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This Time is Really Different

This Time is Really Different

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What do we have in common with startups? A burning spirit of venture and innovation. In this ongoing HyperX series, we invite global innovators and changemakers to share their perspectives on the inescapable rise of sustainability and its importance in securing our future.

In this article, Sang Shin, our Director of Digital Innovation and HyperX mentor, talks about his moment of peak ambivalence and the urgency of taking action now.

“This time is different” — these four words are considered by many to be the among the most dangerous in finance. More money has been lost because of these four words than at the point of a gun. In fact, the “this time is different” syndrome has wreaked havoc in the form of financial crises throughout history.

 
Trader wipes eyes

“This time is different” — are these still the most dangerous words in finance? (Photo: Getty Images)

 

Whether it be astronomic valuations during the dot-com boom or the more recent bitcoin mania, many bubbles have formed and burst due to fantasies that fundamental economic principles have changed and don’t apply anymore.

Yet, I believe that this time really is different. Fundamentals have really shifted, principles have really changed, and the fantasy has finally been reversed — thanks to the concept of sustainability.

Ignorance was Bliss

Transporting 5MB

This is what was needed to transport five megabytes just 60 years ago! (Photo: IBM Archives)

 

The above photo shows what it took to transport five megabytes (MB) 60 years ago. Trucks, airplanes, days of transport time, and a bunch of people were involved. Today, I can send 100MB in one second across the Pacific from my pocket. The only other person involved is my brother, receiving the video clip I just sent him.

Our physical world, knowledge, and biological selves are in the process of being digitised and converted into numbers that can be fed into myriad algorithms. This is in essence at the core of many of the disruptions we are witnessing.

Amidst this transformation, we have been seeing an increase in the number of articles about the changing climate and impact to our environment. A growing chorus of scientists, united through the insights they derived from advancements in technology, are actively voicing their concern that we can’t continue “as is”.

Technology is essentially lifting the veil, and the same predictive analytics that perform real-time price-matching for our airplane tickets are now telling us that we are on an unsustainable path.

However, it doesn’t stop there. With the massive amounts of data about ourselves, our interactions, our transactions, and essentially our lives, we are discovering that we are on unsustainable paths in many dimensions, ranging from our health to our financial stability.

 
UNSDGs

United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. (Photo: UN in collaboration with Project Everyone)

 

Our children may look back at this point in time and remember it as the Great Sobering Up.

Peak Ambivalence to Sustainability Challenges

In a recent Temasek sustainability lunch sharing session with the NatureVest arm of The Nature Conservancy, the following chart was shared:

Biomass of land animals

Wild animals make up just 4 percent of biomass of land animals on Earth. (Photo: awellfedworld.org)

 

The chart stayed with me, more than images of plastic bottles in our oceans — somehow, this simple pie chart with just three segments drove home the gravity of the situation we are in. As I reflected on this, I realised that what triggered me was not the actual information, but the fact that I had had no idea that our biomass was this skewed. That was my moment of peak ambivalence, where much like peak oil, my ambivalence towards our sustainability issues hit the tipping point, and the only path forward is to start caring more.

I realise that more and more, people are having their own personal moments of peak ambivalence. Coupled with the explosion of social networking platforms to galvanise and catalyse their thoughts, we see developments like teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg’s meteoric rise that we never thought would be possible just a few decades ago.

 
Greta Thunberg on TIME

Greta Thunberg featured as one TIME's 2019 Next Generation Leaders. (Photo: TIME)

 

The emergence of Impossible Foods and its plant-based protein offerings is a seminal moment in the world of sustainability-focused startups. In one fell swoop, it signalled that there is a large and fast-growing market for businesses that pursue growth and innovation in concert with our ecology as a planet and the human race. It also dispelled the notion that investment returns are difficult for startups whose business models are entirely premised on sustainability. Peak ambivalence has impacted not only the consumers, but also the funding investment entities.

A Circular Life

My peak ambivalence moment didn’t happen overnight. It was in fact a culmination of events in my life that started from high school.

I’m a Korean who was born and raised in the Philippines. Manila was my home and where I spent the first 18 years of my life. I grew up witnessing poverty and the difficult decisions parents needed to make, such as sacrificing the environment in order to feed their children.

Young Sang Shin

Kanan B-1 Hydroelectric Damn Environmental Assessment Project, 1994.

 

A couple of years ago, I moved to Singapore, to help build the startup ecosystem here in Southeast Asia. I found myself at Temasek, and learnt of the importance of sustainability in its strategy.

One aspect that I’ve noticed about entrepreneurs who have been driven towards sustainability is that they stick to it. I recall watching the genesis of a carbon-tax transaction idea at a Startup Weekend Singapore event a few years ago, and how that team took its idea from the hackathon and created a company out of it. Even though that effort did not evolve into a successful startup, the founder then went on to create Fefifo, which seeks to empower a new generation of progressive ASEAN farmers through technology-based co-farming.

It is this sense of perseverance that I believe will enable sustainably-focused entrepreneurs to continue building, growing the community and its chances for success over time.

 
Agriculture tech

A new generation of farmers in ASEAN are harnessing technology to farm in a better and more sustainable way. (Photo: Shutterstock)

 

Enter HyperX — The World’s First Sustainability Hackcelerator

HyperX is a unique programme in many ways.

First of all, not many innovation programmes directly link three separate and distinct events: a hackathon, a pre-accelerator, and an accelerator.

HyperX

Global innovators, meet HyperX: the world’s first sustainability hackcelerator.  

 

Underpinning the entire programme is a focus on sustainability, by enabling innovative solutions that address the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Add to that the role Temasek plays as a partner, specifically identifying StartupX, a Singaporean startup itself, to help operate the programme. StartupX is a grassroots organisation comprised of a driven group of individuals who had been volunteering to run the Techstars Startup Weekend event in Singapore for many years. This partnership is testament to our commitment to developing the community of entrepreneurs here in Singapore.

Finally, through Temasek’s network with its portfolio companies, Temasek Foundation and its endowments, as well as other investors in the region and the world, the programme can draw upon a wealth of resources and connections. This supports startups participating in the HyperX programme, regardless of which stage of the journey they’re at.

We are trying something new, something different, and we hope you will join us on our journey, starting with HyperHack, a three-day global hackathon programme that will be launched on 8 November 2019.

You see, we have all at some point had to confront the issue of sustainability. We may have continued on, gaining knowledge and experience since then. Yet, your peak ambivalence moment may soon arrive — and when it does, I encourage you to take action and leverage everything you have learnt, to make a difference.

The truth is, while economic principles may have not changed, our world has fundamentally transformed, and hence so must we. For that reason, this time really is different.

Kids pointing at skyline

This time really is different and we must work towards a more sustainable future. (Photo: iStock)

 

About the author:

By Sang Shin, Director, Digital Innovation, Temasek

Prior to joining the firm, Sang Shin was based in Silicon Valley and co-founded Been Choice, the first app that let users own the value of their data, taking it back from data collectors and advertisers.

Sang moved to Singapore in 2016, drawing upon his deep knowledge in technology, environmental science, and entrepreneurship to help build the startup ecosystem here in Southeast Asia.

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