A Smart Buddy for a Smart Nation

16 July 2018


In 1998, Singapore’s oldest and most-loved bank, POSB, joined the DBS family. This made DBS the largest bank in Southeast Asia and the largest retail bank in Singapore.

At the same time, POSB remains true to its mission of being “neighbours first, bankers second”. As an example, since the late 1960s, POSB has been promoting savings and encouraging thrift among the young in Singapore. This continues to hold true today. In 2017, POSB launched a global first – the POSB Smart Buddy programme, which comes with a free wearable device. The programme teaches primary school students about digital payments and prepares them for the technology of tomorrow.

The POSB Smart Buddy wearable can be used to make cashless payments at school canteens and bookstores.

The wearable, which doubles up as an activity tracker, also allows for cashless payments at any NETS contactless-enabled retailer islandwide such as the National Library Board, Popular Bookstore and more. Through an accompanying app, parents can remotely preset their child’s daily allowance, and monitor their spending, savings, eating habits and activity levels.

Since the programme’s launch, some 16,000 students now have the wearable, and more than 40 schools have come on board. The POSB Smart Buddy programme is fully subsidised by POSB and is opt-in only – parents decide whether they would like their kids to participate in it.

P’ing Lim and Jeremy Soo share their experience launching the POSB Smart Buddy programme.

“We were driven by the possibilities”

Jeremy came back from an industry event in London, where he was given a rubber band embedded with a contactless payment chip, which could be used for payments at the event and on public transport. He showed it to the team, asked if we could work on a prototype, and if anyone would use it.

The DBS Consumer Banking Group has been actively trying to improve the payments journey in Singapore for anyone that needs to pay, whether young or old, especially for certain groups of people where the notion of “smart payment” does not exist.

After we resurrected the POSB National Schools Savings Campaign for Singapore’s 50th anniversary to much success, we knew that there was opportunity to keep engaging primary school students, to help them cultivate sensible saving and spending habits.

This has always been at the heart of POSB, and we were driven by the possibilities.

Other than fortnightly sprint reviews, we were mostly left alone and given the space to experiment. There was a budget assigned to us; otherwise we were empowered to prototype, test and learn. There was no need to get approvals at every stage, which made us nimble and able to iterate quickly and move on.

We went through an intense 18-month experiment, covering three school pilots, and constantly iterated before launching POSB Smart Buddy in August 2017.

Since its launch, we’ve been gathering feedback and working to further improve the programme.

In this new digital age, we had to ask ourselves how we could engage children through some form of gamification. How do we enable digital payments and teach children about financial literacy?

POSB has a legacy of teaching generations of Singaporeans about savings and thrift. For us, there was really a higher sense of purpose in continuing this for the kids.

As the POSB Smart Buddy programme gains traction, we are also engaging more partners. For example, we are working with the Land Transport Authority to run a pilot programme to embed concession travel on the Smart Buddy watch, given that many students use concession passes.

Similarly, we are working with the Health Promotion Board to provide nutrition tips and encourage healthy living based on the meals students consume in school.

This allows us to fulfil our bank’s promise of helping customers to “Live more, Bank less”. In order for you to live more, it means we have to make your life easier.

P’ing Lim is head of Consumer Deposits and Secured Lending at DBS. In this product space, she has spearheaded the development of new products and services, specifically on mobile and digital channels, and the creation of ecosystems for greater engagement with customers to transform retail banking in Singapore.

Creating history and a new legacy

Managing different stakeholders for the POSB Smart Buddy programme proved more complex and difficult than I thought.

However, seeing the project through to fruition makes me feel like the team has created history. This very thought was a great motivating factor despite the various setbacks faced.

Creating a product like this is not “business as usual”. Internally, there were many doubts cast on the project. Some questioned why we wanted to introduce a watch, and others asked why the bank should even work on a project like this. There was also plenty of trial and error. As management, we had to shield and protect the team, help them stay motivated and give them the space to continue working on goals that had been set out.

DBS has the vision of being a 26,000-strong start-up. If each of us has the mindset of a start-up, then we must be prepared to accept imperfections, challenges and failures along the way.

The key is to be able to pivot and course-correct, to experiment fast and to fail fast if things do not work.

Externally, what we saw as an important value proposition was not shared by other stakeholders, and there was no alignment of interests and priorities.

For example, we assumed that the schools would share our vision of going cashless given that Singapore is moving towards being a digital nation.

But the first priority of schools is education and not payments, and even though we believe education can come through learning how to save and spend with digital solutions like POSB Smart Buddy, the schools’ views must be respected and treated as valuable feedback. As with all things, it’s important to work towards mutual understanding and agreement.

I thought that in two years, all primary schools in Singapore would have come on board the POSB Smart Buddy programme. We are gradually getting there, and feedback we have received on the programme has been largely positive.

Despite the setbacks, being able to do something right for the schools and students, who are an important segment of Singapore’s population, really speaks to our purpose as the Development Bank of Singapore.

In the future, these students will no longer say they grew up saving with the National Schools Savings Campaign, which many adults still remember fondly these days. Instead, they will say that they grew up saving with POSB Smart Buddy, and this will be the new baseline going forward.

Jeremy Soo joined DBS in 2003. He is Managing Director and Head of DBS Consumer Banking Group in Singapore. Prior to this, he was Head of Secured Loans at DBS.