Veerappan (Veera) Swaminathan is the founder and director of consultancy firm Sustainable Living Lab, currently operating in Singapore, India, and Indonesia. Veerappan is interested in overcoming sustainability challenges through technology. He is currently working on an artificial intelligence (AI) fluency project to encourage innovation within companies to meet the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals, and to prepare people for an aging society.
KrASIA (Kr): What is the root of your dedication to addressing sustainability and giving back to communities?
Veerappan Swaminathan (VS): There are a few reasons. One is that my parents didn’t restrict me from doing what I wanted to do. They also instilled a value system in me. When I was younger, my father and I chanced upon a SGD 50 note.
We waited for a couple of hours for someone to come looking for it, but they didn’t, and we decided to donate it. One lesson was that if you get some unexpected fortune, then the best thing is to do some good, instead of self-enrichment. Of course, over time, your thinking develops. You start to understand that some problems can’t be solved by charity. With a more sophisticated world view, you understand how issues can be systemic. I do what I do because I can’t picture myself doing anything else, at all. I’m not giving up anything to do my job. These are decisions that make me very happy.
Kr: Tell us more about the AI fluency initiative you’re working on in Singapore.
VS: Intel has a program called AI For Youth, part of their effort is to meet AI readiness for 30 million people in 30 countries by 2030. Sustainable Living Lab supported that program. Currently, we are involved in implementation of the program in several countries (Singapore, India & Indonesia) as on-the-ground presence is required for it. The program started in 2018, targeting youths aged 13 to 19 years old. Today it has expanded to five (and counting) initiatives which target all segments of society that are seeking to transform digitally.
Kr: How are you tackling the challenges of aging societies?
VS: My core organization, Sustainable Living Lab, is a consultancy. We spend time implementing projects too, instead of simply providing solutions to clients and then disengaging with the process. Regarding aging challenges, we have an initiative called Repair Kopitiam, but is now independently run. We taught people how to repair electrical appliances, and realized that most participants were the elderly. Then, we started developing programs designed to engage the elderly above the age of 50, particularly males. A lot of evidence shows that the participation rate in active aging programs among elderly males hovers between 10 to 15%. A good chunk of them are not participating in any activities, which puts them at higher risk for dementia due to social isolation, amongst other negative health outcomes.
More than teaching them how to repair items, Repair Kopitiam has evolved to become an active aging opportunity. Repairing items has a potent effect in giving people a sense of utility. The act of repair is more than a skill-development activity. It is a way to facilitate an improvement in their self-worth, especially since elderly males suffer from feelings of uselessness after having been a breadwinner in a traditional environment.
Kr: How has Repair Kopitiam helped elderly participants to socialize with each other?
VS: We have five locations for Repair Kopitiam, where they can gather and work together. Our goal is to have at least three locations in every district or Community Development Council (CDC). With a critical mass of essential participants, helping each other out becomes possible. We need a critical mass, along with geographical coverage. Our program is public-facing, and one of the challenges is that offering a service like this can easily lead to go public expectations going out of control. We’re trying to be mindful of that. There’s a lot of enthusiasm about such initiatives, especially these days, so we have to be careful from an operational standpoint not to over-promise and under-deliver.
Kr: What drives you to design your initiatives to contribute to society consistently?
VS: I can’t relate to the idea of judging my success and achievement by the measure of money or materialism. Of course, up to a point, you need sufficient money to live a decent life. After that point, however, the concept of money gets unhinged from reality. My perspective on money is to make just enough. It’s a personal philosophy, but it spills over into the way I run my organization. Since late 2014, we had been funding an average of SGD 50,000 (USD 37300) a year for self-initiated projects. In 2019, we looked into covering costs for mature, self-initiated programs through collaborations with partners like the National Environment Agency (NEA), and other organizations interested in active aging.
If it is a good idea and worth executing, then a discussion on profitability might be a bit premature. You need ideas and adjustments before it can be something meaningful. If you ask the wrong questions, you won’t get to do the important and useful things.