How does a living lab generate real-world solutions?


Living Lab may be a relatively new concept, but Sunway Group and iLabs is determined to drive it forward to generate real-world solutions for the betterment of the environment and mankind.Living Lab may be a relatively new concept, but Sunway Group and iLabs is determined to drive it forward to generate real-world solutions for the betterment of the environment and mankind.

SUNWAY City Kuala Lumpur has indeed come a long way, from its humble beginnings as a former tin mining site, into a Living Lab of academic, research and commercialisation excellence - thanks to the transformative vision of Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah AO.

True to its essence and objective of building a smart, sustainable city and bringing about lasting change, Sunway City KL embodies a living lab, which means that it tests out different impressions and ideas in a real-life environment to create solutions to address complex societal problems.

It drives this initiative forward through Sunway Innovation Labs (iLabs), gathering prominent researchers, experts and academia to generate real-world solutions for the betterment of the environment and mankind.

Under the tagline of ‘Inspire. Build. Launch.’, iLabs was launched in 2017 with the aim to foster entrepreneurship and stimulate market-driven innovations, in order to help entrepreneurs become more competitive in this rapidly changing environment.

However, what started off as a platform for startup entrepreneurs to build their ideas, has now turned into a vision that can transform Sunway City KL into its next phase of growth.

“We created a platform (iLabs) to see what students were keen on doing, and types of markets entrepreneurs may want to focus on.

“Then we started to learn as a (Sunway) Group and to see how we could leverage the existing facilities and capacities within the group and business units and bolt on to any innovations and technologies, so that in the future we will not only lead the industries that we have already been doing, but also create new market opportunities,” said Sunway Group chief innovation officer and Sunway iLabs director Matt van Leeuwen. Sunway iLabs distilled its vision down to five verticals - based on underlying trends in different industries - to support Sunway City KL as a living lab, namely smart cities, digital health, education technology (edutech), agri and food technology (agrifoodtech) and e-commerce.

Creating smart cities

Smart cities are smarter and healthier, while at the same time bringing consumers improved convenience, connectivity and quality of life.Smart cities are smarter and healthier, while at the same time bringing consumers improved convenience, connectivity and quality of life.

What the smart cities vertical aims for is to disrupt conventional real estate markets through the use of artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) to reimagine and transform the use of space.

Using technology and innovations, Sunway Group seeks to build sustainable cities that are smarter and healthier, while improving convenience, connectivity and quality of life to consumers at the same time.

“We are regularly talking to (Sunway) Property and Malls to really understand how to become smarter, to digitalise townships and see how data could be used to better understand customers’ behaviour and needs,” said Leeuwen.

Digitalising healthcare

Under the digital health tech vertical, the focus is on the customer journey, from entering the hospitals to registration and checking out - and everything in between, as these processes can be digitalised and thus, improve not only the productivity of operations, but also the customer experience.

All in all, it seeks to cultivate and enhance the efficiency of healthcare delivery and patient journey through cutting-edge medical solutions. Harnessing the power of data and in-depth analysis, it also looks to solve problems around preventive health such as non-communicable diseases and deep technology in healthcare.

Building the nation through education

“Education is something that is very close to our hearts and probably one of the most important drivers for innovation to happen,” said Van Leeuwen.

Through the EduTech vertical, Sunway is looking to transform the landscape of education from impact-driven teaching and learning tools to disrupting traditional education systems by providing peer-to-peer, gamification, problem-solving and hands-on learning education on its campus.

For instance, Sunway iLabs, through a partnership with Sunway Education Group, brought in world-renowned coding school Ecole 42, which led to the launch of 42KL in July 2020.

The reason for bringing in this game-changing coding school was to curb three rising problems, which are a lag in new programmes offered by universities, neglect in cultivating problem solving skills, and a mismatch of supply and demand between graduates and job opportunities, as identified by Van Leeuwen.

He added, “We have chosen to locate the first 42 here in Sunway City Kuala Lumpur as we are envisioning it as a living lab, an open innovation ecosystem where research and innovation can take place within a public-private-people partnership.”

