From career management to mall management and people management, the discussion on Human e-Motion as part of this year’s Keep It Going: The Next Big Thing raised issues of how we will make decisions in the future. By Thusitha de Silva
The Internet has produced a sense of immediacy that is inescapable. Instant gratification is demanded, and more often than not, delivered. Such developments are shaping the way that industries, governments and societies operate. Change is now a way of life, fuelled by technological developments and hard to eschew. The social media is shortening people’s attention spans and commerce is still assessing how to leverage this.
One potential outcome is that the lifespans of jobs will be shortened, which could change the way people assess their careers. Jobs for life are already a thing of the past unless you happen to be a fast-tracked scholar in the civil service, and people have to think of new ways of developing and maintaining revenue streams.
To this end, Rick Koh of Integrative Consulting introduced the concept of a portfolio career. “It is project based and you create a few revenue streams for yourself,” he said. Koh likened it to portfolio management in that some assets are more stable and conservative, while others are more risky. This will help people to hedge themselves against downturns.
“One of the driving forces of the portfolio career concept is that people are living longer and may have to stay economically active for a longer period of time,” noted Koh, who has released a book called Learning for Life, published by the Singapore government.
A portfolio career could arguably give an individual more control over her work–life balance. She will potentially have more time to focus on other pursuits like shopping, for example. But the motivation to go to brick-and-mortar shopping malls to actually shop, rather than browse through retail shops or nurse a cup of coffee at a trendy outlet for a few hours, could be wearing thin, even in Singapore. This is evident in the lacklustre retail sales data we have seen so far this year on the island. One problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate malls.
Many malls have been injected into real estate investment trusts (REITs), where the primary concern appears to be to extract as much rent from tenants as possible. Retailers have little choice but to pass on the high costs of their rentals to the public. Meanwhile, there is no motivation for mall REITs owners to lower rentals because there is still always another retailer willing to pay the asking rent.
The Internet has come to the rescue of consumers by providing the option of online shopping. It is another example of how time frames have been shortened. You just add things to your cart, pay for the goods with your credit card, and they are delivered to your doorstep not long after. This is bad news for malls and the impact of online shopping is particularly stark in the United States, as Aldo Lipari, a senior luxury goods executive, who has worked with brands like GUCCI, BALLY and Benetton noted.
“In 2010, 34 billion walked through the malls in the US. Two years later, this was down to 19 billion people,” he said. Multiple closures of retail malls in the country in recent years have contributed to this fall in traffic.
Malls For All
However, Lipari believes that this creates opportunities for the more enterprising to stand out from the crowd. He cited an example of how a failing mall in the United States converted itself to an all-Latino mall and rejuvenated itself. “To survive, malls have to reinvent themselves and retailers have to rethink their businesses,” he said.
Lipari identified another big challenge for the retail industry. “There needs to be a connection between mall owners and retailers. Malls should not only be transactional but shoppers should be able to go in to get a sense of community,” he noted. Lipari reckons that the next big thing in retail shopping will be the merger of all channels, or the Omni-channel. It will offer both shopping experiences of being physically present in the cities and connected with customers at the same time. An example of this is the upcoming opening of Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store, in New York. It is an attempt by the online giant to connect with customers in the physical world. Its shop will function as a mini-warehouse, with limited inventory for same-day delivery within New York, product returns and exchanges, and pickups of online orders.
The Internet has forced malls and retailers to rethink how they operate, and driving significant changes within that industry. It has also had a very significant impact on the music industry, but in a less positive way, according to industry veteran and former Singapore Idol judge, Ken Lim. “The Internet is gravely detrimental in that it is promoting piracy. Nobody is able to find a solution,” said Lim, whose company, Hype Records, manages the first Singapore Idol winner, Taufik Batista. Further, it has led to a drop in quality of the music that is served to the world.
“The situation with the Internet is that it has led to a loss of creativity in music. What we see now is hit-and-run music.”
For example, Apple’s iTunes has made it more attractive for those who are prepared to pay for music to buy individual songs rather than full albums. This incentivises musicians to go for that one big hit rather than create an album that is a more complete test of a their creativity. This has resulted in short-term attention spans, which have made people forget the basics.
