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Dave Lim: Find your fit, find your future

Steve Jobs famously said "You can only connect your dots backwards". What if you can connect your dots forward too? Dave will share trends and skill sets required for jobs in the future. So you can create your own future.

Dave is a provocateur, possibilist and pioneer with a deep passion for growing ideas to reality. He is well known as the person who founded TEDxSingapore in 2009. Now, he launches innovative startups as the co-founder of Innovation X by The Coca-Cola Company.


Dave: I will give you a little bit of my own introduction with this classic photo. As you can see, it is kind of black and white and a bit old, just like me. I am a Singaporean Peranakan from Katong, I was born there 2 years after Singapore gainedindependence So I am going to be 50 soon, with another 50 to look forward to.

I don’t know whether you know this, but when you were in primary school, it wasn’t that common for kids at that time (in the 70s) to wear glasses. So you know, I used to be teased a lot and they always call you 4 eyes because you have your 2 normal eyes and you wear spectacles which gives you another 2 more ‘eyes’.

Interestingly, I looked back at my “professional” life, since almost 20 years. I realised that I was kind of ‘4 eyes’ in the world. I first started off as a central banker in the MAS and this was a smack in the middle of the currency crisis. I was part of the currency management team and part of the fund management team, defending the sing dollar, taking care of interest rate and Singapore’s currency reserve. I did that for a couple of years and when the currency crisis ended, I got very excited about the internet. You know, we take it for granted now but it was quite incredible for the internet, spread sheets and computers to become mainstream. Where you have content on the internet and you can buy things from yahoo and amazon in those days. So I got so excited about it that I decided to quit my job at the central bank and went over to Silicon Valley and parked myself there for a year or two.

"I quit my job at the Central Bank, and went over to Silicon Valley and parked myself there."

You know, right in the middle the .com boom and subsequently the .com buzz, was when my other 2 eyes came from. It was the era of invention and innovation and there wasa tremendous volume of human-createdactivity expressed in new ventures and enterprises. That came back to Asia, and ever since then,which was about 15 years ago, I have been a Venture Capitalist twice. I helped people to launch companies, both technology and non-technology companies. I also had a short stint as a “digital environmentalist” because I was actually working for ‘Earth Hour’ when the WWF headquarters moved to Singapore .And then about 6 years ago I got really excited about ideas.It was quite common to be asking “are you a arts or science student” and people really want to fit you into one of these 2 categories. I could never really answer that question fully as I was always good at literature and yet I also love physics, programming and computers. Hence I could never answer that question and people would always be very puzzled.

"Then, I realised that is such a thing as being interested in both (Arts and Science) and that’s when I discovered Ted."

Then, I realized that that is such a thing as you know being interested in both and that’s when I discovered Ted. It's a conference about many ideas; Technology, Entertainment and Design, the arts, the environment…. I was like “wow! I just love this entire thing.” Afterwards, I realised that for Singapore to move into the next phase, we really need it to be moreof an “idea society”.That led me to start off TEDx Singapore which was like non-commercial branch of Ted.We were one of the first 36 TEDx licenses in the whole world and it's been six years now. Currently, we've got about 50,000 people in our TED community, and have also a platform about a hundred and fifty people in Singapore to share their ideas with the world.,We have got about twenty seven events in Singapore.

To continue, we just opened our Museum of Natural History. I love dinosaurs and I am very thrilled to know that there are 2 or 3 dinosaur exhibitsin Singapore now. However, looking at the dinosaurs, many people don’t realise that they were the most successful species that ever inhabited the world.They've been around for a 116 million years before they went extinct. They are so powerful and yet today we just see their remains, the remains of a bygone era. Hence this brings us to thisfirst big and powerful idea that it really doesn't matter how powerful, rich or smart you are, the whole idea is you got to be adaptable.

"Like the dinosaurs, it doesn’t matter how powerful, rich or smart you are, you need to be adaptable."

If you are not adaptable and the whole environment changes around you and you can’t change to thrive in it then you are not going to be very successful, just like the dinosaurs or not.

Now, look at Singapore, it’s sort of like a miracle sometimes to see economic development. We started off with low skilled manufacturing making T-shirt and toys.We later upgraded through education to go into making TVs, I think it was a point where Singapore was making something like80%of the hard drivesin the world andthat is amazing. Right now I don't even know whether there’s a single hard driveremain in Singapore, so we've moved on to other things like bio-tech, technology. People are like talking about drones and everything else. And what’s next in the next ten years? I mean who knows? It's so uncertain. Andit's not justa uncertainty that Singapore faces but everyone in the world.