An agricultural innovation

Agrifoodtech is bringing renewed interest into the agriculture sector, which is much needed to boost the nation’s food security.Agrifoodtech is bringing renewed interest into the agriculture sector, which is much needed to boost the nation’s food security.

“Three years ago, we saw a lot of students not just getting interested in farming per se, but also in technology and in IoT systems. And they were eager to build solutions to problem statements in agriculture,” he said.

Van Leeuwen described this as a great opportunity for students as they can connect something as archaic as agriculture to something as contemporary as digital software and hardware; answering questions like “how do I control the growth of plants?” and “how does humidity and temperature impact growth?”

He explained, “A lot of the students got really excited because they could see the impact immediately – to grow something in a controlled environment and use technology to monitor exactly how it will grow.”

This vertical, which addresses challenges with tech-driven solutions throughout the farm-to-fork supply chain, creates both upstream and downstream impact in line with the vital need to scale clean and healthy food production locally.

Sunway Group is looking to do so by building decentralised smart farms throughout its cities across the country, with the goal of improving Malaysia’s national food security and safety.

“This will effectively hit a few nails on the head as it does not only cultivate food security and safety, but also incorporates sustainability by cutting out the entire supply chain process. In fact, it makes the whole process very transparent and traceable,” he noted.

Addressing new customer behaviours

Through the e-commerce vertical, Sunway iLabs is looking to empower businesses to adopt e-commerce and digital solutions to reach faster growth, new markets as well as explore additional revenue streams.

Together with its partners, it aims to build a holistic ecosystem by providing innovative solutions such as online-to-offline enablers, logistics, omni-channel marketing, payment and security.

One such initiative is Sunway iLabs’ collaboration with Alibaba through the Global E-commerce Talent (GET) programme.

Van Leeuwen questioned, “It’s great that we train them up and provide them a potential launchpad, but what’s next?”

This is where Sunway iLab’s accelerator programme comes in by connecting selected start-ups to its Sunway Group business units as a testbed, providing them with mentorship, nurturing talents on their e-commerce startup projects, connecting them to the ecosystem and then investing in the start-ups at the early, but critical, stage in a company’s life cycle.

What’s next for Sunway?

Van Leeuwen is taking the helm to spur Sunway Group’s five verticals forward into the future.Van Leeuwen is taking the helm to spur Sunway Group’s five verticals forward into the future.

Since 2000, Sunway has already invested RM200mil in digitalisation, including to improve its internal processes, as well as enhance customer-facing initiatives and business ventures.

Now, it is gearing up further with a host of improvements to make Sunway City Kuala Lumpur a township that is smart, sustainable, as well as innovative and digital - to improve its agility and dynamism in a rapidly changing landscape.

Sunway also categorises its journey in digitalisation through three components.

The first one is through investment in technology enablers and digital structure.

“We need to invest more in the data infrastructure and how can we use that to further improve customer experience through digitalisation and applying artificial intelligence,” said Van Leeuwen.

He further explained that through this data infrastructure, Sunway Group can drive efficiency and productivity for its businesses at scale.

The second component is on building digital platforms for closer customer engagement, with a view to expand market share and customer base.

He said, “Once we have the data extracted and analysed, we will gain insights that will help us decide how we can use the data and make predictions to improve the experience (of customers) and to make us (Sunway) smarter on where to invest (in digitalisation).”

The last component is transformative, with Sunway Group keeping a keen eye out for investing in new digital businesses that can help amplify its strengths and capture new markets that can potentially help it transform further.

For example, with the rise of big data and the rapid adoption of financial technology, it opens a door to venture into digital payments and banking.

Though the Sunway Living Lab is still a relatively new concept, there is a lot of innovation that can happen in each of the five verticals, which is where the aforementioned accelerator and other programmes in Sunway iLabs can help.

“We do not want to do everything ourselves and some parts of a business can be done better by start-ups. We do not know what we do not know. Hence, we can engage more with the external ecosystem, start-ups, tech players and even other industries to learn together and co-create new ideas,” he concluded.

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