“We have to realise where to stop and absorb. My craft is based on fundamentals. The next generation is missing out on the fundamentals. For example, these days, people can’t perform live music,” noted Lim. He added that even in clothing design, the next generation will not have a good grasp of what the fundamentals of designing are.
“Every craftsman has to start from scratch. People have to understand the basics if they are to be creative,” he said. He would like to see more reversion to origins and traditions.
Negotiating Heavy Traffic
However, such noble pursuits tend to be forgotten in a world where everything has to be done cheaper, faster and better. In the business world, this could lead to the danger of corruption and illegal activity which has to be guarded against. Ruici Tio of Kroll, which is a leading provider of risk solutions, has a front-row seat to the darker side of business.
“Human trafficking is a business issue because it is a labour problem. Asia is the pivot for the supply chain, including human trafficking,” Tio said. He thinks the next big thing is what companies are going to do to tackle the problem of human trafficking. According to Kroll, human trafficking is viewed as the third-largest illicit trade globally, after the illicit trade for arms and drugs. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that the human trafficking industry nets US$32 billion annually. This huge amount — more than 10% of Singapore’s gross domestic product last year — suggests that it is a problem that is well-entrenched and not easy to solve.
“The race to the bottom to create products cheaply is to have cheap labour,” Tio noted.
The good news, he added, is that younger consumers increasingly want to know where products originate. “Brands have to be able to tell the story of where their products come from. The storytelling serves as a value-add for the product. Luxury brands are very adept at storytelling,” he said.
His comments prompted a response from R Ramachandran, Executive Director, National Book Development Council of Singapore, who was in the audience. He lamented that in today’s world the art of storytelling has been lost. “Storytelling is something that parents must do with their children. People are not listening. We have lost the art of storytelling and listening,” he said.
Meanwhile, the constant focus on corporate profitability has had an insidious impact on society. This is of grave concern to the younger generation. Desmond Goh, an accountancy student of the Singapore Management University-University of London was among the youngest in the audience, and he reckoned that the next big thing is to educate children to be more community-centric rather than profit-driven.
“I see a lot of indifference in my peers, and in social media,” Goh said. His complaint likely arises from a notion that there is more emphasis placed on corporate well-being than a person’s well-being. This is something that younger people in Singapore have grown up with.
In the city-state, the rationale for this is that companies create jobs, and so this has to be good for society. However, there is rarely a mention of the quality of jobs that are being created — how meaningful are they, how long-lasting, how satisfying and the extent to which they help other Singaporeans. For societies to function well, it is important that people are happy too.
“Singapore should better reward various levels of people who contribute to society, like nurses and teachers. Singapore can be the first to do it,” said Mark Greedy of Destination Elite. His company was founded on the simple principle of bringing the best of luxury travel and lifestyle to people across the world. For him, the next big thing is what comes after the Internet. But his view on rewarding Singaporeans better for their contributions to society could gain some traction.
Integrative’s Koh, who used to work for the Economic Development Board, cited the thoughts of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on meritocracy. “Tharman said that there is a difference in the way meritocracy is practised now and the kind of meritocracy we need going forward, There is a need to shift to meritocracy through life and let people think more for themselves. It is a major shift,” noted Koh.
This shift to a more community-centric approach to the way things are run in Singapore could be the start of the next big thing. Michelle Wong from Harmony Mediation Group revealed her deep Singapore roots when she asked: “What is the next big thing that a politician can do for Singapore?”
Her question from the floor received an instant response from Lipari, an Italian national. “Why are Singaporeans always waiting for the government to tell them what to do? Change has to come from the ground, not from politicians. People here have to think ‘let’s make our dreams come true’,” he noted.
However, Greedy was more circumspect about discarding what has brought Singapore to its position in the world today. “You can’t just throw away the elitist culture of education here. Other countries envy what Singapore has,” he said.
This panel discussion brought up many disparate views on the next big thing. However, there was a common thread that seemed to run through it — constant change. It’s something that people can’t run away from, especially in a place as tiny as Singapore where there are no rural villages to escape to from all the noise. There is also a danger that the outcomes of change will always be seen as the next big thing, just as people view currency as an asset class rather than just a means to facilitate trade.
Perhaps Ken Lim put it best when he said: “I hope the next big thing will not be the next new thing.”