Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride 2019

The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride unites classic and vintage style motorcycle riders all over the world to raise funds and awareness for prostate cancer research and men’s mental health.

This is my first year riding in the DGR with Latte Bike.

I have done DGR in Boston, Paris and New York previously. 

To me, DGR is like a cosplay event. people come together dressed up to ride. You get to see a lot of fantastic bikes which comes out once or twice a year. 

There is a big community of people who ride, but the community of daily riders are getting smaller as motorcycles in Singapore keep getting more expensive dues to excessive taxes. The inspection is also getting ridiculuous stupid as you can fail inspection even when you pass all the tests, but your original exhausts do not have the right inscription on them. 

I had to put some other original exhausts that were much louder to pass inspection.

In Singapore, many old motorcycles will also be banned on the road from 2028, and the blanket rule of giving out money is making some people profit from their old and unreliable bikes, while those who love their classic bikes are screwed.

The DGR in Singapore is pretty big as well, the meeting place at the back of the National Museum is almost not big enough to fit all the motorcycles. I estimate that there are more than 500 motorcycles in the parking lot, with some parked outside. 

It was a great riding event and there was some funds raised for a good cause. 

Hope to be more of such rides.

-- Robin

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Zen of Urban Farming

As you may know, I've published a few books and I'm working on this new book where I share my gardening experience along with other situations in life, business and social impact which makes me think, what if I use my experience in urban farming to explain these situations, will it help with understand and make you a better farmer as well?

How gardening experience can help you improve critical thinking. 

I have been planting various herbs and vegetables at home for more than 10 years and worked on numerous urban farming projects from hydroponics to aquaponics, from home plant kits to potted plants and fruit trees in my garden. I have killed my fair share of plants and tried many ways to propagate my plants.

I volunteered for various NGOs and consulted for businesses and foundations on projects to enhance their social impact. I have also done this for almost 20 years and published another book “Good Intentions are not Enough – Why we fail at helping others.” 

I am the co-founder of Civil Innovation Lab which is a multidisciplinary group of international social innovators and entrepreneurs responsible for a series of initiatives dedicated to transform inefficiencies, bridge gaps, address value creation and connect stakeholders.

I could see a lot of parallels with gardeners trying to do the best for their plants, sometimes killing them by lack of knowledge and experience, and the volunteers and donors who want to create social impact but in many cases, cause harm to the ecosystem by “over-helping”

So, for urban farmers who are trying to create social impact, or social entrepreneurs who are interested in gardening, I’d like to share my experiences which teach me that many things that we do are actually quite connected.

Gardening can also bring tranquility and calmness. Meditation and Zen teaching are all better with plants as well. Besides social impact, gardening can help explain many things about business, innovation and human behavior as well.

Urban farming is also a way where I can relax from a stressed out day living in the city. With a little time with your plants to help you focus, new ideas and solutions can come from the experience.

-- Robin Low

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Leadership and Innovation

Many organizations and countries want to get do more "innovation". Innovation has become the "in" things now, and millions of dollars are spent hiring consultants, and going to courses on leadership.

You have events where leaders talk to other leaders about leadership. There is an issue here, and one thing that we do not hear about is the follower's voice.

From my experience engaging communities and working on solutions, I find that many donors and groups who just want to help but don't want to donate are just following status quo, and the most pressing problems are untouched.

When leaders just talk to other leaders, it often create an echo chamber which boosts egos. In the digital age, many of our cultures and values have shifted. Knowledge does not just lie in the few leaders who hold all the information.

Today, with the digital communications becoming one of the key ways to communicate with consumers, companies are now forced to engage and listen. Marketing is no longer one way, and feedback channels are more easy to access. A company that engages and listens to their customers can have better insights on the market. If you have a new solution and want the consumers to change their behaviors, you have to go out and ask them, "Hey, how can I get you to do this? How can I benefit you, so that you choose me?"

In the case of the open source movements, there is a lot of ground breaking innovation as people work together and engage one another in meaningful discussions.

In the Leadership Industry today, it is not enough that leaders talk down to their followers and have a top down hierarchy. It is more apparent that Leaders need to gain permission to lead, having qualifications and connections can get you that position, but it is hard to get the followers on the ground to be engaged and contribute meaningfully towards innovation.

Like in the occupy movement, the follower rise up against the big business. With a more educated population, we do have a higher capacity to create and innovate, however, followers will not just follow because you are the boss. Culture has shifted today that many of them will expect to have a say in where they are led.

I've been invited to many leadership forums, talks and other similar events, many of these events want their leaders to be innovative, but none of them is talking about engaging followers in conversations. One question needs to be asked by leaders today, "What will drive followers to follow your mission?"

I can think of several industries where this lack of engagement is very obvious. In the large International NGOs, the focus seems to be on donors and donor relations, rather than the employees and volunteer to engage in a meaningful way to work on innovative solutions to impact communities.

Another very important industry is in education. Academia seems to be another top down industry, and we do see a lot of apathy from teachers. Many teachers who are very passionate to teach, but the increasing administrative loads are pushing them away. No matter how much the leaders think they can innovate their industry, without the buy in from the front line -- the teachers. If the teachers do not feel that they are heard, if the teachers do not think that leaders are listening, and they do not have a seat at the table, this talk about innovation simply turns into apathy.

