Asian Innovation Awards: Contenders Stress Different Ways of Thinking

The Asian Wall Street Journal, 21 September 2005

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Entries Vary from Software for Narrowing Preferences to an Imaginative Auto

You would think that computers make decisions easier. All that information available. All those tools to sift through that information. All those programs to organize the information and to pluck from it the most important points. But that hasn't happened.

Say you are choosing a hotel. Sure, you can arrange a list of hotels according to their star ratings, their newness, their price or their popularity, but can you arrange them using a combination of criteria? And how about your own preferences -- room size, whether the rooms have Jacuzzis, how close it is to a Starbucks?

Computers haven't really helped us make these kind of choices, but that is something Point Wizard Ltd. of Wellington, New Zealand, hopes to change with a program called Point*Wizard. "The really innovative thing about Point*Wizard is that it gets you to make the simplest of decisions," says Franz Ombler, Point Wizard co-director.

Point Wizard [1000Minds] is one of six finalists for the Global Entrepolis@Singapore Award, presented by The Asian Wall Street Journal in association with the Economic Development Board of Singapore. Entries for this award are judged on the basis of innovation, technology and commercial potential.

Point*Wizard uses a mathematical approach called "pairwise trade-offs." Simply put it is a process of ranking your preferences and then whittling down the choices by pitting two choices against each other in a series of run-off contests based on the rankings of your preferences. Mr. Ombler explains: "It generates a points system, which can then be applied to alternatives as they arise: hotels in the city you land in, choosing a new car, patients that apply for fertility treatment."

This idea isn't new, but the fact that Point Wizard has been able to harness it into simple point-and-click software is. "The idea of pairwise trade-offs for this sort of task was considered back in the '70s but was abandoned because it was considered too hard," Mr. Ombler says. "Instead the academics opted for harder questions. On a scale of 1 to 9 tell me how much you prefer Heineken to Guinness? Instead, we ask the simpler and more accurately answered question: Which do you prefer? Heineken or Guinness?" Point Wizard's patented approach is called Potentially All Pairwise RanKings of Alternatives, or Paprika for short.

Of course, the software isn't just about choosing hotels or beer. Mr. Ombler says the software is being used to prioritize patients for treatment by New Zealand's Ministry of Health. "The exciting bit for nonmathematicians, eg., doctors, is that now there's a decision-analysis tool that asks the simplest of questions [and so the easiest for them to answer, especially in a group], and produces the most accurate prioritization decisions."

Singapore company System Access Ltd., another GES finalist, also uses software to simplify things. In its case, that is financial systems. Banks long have been, as the company describes, "a patchwork of in-house-built departmental systems and niche software packages stitched together and layered upon each other." System Access's solution: Symbols, a software overlay that allows customers to cherry pick their products from rival vendors, but weaves them all into a "highly cohesive and seamless experience."

Symbols is a kind of umbrella for all the kinds of software a bank uses, making a complex system more manageable and easier to use. At the other end of the spectrum, a finalist from Malaysia, ViTrox Technologies Sdn. Bhd., is like a microscope, improving the way companies check for defects in computer chips. Its product, in the company's words, "has the power of sight. This computer system enables the automated visual inspection of manufactured products for quality and process control."

Not all the GES finalists are for backroom experts. REVA Electric Car Co. in India, for example, makes the environmentally friendly electriCity car that now is being sold not only in India but also in such places as the U.K. In Britain, customers receive government support in the form of a subsidy, no road tax, no congestion charge in the capital and free parking.

The car's commercial success caught the eye of fellow Indian Anil K. Gupta, one of the judges, who says the car "has a futuristic tinge, has created global demand and has influenced polices in the direction in which world markets need to be molded in view of an energy crisis looming in the horizon."

This approach of leveraging innovation for the ordinary consumer lies behind another finalist, Hong Kong Broadband Network Ltd. Not just another Internet provider, the HKBN uses a technology called Metro Ethernet to pump super fast -- 100 megabits a second -- Internet connections into half a million Hong Kong homes. If your senses have been a little dulled by claims of super fast Internet connections, compare that speed to the average ADSL connection, which allows for six mps. What might you do with all that bandwidth? Think Internet-based television, downloading whole CDs-worth of music in a few seconds or sending large chunks of video to friends across town (or the world).

Finally, if you feel you don't get enough advertising on your television set at home, China's Focus Media Holding Ltd., another GES finalist, has the solution: outdoor media. It promises a network of flat-panel television displays in building lobbies, supermarket aisles and other consumer-rich locales, running specially devised DVDs chock full of commercials "to bring audiovisual advertising to various locations to target people where they work, shop, travel and entertain."