Thus, rather than looking at this linear sort of progression which we areso used to over the last forty or fifty years. The future looks more like this, which is like a huge big bang explosion that things are going simultaneously all over the place. There will be wearable technology, drones, “8 eyes”, robotics; you have all these things getting to the phrase.

There is a huge level of uncertainty, randomness almost to it and you try to understand it.

So next question is how you succeed both as a country or individual in this sort of uncertain environment. How do you plan a career? I think it's difficult, I meancan anyone even get a visible answer to that.

"Increasingly you have to look at different silos and connect them together to form solutions to problems"

Hence this leads me to this mission of ours. If you look at this chart, we are always be falling into one of these professional silos where we're in one of these professions like banking.A lot of what's happening in the world is actuallynow happening in between solutions.Problems are happening without any solution in one particular silo. Increasingly you have to look at different silos and connect themtogether to form solutions to problems. However, not only solutions to problems but new innovations, ideasand inspirationsbecause people connect between different fields and come out with things which are almost unpredictable. Hence this is one mission where I am trying to build” an “ideas” society in Singapore to facilitate people from different professions coming together to tackle challenges and to get inspirations for our future

I use this phrase for connecting the dots forward. There is this famous quote from Steve Jobs: “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

After Steve Jobs started doing calligraphy, he wanted computersto create beautiful front. If he didn't have thatappreciation of fonts, he would have never thought about replicating it when he went into computers. Thus, in a way, it’s hard sometimes to connect the dots forward because of uncertainty and sometimes you canconnect the dotsbackwards. I guess the truth is always somewhere in between, Maybe the idea is to not just think about I'm a doctor and then I'll be a surgeon andsomething else but take some time to actually explore the world outside your bubble. Because I think no matter whatwe're doing, It will be affected by the entire landscape and you cannot isolate yourself and say “I'm gonna be in this career and do that forever”.

"You cannot isolate yourself and say “I'm gonna be in this career and do that forever”."

For example, drones have been coming up in the last couple of years, can you imagine how many helicopter pilots are now jobless or have no more business because aero-photography was just completely wiped out in almost overnight fashion.

In my own opinion, I think for a career plan, there are two things to take note. One is to find out about yourself and your strengths. Not just in terms of “I am good in banking and finance”. But think about your strength in terms of very fundamental things: of whether are you more creativeand conceptual and like to think in big pictures, or are you more analytical andlike to dodata crunching and numbers that's themain thing I want to talk about: that the landscape alwayschanges and no matter how well positioned you are today, you may face compete extinction tomorrow.

Theng Kiat: What comes after disruptions? Or are we just experiencing the storm before the calm?

Dave: While, I guess in my view, it’s always been disruptions.

You know when I was a student, we didn’t even really have photocopiers, and we have to use the carbon copy papers. So when you type on the typewriter, you have another copy as you were typing in.

And then the photocopier came about. And then after the photocopier there was fax, and then people started communicating through emails, scanners, and now, even paper has kind of disappeared. You are not even using email anymore; it is all about instant messaging withWhatsapp.

"I think disruption is basically a norm"

I think disruption is basically a norm. I mean I am not sure if there is any such thing as“calm”. I guess you might have a period where there is not that much disruption, but you know, the thing is, it is never going to be calm.

Theng Kiat: It seems like the period of calm that usually happens after disruption is getting shorter. I think that tends to be what we are experiencing right now. Like the whole industrial revolution was a disruption, there was a long period of clam where people are getting used to this and that, but now, the whole disruption period is a lot shorter. I think that is my personal view.

Dave: That was what I was eluding to when we have the linear sort of thing where Singapore is progressing one by one and then now it is sort of like a big bang thing. It is not just a lot of disruptions and a simultaneous disruption, but the disruptions are also interlinked, so you now have a second level of disruption across the disruptions you already have.

Theng Kiat: Just a little bit about what you have just mentioned about Singapore as well, I mean Singapore has in some ways always been known for always being a little bit too organised. In such era of which where we do expect disruptive experiences to be happening to markets and countries in some ways, is Singapore too organised that we can’t encourage non-linear thinking and development?

"We kind of lost that “Let’s look for opportunities”;
“Let’s build things from scratch” spirit"

Dave: Well I wouldn’t say we can’t encourage it, but in many ways if we look at Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, these were like the four dragons in the 80’s rising up.

