5 Insights Doing Tech for Public Good, for a Post-COVID Reality

Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal , and do not reflect that of any organisation. 

When I first got seconded to Carousell, the key learning objective was clear: To understand the tech start-up sector and bring back fresh perspectives to improve policy development and public service delivery.

I also had a personal learning objective: To see how tech start-ups, which are some of the key harbingers of change today, can power the public good. It could be in manpower and economic development, social support, or even the environment.

Then COVID-19 hit, and it all became very real in my dual responsibilities as a public servant and as part of Carousell’s Strategy Team. We had to do something for Singapore and our affected users. Here are 5 insights from my personal experience: 

1. The problem is global, but the solution can be local.

Let’s face it — efficiency has beat out effectiveness in many aspects of our lives. We emphasise scale and mass reach, at the expense of targeted and potentially delivery of greater value. But COVID-19 changed that, with the breakdown of established global and mass supply chains (read: masks embargoes, buying of electronics, fitness gear, books). Even market leaders faced challenges providing enough delivery slots to cope with demand, while remaining sustainable.

It is in this context that hyperlocal apps like Goodhood sprang to life. It effectively facilitated requests and provision of help within the community, bridged by proximity and trust.

China, which many look at as the future of tech, has also shown a remarkable rise in community e-commerce, which could be less efficient, but much more effective. Community-based group purchase are on the rise with lower prices and greater proximity, and citizens stranded at home turn to WeChat to deliver groceries to their doorsteps.

Because of the global disruption that is COVID-19, the solutions became local. Here in Singapore, Carousell rallied the local community through #supportlocal, a hashtag used by local business owners to identify themselves and for local consumers to easily locate and buy from them. This transformed Carousell into a platform that not only facilitated e-commerce, but also amplified hyperlocal sensitivities to enable our local communities to support each other meaningfully in light of the pandemic. 

2. We crave 0 to 1s, but we have to accept 0.5s that are dead simple.

Digitalisation can be an intimidating word, especially for brick-and-mortar businesses who have not started the journey yet. This is exacerbated by the mainstream expectation that business transformation needs to be from 0 to 1, from physical retailing to AI-powered, automated fulfillment.

This actually scares businesses who prefer the past tried-and-tested ways. They are already struggling to survive through COVID. Do business owners have the spare mental capacity to pick up new and untested technologies, instantly applying them to save their business?

We need a more user-centric approach to this. For a start, let’s temper our expectations. Consider how we can create tools that are dead simple, with clear and direct feedback loops, so that they can ramp up and realise the value quickly. Rather than having to use spreadsheets or APIs.

I chat  with Carousell sellers, and their words are a great reminder: the affinity for Carousell was down to it being simple to use, easy to be visibile,  and that’s it. 

Tekka Online Market on Facebook. Started through #StayHealthyGoDigital, supported by IMDA. Image courtesy of author.

IMDA’s work to bring Tekka Market online via Facebook illustrates how we don’t need to reinvent the wheel by creating new apps/platforms. We can repurpose existing ones, where the features have already become second-nature, for other use. For sure, these are not 1s. They don’t radically transform the way we do business, or enable new-fangled merchant functions.

But in public policy, and harnessing tech for public good, the 0.5s can be more important than 1s in certain cases. 0.5s are absolutely essential, to get over that first mental hurdle with our users.

3. Don’t be afraid of launching with 0.5s or even less, as long as you learn from them.

A general observation is that we are sometimes caught up with fully-cooked perfection. We think we can/want to get it right with the best features from the get-go. Anything less would be a disaster.

But this is not always the case, especially during the COVID crisis, where speed is of essence to deliver much-needed value to users. It’s not wrong to be hacky with existing limitations, as long as users can see that you genuinely care.

In response to the F&B challenges with the circuit breaker and high delivery fees, Carousell created a new F&B category to help hawkers and restaurants list for free and reach a bigger base of diners. It was a small SWAT team which worked with constrained resources and managed expectations.

Carousell’s F&B Listings. Image courtesy of author.

Having this small sampan brought the team closer to the users, and a better understanding of the F&B sector’s challenges. We crafted an informational approach by engaging amplifiers, including a step-by-step WhatsApp message that hawkers could use to onboard and forward to their friends. This was nowhere near a 1 or even 0.5, but the value proposition and our involved execution gave users the sense that we cared. And sometimes, that level of support is good enough.

4. Public-private-people partnerships can be real, and democratised.

We often think of 3Ps as only public-private partnerships, but the People sector has stepped up during this episode.

Each side has their strengths — the public sector in coordinating and directing the weight of Government resources and signaling to bear, the private sector in responding nimbly, and the people sector in having the most direct understanding of on-ground problems.

Carousell was the private player and platform bridging the SG COVID-19 Creative/Cultural Professionals & Freelancers Support Group with the Singapore Brand Office, in a “Made in SG” campaign. This allowed creative freelancers, who found their jobs cancelled, an avenue to continue to pursue their passions by selling merchandise online. It was a way of providing help, with dignity and skin in the game, across three parties.

A spreadsheet to compile internships for students affected by the COVID-19 situation. Image courtesy of author.

People can be the platform too. In the early stages of COVID, when Singaporean students found their internships and exchanges cancelled, Adriel Yong created a scrappy spreadsheet to compile internships for these affected students. This got many organisations, including start-ups and government agencies on board, and generated more than 200 positions.

Sure, this is less than 1% of the positions provided through the SGUnited Traineeships. But it was done by an undergrad, with a public Google Forms and Sheets tool, and could pull in Bytedance and Temasek. The scope for partnerships is becoming much flatter, with the power of democratised tools.

5. Can we build an open-source partnership platform, for a more resilient society?

This is more an open question. If anything, I am optimistic from the responses I’ve received.

All we need is to suspend judgement and assume best intentions. So that the usual cynicism and arms-length can be held at bay. From the amount of collaboration across organisations, it’s clear that COVID-19 has brought everyone closer.

We are already seeing communities such as better.sg building open source products to bring out the best in society, and nationwide events organised such as the GovTech Idea Sprint for COVID-19. The question is, how can we harness these energies, create a platform where we can build common ground on a regular basis, and develop the capacity to respond even more quickly and effectively? Who could provide this platform, and how would it be designed? Each generation of Singaporeans has left behind a lasting legacy — the pioneers who built the foundation, the Merdeka who strengthened it.

What do we want our generation to be known for?


Ng Kaijie is currently seconded to Carousell, one of the world’s fastest-growing classifieds marketplace start-ups, from the Government of Singapore. He heads up the Strategy Team, overseeing corporate strategy for a start-up valued at more than $900M. Prior to this, he has worked with across three Ministries, developing an applied education pathway for the future of work, tackling a real-world economic question of regulating a natural monopoly to ensure service standards and fiscal sustainability, and developing a future-forward foreign workforce policy for Singapore’s economic arrowheads.

This article was written by a community contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the interviewee herself. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here

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