I have worked in numerous innovation projects, many in the education industry. The word "design thinking", "open collaboration", "human centered design" and a lot more new terms gets thrown around. There are some good ideas generated and initially, these teachers do feel excited, but after several of these workshops, the teachers love being part of the solution, but ultimately, they need their leaders to lead. Besides coming up with ideas, they want to be part of the decision making process; they want to give their views and engage with the people they respect; and they want to hear their leaders acknowledge the solution and work with them on implementation and asking questions to find out from the ground how some of his additional ideas from his birds eye view of the organization will affect the final solution.

Without real engagement, many of these collaborative idea generation workshop will eventually yield nothing as one thing is missing -- trust. The teachers will not feel that they are trusted and their ideas are taken into consideration, acknowledge for it and this builds more apathy.

In some cases, leaders may come from a different industry. In Academia, followers expect their leaders and respect leaders who are experts in their subjects. People want to grow under the expertise of their leaders. In some rare cases, when leaders from another industry can bring in a new perspective and gain the trust of the teachers, new ideas and solutions can be found. If an expert in a particular subject listen and learn to lead by listening to what the follower wants.

When people can grow and feel that they are heard and part of the solution, they will trust the leaders and follow them.

The important part about innovation is that people need to be in a frame of mind to want to innovate. Leaders play a big role to make it happen. It is easy to hire external consultants to talk about innovation, but without knowledge on the corporate culture and when it is met with apathy, innovation will never happen.

Leaders need to build culture of engagement and trust. In Asia, there may be less innovation, and this is because in Asian culture, followers still give respect to leaders, and will not be truthful with their responses. And sadly, to attract more followers, in many situations, the way to do it is pay increase, and with a higher salary, there is a higher resistance to say the truth if it might offend the leaders, and this results in even less innovation.

-- Robin Low

Sunday, March 3, 2019

We need to strengthen our Civil Society.

With climate change, income inequality, the increased frequency of natural disasters, the amount of human suffering will only increase. Sadly, as the cities expand, the living conditions in most cities gets worse for the majority as pollution increase.

Today, we are faced with a problem of plastic waste as well. With the few billionaires having more money than the billions of others, we are also faced with a situation where many people look for cheaper alternatives. This creates a disposable culture as well as people go for fast fashion and use plastics in everything.

Plastic seems to be a cheap solution for many things from packaging to regular products. For convenience, people don't have to wash and bring their own containers, and in the end, many containers are made of plastic, and we use plastic bags to carry things. Compared to metal and wood, plastic products can be much cheaper as well, leading to their popularity.

Sadly, we never take into account the cost for disposing plastic. Plastic takes a long time to disintegrate, poor waste management will make a lot of plastic end up in land fills and the ocean, and sadly, marine life will eat it and some of them will die. This pollution along with climate change will create a situation where we will run out of land for crops, and run out of fishes in the sea.

This dire situation coupled with the ever increase in human population creates a time bomb where it will be a tinderbox waiting for the spark to happen.


With inequality, many people feel the unfairness in the "system? In cities, living in close proximity with other humans also create a situation of stress by overpopulation. All these factors help create the mindset where people focus on their own needs and their needs for their families first before society. It is not uncommon for people to be selfish and think that problems with society should be solved by philanthropists and the government, and when solutions come from the few people, it will only give them more power.

With wealth and profits increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, this is a worrying sign that the super-rich will have even more influence in development, democracy and politics worldwide. As many social enterprises of the Global South are funded by philanthropes from the Global North, this trend perpetuates the very same divide that the Sustainable Development Goals are trying to bridge.

Civil society should play two important functions when it comes to helping those most in need. The first function is creating and nurturing new ideas for transformative change. Because of the way that most social enterprises are set up, it is hard for the community to play this role. Second, civil society plays a crucial role in seeking the accountability of power, and new social enterprises do not measure the power of these excluded groups. In addition, the metrics used are generally simple and based on economic principles – like revenue or profits – that do not address power.

Power and economics are being taken from excluded communities through new fancy organizations called social enterprises. We need to understand that fulfilling the basic human needs like food, shelter and health does not end misery, exploitation and indignity.

We cannot rely on just a system that pretends to play an important role by fighting the manifestations of poverty, and not engage with structural questions of poverty, injustice, indignity and enslavement. Philanthropy should be about human dignity and justice, defending rights such as the right to life, equality before the law, freedom of expression, the rights to work, social security and education.

If we believe that resources are scarce, then we should see if we can engage the beneficiaries to see if they can be accountable for their actions and work on a better solution for their communities. NGOs need to engage their beneficiary, to work together on fixing situation and speak up for them, instead of taking pity. The poor, the handicapped and the marginalized people are not stupid people, they have ideas and dreams. Social enterprises should try to engage their beneficiaries in leadership roles, and look at other social aspects which they affect the ecosystem, and if they are indeed creating a positive change or patching the gap in the short term.

Each member of civil society has a role but many don’t discover these roles until they get immersed into a social impact situation or opportunity. Exposure is the key and soul satisfaction is the objective. It sometimes requires helping a fellow human to discover and ultimately partner to leverage their strengths for societal benefit.

There are a lot of problems to solve, and we as part of civil society hold the solution if we can work together to enable each other and make the world a better place.

-- Robin Low