Pan Zheng Xiang
Innovator and Inventor
A young undergraduate at the Nanyang Technological University, Zheng Xiang innovated new applications of technology on many fronts in Singapore, including national security, counter-terrorism efforts, education, and community bonding. These earned him multiple local and international awards; in 2010, he was recognized by Microsoft as a “Star of Tomorrow” and awarded an internship opportunity where he worked with renowned names in the field.
His concern for the community has led him to spearheading countless tech-related projects that seeks to transform lives with the innovative use of computer technology. Beyond his technological pursuits, Zheng Xiang is a fervid sportsman who captained the NTU table tennis team, an enthusiastic debater, and a community leader.
Three coolest innovations or inventions you’ve come up with?
One of my most significant innovations is the Innovative Pass Verification System (IPVS) for the Singapore Armed Forces, which changes how different security departments work together to identify non-authorized personnel entering compounds and premises. Because a physical guard cannot remember the faces of many people, I thought of a system that allows SAF to detect identity of personnel and non-personnel and virtually tag information to a physical pass. Each of these systems costs about $800,000 in commercial value, and I built 33 of them for SAF while I was serving my national service.
There was also my first notable invention, which was a fan filter that traps dust I invented when I was 13 which was later sent for patent application and is seen now in widespread use.
The third would be the iChat with Merly and Lyo application I designed for the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore to enable connect youths internationally, powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. This was a project that was entirely ground-up – we didn’t take a single cent from the organizers, worked independently to create the App and the portal, and managed to convince them to launch it.
You talk a lot about transforming lives in the community through technology. Care to share how you’ve been doing that?
I’ve been a volunteer for around 10 years now, and I found the community a great platform to transform lives through the innovative use of computer technology. One of the first projects I piloted for young children in the community was “We Love Learning”, which employed computer technology in story telling and has been running for six years now. One of my recently launched projects was the “Singapore 1st Community-based Point, Shoot and Explore” project in Woodlands GRC, which allows people to scan a matrix code printed on banners and posters using their smartphones to get information about activities in the community readily. One great thing about developing a dynamic matrix code is that it allows for live updates, which is useful since event banners are usually printed way before the event itself, and this technology enables event organizers to change content and update residents readily because they can change content live. Important announcement can also be spread around more quickly and conveniently.
I believe that technology transcends age; I’m a believer in innovation-driven intergeneration framework – involving bonding of youth and senior citizens to promote active citizenry and active ageing via use of technology.
The framework seeks to close up of digital divide and generational gap between the youths and the elderly. It’s an uphill task but it’s rewarding when you see an 80-year-old grandparent able to play Angry Birds with their grandchildren after learning to use the tablet computer! I think it’s important that we don’t leave the older generation behind in the rapid waves of technological progress.
What made you feel so strongly about the community and giving back to Singapore?
In addition to the computer science major, I’m also pursuing public administration and foreign policy. I realized that Singapore is actually a very vulnerable country and its success up-to-date should not be taken for granted. As I visited other countries, I started to appreciate Singapore’s achievements over the short span of 40 years – although we’re so small, we have achieved a lot on a global level, and there’s a lot we should be thankful for. Giving back to the society became one of my personal priorities.
We always worry about the future of Singapore, but we sometimes forget about the present. Are we acting on it today? And if we are, what are we doing today to contribute? Innovations can come in terms of invention of a new technology, but I’m more concerned foremost about the usefulness of it in transforming lives of people.
There are people out there who see National Service as a waste of two precious years, and that the notion of a “thinking soldier” is almost oxymoronic. You seem to think otherwise and have done a lot to prove that through innovation, didn’t you?
Two weeks into national service as a Basic Military Training recruit, I galvanized some 80 volunteers in BMT to help me in a pilot project to make our two years more meaningful and memorable. When you’re in National Service, you tend to feel quite disconnected with life outside of camps, and the same goes for your loved ones. Parents miss their sons, and girlfriends miss their boyfriends. So I thought of an idea that create some sort of connection, to let our loved ones out there know what we’re doing in the grueling weeks of training. Moving from bunk to bunk, I pulled together a journal team and convinced officers to permit our members to bring their cameras into camps and take pictures, set up blogs for recruits to communicate with their family back at home. The CDs we pass out during the Passing Out Parades was born out of this initiative as well. It was quite physically demanding setting up sites and sorting photos over and above our duties as recruits, but my team of dedicated volunteers made it possible.
I was a debater as well, and after some time in the army realized the difficulty of inculcating values through a top-down approach. It’s difficult to understand the rationale behind what we do in army sometimes – especially when it involves the sacrifice of two precious years of our lives – and a top-down approach for education doesn’t make it any simpler. So instead of having others explain it to us, I thought, why not thrash it out among ourselves? I started a debate about national education and National Service in camp and managed to persuade the officers to ferry debate judges to preside over formal debates in camps.
Advice for youths and innovators/inventors wannabe out there?
Innovation and invention share a same characteristic: they are both about thinking out of the box, thinking about something no one else have thought about or adopted. So there is bound to be resistance to change. Innovation sometimes requires the changing of the current flow, of how society works presently. Otherwise a totally new invention – being out of sync with the general flow – can become an additional chore for people. Creating something that changes the status quo requires a double dose of effort… you must convince others why this change should be embraced. Changing the way things work doesn’t mean you have won the hearts and minds of people. A successful invention or innovation does that.
If an innovation is commercially viable, it’s probably a good one because it usually means it responds to a specific need or demand in society. Innovation is about improving productivity, transforming how things work… there’s a story of an old man making a difference to every starfish he throws back into the ocean; using the same analogy, innovation is devising something that can automatically throw starfishes back into the sea.
You know how it is that when we lose something we realize we once had? Innovation is the opposite, you do not know what you can have until it emerges and transforms your life. So dream IT, innovate IT, change IT and make-IT-happen. We should not ask what Singapore can do for us but what we can do for our nation…sail off the safe harbour, be courageous and creative to make the next transformation today, especially when it comes to the community.
– Profiled by Chan Chi Ling