Block 71: The Startup Scene in Singapore

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Our friends Bjorn and Ting at Doorstep Studios have embarked upon a 4 month journey to connect with the makers, hackers, entrepreneurs and growing creative class of urban East Asia. In “Block 71,” they take us on a virtual tour of the startup scene in Singapore. This entry originally appeared on CreationCatalogue where you can follow along with their entire journey.

From the outside, Block 71 looks decidedly uninspiring: gaunt, gray, faceless walls of concrete standing over an asphalt tarmac. On this particular day, a desultory rain sprinkled the west side of Singapore, giving the scene a heightened sense of gloom and apathy.

Our Soviet-fortress impression continued as we walked up the first flight of stairs and stepped into an elevator, greeted by cold metal rails and gritty concrete. Stepping out of the elevator on the 7th floor, we caught our first clue that something remarkable was happening here: a gleaming white room was occupied by a team of movers rapidly assembling designer desks, chairs, and office decor, while a team of 20-somethings perched on top of the half-finished furniture, typing furiously on their laptops. This is one of the nearly 100 startups that make their home in Block 71.block_71_1

Continuing down the corridor, we passed a seemingly endless procession of brightly-colored, beautifully designed logos, all promising energy and passion and innovation. Stepping through a pair of full-length glass doors, we walked into the space of Silicon Straits, one of Block 71’s original start-ups.block_71_2

Silicon Straits is a community of makers, hackers, and entrepreneurs. It was founded by James Chan, who saw the need for a tech-focused co-working space. Describing the beginnings of Silicon Straits, James told us the story of Block 71: an empty industrial building that was schedule for demolition, when an entrepreneurially-minded government employee suggested it could be given as free office space to encourage start-ups.

This is one of the stranger, yet more salient features of the innovation ecosystem in Singapore: government drives everything. Singapore is a city-state, so there is no distinction between city government and federal government – there is simply “the government”, a semi-authoritarian regime that is simultaneously efficient, strict, and forward-thinking. Corporal punishment is still the norm (breaking the law gets you a beating with a heavy wooden stick), and yet so is sophisticated public transportation and one of the world’s best education systems.block_71_3

And the Singaporean government has decided that start-ups and entrepreneurship will be good for Singapore, so they are pumping incredible resources into the innovation ecosystem: grants, business plan competitions, fab labs, school programs, seed funding, and, of course, physical space. They are combatting a culture that puts conventional measures of success – the “5 Cs” mentioned in our last article – ahead of values such as creativity and impact, so whether Singapore’s push for innovation will be successful is an open question. What is clear, however, is that for entrepreneurial people like James, it is a golden opportunity to build a dream.