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