World can learn from S’pore in urban design and cyber security: Nobel laureate

SINGAPORE – Singapore seems to be doing a better job of protecting its citizens from cyber threats than many bigger developed countries. And Professor Paul Romer, a 2018 Nobel laureate in economics, is on a mission to find out why.

“Israel and Singapore are two of the leaders in the world right now in protecting people and businesses from cybercrime – and I’d like to learn more about the details of how Singapore and Israel are doing that,” said Prof Romer, 66, in an interview with The Straits Times last Friday ahead of the Nobel Prize Dialogue to be held here on Sept 13.

Other areas the world could learn from Singapore include wage policy and urbanisation – fields that Prof Romer, an acclaimed economic theorist, counts among his interests.

“Singapore is very valuable to the world as a kind of a experiment generator that shows the world the kinds of things that are possible, so that we don’t get caught in a very narrow set of beliefs about what’s possible or what’s feasible,” said Prof Romer, who will participate in the dialogue through a pre-recorded discussion with youth from across the Asia-Pacific.

The New York University (NYU) professor in economics and former chief economist of the World Bank won the Nobel Prize for a theory that showed how technological change could result in economic growth.

Describing his research approach, Prof Romer said: “The first thing I find is that, in understanding the complex, noisy reality that we all live in, it’s helpful to identify a few abstractions that let you pull up to a higher level.”

The other element, he added, is to identify and put aside emotional reactions while identifying these abstractions so that one can form potential theories.

His Nobel-winning work typifies this approach.

Recounting the questions he sought to answer, Prof Romer said: “What does it mean to produce an idea and to distribute an idea?

“How does an idea differ from an object, and what’s the essence of the economics of ideas?”

But beyond theory, he also had the applied realm in his sights.

This included a foray into entrepreneurship with education technology company Aplia, which he founded in 2001 while teaching at Stanford.

After selling Aplia in 2007, Prof Romer developed an intense interest in urbanisation, with Singapore as a model for effective urban development.

“Some of Singapore’s insights could be transferable to bring more successful urban development to countries around the world,” he said.