I think the big difference of Singapore was that our development and innovation really wasn’t so much grown organically. It was really dictated by MNcs. We invited all these MNCs, and I think there was a period of time when there was like3,000 or 6,000 MNCs in Singapore.And we choose to do this Rather than trying to innovate and build companies by ourselves. Obviously we have like SIA, Singapore Technologies and DBS Bank, but by and large, we just waited around and were just skilled labour for MNCs:the MNCs would give us the innovation, and then we will just implement it or execute it.

So I think in a sense we kind of lost that “Let’s look for opportunities”; “Let’s build things from scratch”spirit. And you find now that Singapore is no longer necessarily the number one destination for MNCs to come. I am not talking about headquarters of course, but for operations, they rather go to Vietnam, Indonesia, India and China. We have to fill up this gap by being creators, inventors, innovators again in a sense, kind of revisiting our past from the pre-MNCs Singapore era.

Theng Kiat: One of our Facebook Fans, Timmy Todd said that he is a square peg in a round hole. He always does the unexpected. You know, in this sort of disruptive world, where do you think he fits in this whole scheme of things?

"I think it's about finding your own fit within your own world and not necessarily fitting yourself into something else."

Dave: I think I was also in a similar situation; I could never really fit anywhere.First, I was neither entirely an arts nor science student; know because I was good at literature and physics. Second, I seem to be Chinese but I can’t speak Chinese, but I spoke Malay. So in the seventies or eighties, I would get responses from some peoples in Singapore, asking “are you Chinese or not?”. Then I would say no I'm not really Chinese, I’m Peranakan. I think I think it's about finding your own fit within your own world and not necessarily fitting yourself into something else. so I don't know whether that's answering your question but that's my perspective because I think it's sometimes impossible to find a fit and maybe it's about where you just feel comfortable in yourself.

Theng Kiat: Well, that sort of reminds me of the Apple advertisement that talks about misfits and the geniuses as well so I think anybody who is out there, not feeling totally fitting into the environment take comfort in it. I think that's where adaptability and finding your own fit into a certain part of the world will be great.

Dave: We always had this sense of what’s normal or mainstream,but there’s this quote that says “if you think someone is normal it just means that you don't know them well enough”. this tells us that we sort of pre-construct what is normal to us, and I think in the many ways sometimes it doesn't exist right because I think if you just talk to your relatives or your friends and I don't know whether anybody would just say yah, I’m completely normal, I feel normal and I'm normal. I don't know that anyone would actually give you an honest answer like that.

Theng Kiat: I have another question here from another Facebook fan, from Chong Hao Ming, he asked if there would be a future for capitalism in the world, given the rise of social enterprise in the sense would there be a future of capitalism.

"(social media platform) Because there’s always one person will find out the truth right and spill the beans"

Dave: Wow, that is a big question. I don’t know, my sense is that it's almost like the hippie generation because the hippie generation was a response to capitalism in the Vietnam War. Today, we also no longer believe in mainstream, or the government people are demanding a lot more accountability from what corporations are doing to the environment and to the people around themselves.And in many ways I think that's not just because of the internet, but the social platform.Because you can try to run but you can never hide. Because there’s always one person will find out the truth right and spill the beans. I think it forcesa profit, non-profit or MNC or not, to really account to the people on what they're doing, so maybe there won’t be any more social enterprise. It will be enterprises but everyone will just have to be social and plugged into to everybody else.

Theng Kiat: Okay, I’ll ask one more question from my list before I open up to the floor. Reflecting on your own personal experiences, how did you learned to be adaptable? Is it something born, or bred?

Dave: I think the human race is ultimately adaptable For example, I mean you think about it we may have started off in Africa, but look at how humanity has spread, we’re today living in some of the coldest places in the northern Canada and Alaska we are all wired to be adaptable. So it is a question on whether you want to adapt or not.

"We are all wired to be adaptable,
so it is a question on whether you want to adapt or not."

Audience: You said you were from the east, a Peranakan boy, and I just wanted to know how much of being an “Eastie” has shaped you to the way you are, and whether it has added to your adaptable nature.

Dave: Okay, big question. It’s hard to say because I have not been anything except an ”Eastie”. So how could I compare to something else. Or is there any particular characteristic or someone from the east I amsupposed to compare? Because in the older days, the east used to be a bastion of Peranakan people and Eurasians.Which is sort of almost my definition the people who didn’t fit everywhere else?So I have to go further east right, which is kind of “Woo Lu”. So I don’t know, hard to say that. But I think that nail that’s stick out, whether I like it or not, I stuck out of Singapore society.

