#ImpactForum: Singapore

One of the other perks – aside from the sunshine, addictive food, friendly people and out of this world caffeine experiences – of living in Saigon, is the close proximity to some of the region’s enticing, and inspiring, neighbouring countries.

Take Singapore, for example.  I have been here for 24 hours, attending a conference, and despite so far spending the majority of my time here cooped up in windowless rooms on an (albeit uber plush) university campus, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the brief transition from the bustle of Saigon life to the serene and functional order that is Singapore.

I know, despite this, that I’ll be just as eager to board my plane home on Wednesday, however the intervening hours experiencing this very different aspect of South East Asian life has been novel.

From the moment you board the skytrain at Singapore airport and head into town, you are aware of having been momentarily transported into a different world to that of Saigon.  In fact, although Bangkok boasts an impressive skytrain facility itself, there is no comparison even there in terms of the images you take in as passenger as you skirt round the suburbs of the respective cities.

In Bangkok, I remember only a few weeks back on the journey from the airport, thinking just how absurd it was to see recreational driving ranges – lush green, and populated with hundreds of plastic golf balls – alongside similar sized plots of land, housing cluttered shanty dwellings, with their corrugated iron roofs reflecting back at you in abject irony as another wayward swing from next door rattles into the flimsy green fencing separating rich from poor – from have to have not.

In Singapore, the view from the skytrain could not be any more different in contrast.  High rise buildings followed by parkland followed by more high rise buildings.  Each of them with manicured lawns, pool complexes, and swept pavements.  Even the construction sites in Singapore seem to be orderly and neat in their presentation.  There is no one in Singapore living on less than $2 a day.

I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas (Saigon) anymore: Singapore river

In Saigon, of course, there is hardly a public transport system to acknowledge.  Those buses that do operate are over-crowded and over-heated.  The scooter remains king, doing battle each day with millions of others, as well as the searing heat or – as is the case right now – the sporadic monsoon rains.

In contrast, the skytrains in Bangkok and Singapore are air-conditioned and immaculate in their time keeping.  Their passengers a mix of elderly residents, professional commuters, and young Asian students and teenagers, each plugged into red and blue wired headphones, bent over and tapping away furiously at their various iBranded gadgets.

Saigon will soon catch up with this kind of infrastructure and way of life and, as a city, it stands as a true example of how embracing change, and accelerated growth, has come to epitomise so much of the Asia Pacific region, so dramatically, over the past decade.  Vietnam offers up so many opportunities for this new wave of organisations and donors seeking to remodel how social and environmental development initiatives and sentiment are respectively executed and expressed.

All of which sentiments exuded from today’s first ever “Impact Investment” Asia Forum, in the grounds of Singapore’s National University Campus, and hosted by the Impact Investment Exchange – an innovative organsisation seeking to match up the investor community with a range of social enterprises.  Today, here, the call was clearly made for a new paradigm shift – a convergence of thinking and action that might just meet the global challenges we face.  New sources of capital, new partnerships, more inclusive approaches.

But how signficant might these sentiments really be in the future?  Are they sentiments which could end up merely as convoluted new jargon, or, (and this is what many speakers I listened to today would want you believe) are they sentiments which might, in fact, provide a sustainable solution to some of the world’s problems that were hotly debated about in Rio last week.

Impact investment currently is, for all intents and purposes, a buzz word, and, as was roundly acknowledged here today by many speakers, a nascent movement.  It embodies what is often described as a new “eco-system” of players, in which the aid world, the private sector (in all its guises), academia, individuals, and the public sector all merrily join together in a bid to combine resources, pool ideas and collateral, and create initiatives and partnerships which will solve societal and environmental issues, whilst offering back a positive economic return for those investing in the process.

Google or Wikipedia will ensure that anyone even vaguely interested in this emerging field can find out much more detailed information about this than I can possibly supply.  That is largely due to the learning curve I am on, and the fact that it is currently 1:25am and I have spent the evening drinking wine at tonight’s group dinner (complete with violin solos, a drumming orchestra, a Lauren Hill style Malaysian poetry recital, and a chinese buffet that would have sunk most small vessels.)

My observations from rubbing shoulders with some of the industry’s leading players in this new space, is that the vernacular may be different, and the metrics of how money flows through these newly funded initiatives might differ from traditional modes but, first and foremost, all those organisations, institutions and individuals engaged in impact investing are pretty much indicating similar motives for doing so.  The endgame for all seems aligned as never before.  There is clarity in that, and for me that rings some positive changes from before.

Poverty, within this context, is becoming more mainstream, as a concept and as an issue that effects, and requires responses from, all society.

As consumers of products we are caring much more than ever before about the deal offered to those people who produced our chocolate, our coffee, our furniture, in the first place.  Companies are responding to shareholders, customers, and to their own employees about gearing their supply chains and activities more towards an “inclusive” approach that factors in the needs of others – be they workers, suppliers or small-holder farmers.  Government policies are flexing in a direction that in the future may well accommodate a more directive approach to how large corporations operate in emerging markets.

There is a movement afoot to see these types of changes through.  Whilst the recognition in the room today was that many of society’s successes in helping reform and regulate the private sector have taken decades to come about, the clear message was that the speed of this change is accelerating.

The MBA graduates of 2012 have opinions which matter greatly to future employers, whether they are offering jobs to them or selling to them.  The ways in which technology can now provide instant platforms for people to share their views, their disappointments, (their blogs), is gradually sharpening the tools that each of us have at our discretion to push for change, to advocate.

These are exciting times.  For all that is happening across the world’s financial markets at the moment, for all the many unequal and corrupt transactions that take place everyday in countries which have for too long endured fragmentation in their societies, there is a growing movement of corporations, public policy influencers, NGOs, and individual entrepreneurs who are jumping feet first into this blue water.

As no one yet seems to understand the implications, the architecture of it all, the true meaning of where this is going to end up, it is perhaps – all at the same time -pioneering, bold, misguided and, very possibly, empowering.

And that, for now, is enough to keep me interested in Day 2 tomorrow…

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