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By Neal Cross | Chief Innovation Officer, DBS

Innovation Requires a New Kind of Education

Mar 24, 2016

In his 84 YEARS Thomas Edison lodged over a 1,000 patents and was behind some of the biggest inventions in the history of mankind including the lightbulb, recorded sound, and motion picture cameras. Did you know that he didn’t go to university (I knew I liked Edison, I didn’t go to university either)? In fact when he was a kid, a school teacher was overheard saying he thought he was ‘addled’. Apparently his attention wandered in class.


Without a formal university education, arguably the greatest inventor in the industrial age WORKED in multiple jobs while following his talent for invention. Later in life he attributed his success to experimentation, saying “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't WORK.” His was a life committed to learning. His legacy when he died in 1931 were inventions that changed the world.


Edison’s point was that innovation is about thinking, testing, adapting and learning by your mistakes. It’s about pushing the boundaries.


Those skills are still very relevant today. In fact in the emerging gig economy the employees of today and tomorrow will need to be flexibile and innovative to thrive. The problem is that traditional education models in schools and companies are not set up to encourage innovation thinking.


What is needed is a new approach to education. One that focuses less on facts and figures and more on mindsets and toolkits that equip the learner for the future. We need to re-invent innovation education.


Actually it shouldn’t be that difficult. The principle around innovation is very simple but people often overcomplicate it. Innovation is about doing something different and doing it successfully. It is not spelt ‘app’ or ‘tech’.


In the education programmes we are rolling out in DBS we talk a lot about the customer journey and human-centred design. To quote Edison (who was good at inventing soundbites too), “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.” Great innovation is about identifying and meeting human needs.


But above all innovation can’t be learned in the classroom. It is self-directed. It comes from great ideas being combined with experimentation and hard WORK.


Innovation mindsets


In today’s world, graduates and school leavers need an innovation mindset more than ever before to keep up with the pace of disruptive change in all industries.


This YEAR will include a major focus on education for the innovation group at DBS – inside our own company, in the community and with our partners in the fintech ecosystem.


Just recently, we launched UNI.CORN, an internship programme in partnership with the major universities in Singapore. The intention is to ensure that our future staff go through practical experiences, connecting the dots in their education with real world experience, before they enter the WORKING world. To achieve this, we made all the participants go through a 24-Hour Idea Smash -  a massive day of experimentation, prototyping and business model development, to identify high potential workers who can help to grow DBS.


I was impressed by some of the ideas and outcomes from the student teams as they addressed various challenges in banking ranging from helping the silver generation bank better to how we can leverage social behaviours to enhance banking experiences. Some of those students have NOW been selected to take part in the DBS UNI.CORN internship with a programme designed to encourage them, right at the start of their corporate career, to adopt an innovation mindset. The entire design of the programme is built around our belief of education - that theory must be supplemented by practice and the internship provides the basis for that.


For existing employees we will be upping our programme of innovation workshops, hackathons and idea sharing events such as our internal Imaginarium series (which brings speakers from startups all over the world to share their experiences). We want to challenge the way the whole bank thinks and operates.


We’re also partnering with an exciting education start-up called SmartUp to deliver training to DBS employees. Billed as a “buzzfeed for learning” SmartUp uses case studies, one-to-one mentoring and gamification to teach entrepreneurship and innovation over a handphone. We are the first corporate adopter.


We are even looking at new spaces to encourage ideas and sharing.


And this YEAR will be another big year with our friends in the startup community – relationships that keep us on our toes, remind us what innovation is all about and where I hope we can help ideas grow and flourish.


We recently launched the second intake of our own DBS HotSpot Pre-accelerator which provides funding, mentors, and space for early stage start-ups. It promises to be even more exciting than our premier launch as we’ve got even more partners this YEAR, including 500 Startups, MaGIC, Chinaccelerator, MOX, SOS Ventures, 10K, Marvelstone and Tri5 Ventures all coming on board. I can’t wait to to see how this year’s intake turns out.


The power of thought


One of my favourite Thomas Edison quotes states, “Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”


That certainly rings true in some big companies I have come across!


As 2016 gets into full-swing, in a backdrop of global volatility and change, businesses and individuals can’t afford to operate in that way. We owe it to our employees and to future generations to encourage them to think, be flexible and be ready to face the challenges to come.


Find out more about UNI.CORN HERE and DBS HotSpot. What is your favourite Thomas Edison quote?




Neal Cross is Managing Director and Chief Innovation Officer of DBS Bank and a strong advocate for innovation thinking and culture. Cross is driving the bank’s innovation agenda regionally, as DBS moves to shape the future of banking.


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