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Putting a human face on Science, Tech and Innovation
Published on: Saturday, October 28, 2017

By Datuk Seri Panglima Wilfred Madius Tangau
Having just returning from the 14th Annual Meeting of the Science and Technology for Society Forum that was held in early October in Kyoto, Japan, there are three inspiring lessons Malaysia could learn from their science, technology and innovation agenda.

“I am a big believer in what science and technology can do. To solve some of the structural problems we face, we must advance and benefit from science and technology. It is as simple as that.”

In his opening address to the Forum, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cited examples of how they are looking at the bright side of some of their pressing socio-economic problems. By now most of us would have heard about their inexorable shrinking population. Yes, Japan’s long term birth rate of 1.4 per women is well below the 2.1 which is needed to sustain growth.

Concurrently, their farmers are aging too – the active ones are reported to be at an average age of 65.

But Prime Minister Abe said this was a blessing in disguise. The country has turned to “self-driving tractors that could talk to each other”.

He was referring to how tractors can be automated on farms, unmanned, operating in harmony by connecting through Internet of Things. He was also thrilled about the home-grown Japanese version of GPS.

When the satellite for this GPS is ready by 2018, tractors would be able to work at an even higher positioning accuracy.

The Japanese are already well-known for their perfect train punctuality, which is said to be precise to the second; so I could see how their ethic for precision would be valuable in developing driverless vehicles.

Next is how the Japanese are very quick in adapting to open innovation. Prime Minister Abe said that “deregulation” is the key. More than a year ago, Japan’s National Police Agency published guidelines for self-driving cars on public roads. If offers huge flexibility for those wanting to take an autonomous car for a spin – they can do so anytime, anywhere without additional permits, as long as they are on standby to take over when necessary.

With such a conducive setting for open innovation in place, even the German automotive behemoths are attracted to take part, such as BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, Continental and Bosch.

While whether regulations can hinder or spur innovation is debatable, I would say that for the Malaysian government, the key to attracting talented innovators is agile governance. Budget 2018 was a positive indication that the government is committed to a new era of technological advances. It is based on eight thrusts and I am pleased that Thrust Number Six allocates for the upgrade of Smart Manufacturing Facilities, for sustainable development and the spearheading of digital economy.

Notably our Prime Minister specifically acknowledged the need for the government to create a conducive ecosystem for local start-ups and the people to benefit from innovation. He pledged to expand the existing regulatory sandbox, referring to the “safe space” that allows businesses to test their products of innovation without the constraints of normal regulations.

The third lesson we can learn from Japanese innovation is their passion and creativity for science and research in solving societal and economic problems. During my visit there I took the opportunity to visit several institutions including Kyoto University, Sophia University and Tsukuba University.

At Kyoto University, I was in awe of how the study of the intelligence of living things is blurring the lines between biology and engineering. Scientists from both disciplines are working together to understand the natural adaptive skills and intelligent behaviour of living organisms to build biologically- inspired robotics.

One practical application of bio-inspired robotics is the assessment of dangerous disaster sites.

Various university teams are exploring suitable modes of robots to enter and assess the highly radioactive nuclear power plant at the Fukushima tragedy site to make plans for a clean-up operation, to avoid putting workers’ lives at high risk.

An eight-metre long robot that resembles a snake could soon slither along the rubble and debris of Fukushima and even in future potential earthquake search and rescue operations. A camera is fitted at the front and it could be remotely controlled. Bio-inspired by the motion of a snake, it could pop its head up by releasing a blast of air!

Sounds nasty, but not so much when it could save lives! Therefore the boost in research and development (R&D) grants to public universities from RM 235 mil to RM 400 mil in Budget 2018 is very welcome as it is vital to enhance our research, innovation and commercialisation capabilities, with a focus on societal well-being.

With this I am also extremely pleased that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) was announced on Friday to be a national agenda. A National STEM Centre would be established to train STEM specialist teachers in Inquiry-Based Science Education (IBSE) methods, coordinated by Academy of Sciences Malaysia.

Because above all, not a single future scenario would be possible without solid plans for talent development.

To enhance creative-based learning and innovative thinking among students, RM 190 million has been allocated to upgrade 2,000 classes to 21st Century Smart Classrooms.

The West may call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution; the Japanese has a far-reaching plan called Society 5.0.

Here we are almost a year into developing a futuristic policy with a bottom-up approach called National Transformation 2050 (TN50). But essentially, it must be a human-centered policy.

At Mosti, it is about democratising science, technology and innovation, putting a human face on all our policies, for the public good.

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