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Lessons from two competing systems

Posted on: February 11, 2017

If there is anything that Singaporeans appreciate, it must be our food. If there is something we dislike, it might be our antiquated coupon parking system.

Both remind us of important lessons on systemic change.

TODAY reported the mixed response to an app for ordering meals at a food court.

It was practically an article that wrote itself. Without interviewing anyone, an unscrupulous reporter could have made up a story of customers and store holders who were for and against it.

The same paper reported how coupon parking would be “phased out altogether”, but did not specify exactly when.

What both reports have in common is a new system (a set of tools, expectations, and behaviours) replacing an older one. Perhaps “replacing” is too strong a word. A more accurate phrase might be “working alongside but not yet at the tipping point”.

The older systems prevent mass adoption, further experimentation, and change. In the case of ordering food, there is the unwillingness to learn how to use the app.

Our paper-based coupons are a relic of the 1980s. Based on numbers provided in the TODAY article, 73% of all our public off-street carparks already use the electronic reader system. However, our on-street parking does not have any such infrastructure, so we rely on coupons to pay, and parking uncles and aunties to issue summons.

Almost six years ago, some drivers resorted to using apps like Summon Auntie to alert fellow drivers of parking wardens. This was a sociotechnical system that was not sanctioned by the authorities, but was a ground-up effort instead.

The paper-based parking coupon is also ironic given that Singapore has grand designs on being a Smart Nation. While some of our parking is paper-based, our road tax is not. As of 15th February this year, drivers need not display road tax discs on their windscreens thanks to an online registration system.

The antiquated paper coupon system seems to be tolerated simply because no other system was prepared in order to replace it.

So what are the reminders of opposing forces in systemic change?

There are the new or better possibilities that accompany technology versus the fear of learning new behaviours. The barrier to change is compounded by the lack of foresight and planning, and weighed further by general inertia.

A superficial observation of systems outside schooling provide such insights. The barriers to change in schooling are essentially the same. They are human stubbornness, apathy, and lethargy. They are obvious if we are willing to reflect critically and humbly on ourselves.

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