GPS-enabled walking sticks and lifelong learning: Asian economies ready for a disrupted future

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The residents of an elderly care home in the streets of Tampines, Singapore, may seem an unlikely group to represent the cutting edge of digital transformation talent.

In fact, their most pressing problem was getting lost around their neighbourhood.

But when students of the local Chongzheng Primary School heard about the orientation issue, they used their newly-learned STEM skills to suggest an innovative solution: GPS-enabled walking sticks.

The students’ inventive thinking is the result of a wide-ranging Singaporean programme aiming to impart 21st century competencies across their population. In the next five years, the idea of ‘applied learning’ is expected to become commonplace across the country’s schools, making subjects like computing, robotics, and electronics standard.

And it’s not just lesson planning that is changing – the schools themselves are too. Classrooms are being redesigned to better represent the workplace, while students are encouraged to take their new-found ideas out into the real world.

By placing greater emphasis on creativity and analytical thinking than on exam scores in traditional subjects (the country abolished school league tables in 2012), Singapore is positioning itself to take advantage of a disrupted world.

The talent challenge

What has prompted these new approaches?

Conducted with The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Telstra’s recent Asian Digital Transformation Index provides key insights into the current digital transformation landscape.

The research shows that the biggest challenge for Asian cities’ digital transformation is not investment or adoption of technology, but finding and educating the right people to use it successfully.

Digital expertise, particularly in fields such as AI and advanced analytics, is in short supply in most parts of the world. In fact, EIU’s data shows that of the 10 cities facing the most acute talent shortages, seven are in Asia – including cities in Japan, China, India, Thailand, and Singapore.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. Overall, its focus on talent saw Singapore overtake South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan to top the Index’s human capital measure. The nation-state boasts the highest quality of math and science education, the most available telecommunications professionals, and high levels of tertiary enrolment (ranking fifth).

Beyond the classroom

Investing in primary and secondary education is only part of the story. Those programmes cater for a nation’s future workforce, but what of its present?

The example of South Korea is instructive. Ranking third on the Asian Digital Transformation Index’s human capital measures, the country is also considered by The EIU to be the most prepared of 25 global countries to meet the challenges that automation will bring in the future.

Central to that confidence is South Korea’s focus on lifelong learning. The country’s National Institute for Lifelong Education head, Ki Young-hwa, told the Korea Herald that at a time when 100-year life spans are becoming prevalent, there is a need to “take pre-emptive measures to effectively brace for the fourth industrial revolution in terms of seeking a higher quality of life and happiness”.

South Korea has done that by codifying its education goals. Its Lifelong Education Act has for 10 years required central and local governments to promote ongoing learning, while the 2016 Third Basic Plan for Science and Technology Talent Development provides a six-point strategy for fostering science and technology in the era of globalisation.

Young and old; digital talent differentiates Asian success

Telstra has long fostered deep relationships with customers across Asia. When I speak with customers in this region, it’s remarkable how often they say finding the right people with the right digital skills is the business challenge that impacts their operations the most.

New technologies require new skills. Big data, analytics, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of things will necessitate countries and businesses to reassess not only the skillset of the next generation of staff, but also their existing workforce.

As the Asian Digital Transformation Index shows, Asian countries are at the forefront of digital transformation skills. While there is still a lot to be done, stories of South Korean lifelong learners and Singaporean students helping their elderly wards offer heartening examples of the progress to come.