Keynote Speech by Mr Daren Tang, IPOS Chief Executive, on “Disruptive Technologies”

The following is the transcript of the speech delivered by the Chief Executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, Mr Daren Tang, at the keynote address for the iTechLaw 2016 International Asia-Pacific Conference on “Disruptive Technologies”, held in Singapore between 20 – 22 January 2016.

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Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

INTRODUCTION

It is my honour to be invited here today to give the keynote address for iTechLaw’s first conference of the year. And for those of you who have travelled from elsewhere to be with us, I wish you a warm welcome to Singapore.

Our relentless drive as a species to shape the world around us has brought mankind from nomadism to the Information Age in a mere 10,000 years. Recently, a group of geologists suggested that we are now living in a new geological age called the “Anthropocene” – an age where our impact on the earth is so great that it is now marked in the geological record.  Seen in that context, “Disruptive Technology” is no more than the continuation of a very human need to improve our material well-being, seek each other’s company and mould our environment.

This unbroken line of human history, however, can be divided into different epochs. Each age has its own character. Ours right now is marked by an abundance of information that has been facilitated by technology. We are rightly living in an Information Age. Many of you are, or are advising clients who are, using technology to bring information from one group of persons to another group of persons – say, a person who is willing to provide private transportation to a person seeking it, or a person willing to provide private accommodation to a person seeking it. But in this simple yet profound process, new markets and networks are being created, forcing existing ones to adjust, evolve, or even die out. Disruption has become the norm, and is indeed accelerating – and even if Clayton Christensen would argue that “Disruptive Technology” had a narrower meaning, our appropriation of his term into popular language shows how much we have come to embrace these changes.

This morning I want to spend a bit of time to share with you what I see are the implications of the changes we see around us. In particular, what challenges are faced by businesses seeking to capitalize on disruptive technology; and what all this means for the law and for lawyers.

CHALLENGES FACED BY BUSINESSES SEEKING TO CAPITALIZE ON DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGIES

If disruptive technologies can bring such benefits to both consumers and businesses, why do we not see more of it on a regular basis? To answer this, I would like to suggest three challenges businesses seeking to capitalize on disruptive technologies would likely face. I refer to these three challenges as the three R’s.

The first R – resources. Disruptive technology may require tremendous resources in terms of research and development in order to come up with a first viable prototype. And even if the prototype is viable, huge resources need to be expended to create affordable products and/or business models suitable for mass consumption. Take for example the invention of automobiles. The first patent for the automobile was granted, exactly 120 years ago, in January 1886, to Karl Benz. However, its price and availability meant that it could not disrupt the existing horse carriage industry as a mode of transport. Indeed, if you look at photos of cities during that era, there would be a predominance of horse drawn transport with a smattering of cars. It was not until the first low-cost automobile was produced by Ford that the new product finally had the potential to displace the horse carriage industry to take its rightful place as a disruptive technology.

What is interesting, however, is that current technology platforms have reduced the resources needed to bring your business model or service to market. From Benz in 1886 to Ford in 1907, there was a 21 year gap. That would be unthinkable in today’s world, where we measure our ability to bring something to the market in weeks and months.

The second R – resistance. Change is unsettling, even as we celebrate it more than ever, in modern culture. Businesses seeking to capitalize on disruptive technologies will naturally face resistance from those whose livelihood is in danger from these changes. Many of you would have worked with clients on both sides of the disruption equation, and would have at one time or other advocated your client’s positions before regulators trying to balance the interests of the disruptors and the incumbents.

Resistance may also come from consumers. Consumer adaptation of the electric car is instructive. Besides the resistance faced by the automobile manufacturing industry, electric car manufacturers also need to persuade the existing consumers in the market to make the switch to electric cars. Despite the clear environmental benefits, potential buyers of electric cars suffer from “range anxiety” – a fear that the electric car’s driving range will not be enough to meet the needs of the driver. Electric car manufacturers have to find ways to resolve the consumer’s “range anxiety” in order to gain their buy-in.

Resistance, to some extent, can be mitigated by skilful government intervention, or exacerbated because of political pressures. It is an area that businesses will need to pay attention to, because it is where advocacy to stakeholders and education of consumers can make a difference, either way.

The last R – resonance.  The surrounding infrastructure and context must support the innovation. In a different time, or under different conditions, an idea, no matter how insightful, would fall flat – but given the right state of technology and infrastructure, it will take flight. Examples of this are plentiful: Social media platforms, like Facebook or Instagram, would not have been able to catch on without high Internet connectivity rates (which, in turn, are aided by the high penetration rates of smartphones). Digital content stores or streaming could not possibly hope to catch on without consumers already enjoying decent broadband speeds provided by their Internet service providers.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE LAW AND LAWYERS

Those 3 R’s provide one possible framework to understand what challenges businesses seeking to capitalize on disruptive technologies could face. What then about the challenges and implications for the law and lawyers?

By its very nature, disruptive technologies change the status quo. The law will therefore always be playing catch-up. This has been the story of copyright law, all over the world, for the past 20 years. However tempting it may be to predict the direction of changes and legislate, it is not wise to pre-empt what will be unpredictable shifts in industry and society. In my view, it is best for the law to lay down general principles applicable to a certain area in a technologically-neutral manner. Detailed rules, if needed at all, should preferably be written in secondary or subsidiary legislation, which do not need to be amended by the legislature and subject to what could be complex and difficult political processes, but adjusted and evolved by the regulators who are aware of developments in the particular area.

To share one example – Singapore is currently reviewing its Designs regime and one of the issues that emerged was whether we should provide some legislative support for 3-D printing. After careful consideration, we decided not to at this point of time, not because we are indifferent or unsupportive of 3-D printing, but because it seemed to be an area which was developing dynamically.However well-meaning our laws could be, there was a risk that it could result in distorting developments which were best left to grow organically. What this means is that regulators need to be in close contact with professionals and businesses, so that there is a sensitivity to what is going on and if need be, surgical adjustments to the law can be made as technology evolves.

In a dynamic environment where basic principles make the most sense, the role of judges in interpreting these principles becomes absolutely crucial. One example well known to everyone is the way in which the “fair use” doctrine has been developed by US judges over the last 20 years to take into account the tremendous changes in the way we create and consume content. While we will understandably have our own views on the decision on individual cases, the system, on the whole, has worked remarkably well, and is testament to the wisdom of using basic principles that are sufficiently flexible to adjust to changes, coupled with a mechanism for debate and then a decision on how the law should react to these changes.

As for lawyers, it is timely to ask how disruptive technology can disrupt the practice of law. The manner in which clients are serviced, and the level of service responsive they have come to expect, has already been fundamentally changed by technology. But deeper changes seem to be looming on the horizon, fuelled by interesting developments in the area of AI. IBM Watson, for example, has been exploring technology capable of simulating the thoughts processes and analytical steps lawyers use.

And in a more down to earth way, we are beginning to see ultra-lean law firms being set-up, using technology to allow clients to “self-help” and auto-generate contracts, based on inputs by clients. All these presage changes in the practice of law, and I am confident that some of you in this room will not only be able to navigate these changes adroitly, but also come up with a way to transform legal practice using technology.

CONCLUSION

The organizers have put together an amazing array of speakers and topics in the course of the next two days, and it is my sincere hope that the discussions will leave us with useful insights into the future of the law in its interaction with disruptive technologies.

With that, it leaves me to thank the organisers once again for inviting me to address you at the opening of this Conference. I wish all of you a fruitful Conference and wonderful time in Singapore.


(Prepared by Mr Wesley Tan, Legal Department)