Audience: Hi Dave, I have a question about TEDx Singapore, ever since you’ve bought TEDx Singapore into Singapore, how do you feel that it has grown an innovative culture among the people.

Dave: I don’t know whether it has grown because it doesn’t have a KPI to track whether creative has become more creative or not right? But really, it just stems from a desire to explore something outside of their life and maybe profession. And there’s hardly an opportunity or place or platform to do that and that explains why TEDx has been so successful. It all started in the US and it has become a global phenomenon. There is a TEDx community in Madagascar and TEDx community in the middle of Syria during the war, and why is this so? Because I think peopleare searchingfor something that they can’t find in life and in many ways, it gives off an expression on that because I think if you watched TED talk, a typical reaction is like:“wow! I'm so inspired bythis!”

"Creativity stems from a desire to explore something outside of their normal life and profession"

It sort of resonates with something inside you which you don't getelsewhere and I think that makes a difference to people and then as a TEDx community, people come togetherto share in your common passion. Whether your passion is about architecture or environment issues or ART or technology, you will have this common thread or common basis like “wow, we all are passionate about this thing.” And because you just want to share your passion,it almost doesn't matter what the field of topic is. So that’s kind of my reading of the community.

Audience: You were talking about marrying different silos together, how do most of the innovations add together?Through your work on TEDx, what are some of the examples of where you see it happening?

Dave: When you look at drones, it’s not just aeronautical engineering and having motors and blades and keeping something up in the air.It's also about software rights, where it can keep it stable. Software that can enable you to navigate even has it automated. The second aspect of drones is photography, an,and there is all that development and engineering on how you mount a cameraon something that is so unstable and still have a stable image.

So this is one example where you know, who’s the drone specialists and the answer is no one.In order to succeed in drones, you really got to take people from the different silos and put them together. When I think of innovation, whether if it’s a start up in Silicon Valley or a non-profit, it's almost like cooking.When you want to cook and serve a dish, you got to make sure that all the key ingredientsinside are in play.

"For Drones, there is no one person
who can claim to be a drone specialist."

Because let’s say if you want to cook up something,and then that key ingredient is not there, you know, that dish is probably going to fail. Hence,in a sense that it comes back to the TEDx community. If you really want to succeed in somethingcompletely new,you really have to have all the ingredients in the room and you can’t find necessarily find the ingredient in your silos or network you already exist in.You really have to go outside your silo. Let’s say you’re passionate about drones, in order to succeed that, you got to find people outside your field of life and workand bring that ingredient in and together then you would succeed in that new space or that new landscape.

Audience: So I am going to ask a very practical question, what advice do you have for parents who are bringing up kids, encouraging innovation and at the same time balance that with doing well in Singapore system.

"Empty space is good because whatever your passion is about,
you just need time to discover it"

Dave: I think if you look at the recent years, the lessons learnt is that you cannot necessarily plot or grow a map of what’s going to be successful.So maybe the idea is thatyou should just be more open and not try to fill up yourtime schedule with activities just to cram it up. Sometimes you just need that empty space to explore. Empty space is good because whatever your passion is about, you just need time to discover it.I would say that would be the number one thing: Don't feel that the world is pressurizing you;you need all these new skills and need to cram your child’s entire timetable. Maybe the child will turn out to be busier than you areas a working adult. You know, 5 years down the road, what you thought was a waste of time could be the most valuable skills or knowledge that person could have.

Audience: Hi Dave, you were talking a lot about disruption earlier on and how you see disruption as a way forward. So in all this disruption that we see, what’s the role of sustainability?

"Sustainability means that you have to make
sure that you can strive in that environment"

Dave: Wow, big question again. I suppose disruption is not necessarily either good or bad, disruption is just something that happens. Like the dinosaurs were perfectly leading their happy lives and then the whole world was disrupted. So sustainability means that the dinosaur should have figured a way to kind of live through the future right, so I don’t really know how to answer the question because I don’t know how to put a moral good or bad aspect to it. It’s just the way things are and sustainability means that you have to make sure that you can strive in that environment.

Think about the rate of how we are consuming resources. Millions of product has been manufactured over time to replace the products placed on the shelves. At this rate, is this really sustainable? I think you just have to be very conscious and mindful about it and also try to be wise.

April 29, 2015