First Singapore, then the planet. If you’re wondering what comes next for our young social entrepreneurs, you might want to check in with Bernise Ang. Her youth development non-profit Syinc, which she founded in 2008, has been feted for encouraging young people to create innovative solutions for social change.
With her five-year-old consultancy Zeroth Labs, a spin-off from Syinc, Ang is also helping public sector agencies and international organisations rethink their public policy programmes.
Led by international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) as well as NGOs, think-tanks and consultancies, the field of international development is often plagued by inefficiencies, irrelevance and dysfunction. By mixing unconventional approaches – from anthropology and data science to systems thinking – to help local governments improve public services, Zeroth Labs is disrupting international development for the better by tapping on a desire for much-needed change.
And the world’s bureaucrats are listening. Zeroth Labs’ 2014 project with the mayor’s office in the city of Gazipur in Bangladesh, and the UN Development Programme used human-centred design to improve public services for local residents, including slum dwellers. It also resulted in a prototype of an app for municipal payments and services.
That initiative led to other projects with the UN and city governments in countries like Bhutan and China. Although no two programmes are the same, Zeroth Labs aims to help local bureaucrats tackle the big issues, such as poverty, environmental threats and other complex global challenges.
“We help policymakers and decision makers better understand their city, country and state. We support their investigations so that their finite resources can be applied to higher-impact actions,” says Ang, in her 30s.
For her work, she was selected to be a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum in 2017, an “amazing and eye- opening” experience that allowed her to learn from young people from around the world. She is also part of the adjunct faculty at Singapore Management University, teaching innovation methods to graduate students.
A self-confessed “kid who’s always asking why”, she also has a keen interest in physics, sprinkling the interview with references to complexity theory, Feynman diagrams and how science can do good, pointing to the plant-based Impossible Burger she’s munching on during our chat.
Asked about her motivations, she says: “We’re single atoms in space. My work is a way for me to connect with humanity in different places and conditions, whose lives I would never have known because I was so privileged to grow up in Singapore. And who am I to say what is best for others? I try to hold this close to me because it’s easy to get arrogant and complacent.”
Ang studied psychology at the University of New South Wales, where she became a student activist campaigning for international students to have better rights on public transport. After graduation, she got a job in finance, due in part to parental pressure, and worked for five years as a business consultant. But that spark of activism continued to glow in her.
While still in her day job, she set up Syinc, a community of youth volunteers. In 2012, she quit the corporate world to focus on it. Her work in social entrepreneurship and youth development quickly became recognised in Singapore.
Among Syinc’s high-profile projects was Under The Hood, a ground-up initiative in 2013 to harness community innovation and tackle inter-generational poverty for poor residents of Bukit Ho Swee.
Her experience with Syinc in fostering social change via entrepreneurship helped her segue into the next phase of her career.
She says: “It made me realise that to make change happen, it’s not enough to feed the inputs, such as running workshops and developing strategy. We also need to pay attention to the broader political, social, economic, environmental and technological forces that influence how things go.”