29 March 2023
Hong Kong SAR
Q&A: introducing Yidan Prize judge Warren Ang

Global Development Incubator (GDI)’s approach to driving social impact resonates closely with that of our foundation. At heart, we both believe that if we want long-term, sustainable transformation, we need to find and amplify initiatives that really make a difference.

That philosophy makes Warren Ang a very welcome addition to our independent Judging Committee. As GDI’s Managing Director for East Asia, Warren devotes his time to finding and supporting scalable projects that change lives. We sat down with him to learn more about his work and what encouraged him to join us.

Can you tell us about yourself and what you do?

I’m Malaysian-born Chinese. I grew up in Australia, and since 2010 I’ve lived around the world—in mainland China, in India for a couple of years, then France and Singapore, and now Hong Kong.

Work-wise, I spent half of my career in strategy consulting in the private and non-profit sectors, and the other half in general management and entrepreneurship. These days I spend all my time in the social impact space.

In East Asia, GDI works in partnership with the global network. My projects are across mainland China, Hong Kong, and India. Our model is fairly unique, but probably the best way to explain is that it’s like a non-profit private equity model. That is: we look for impactful initiatives that can get to scale, and then we make long-term investments in them. And we really follow through, often seconding our own people in to help make them a success.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in social impact?

We spend most of our waking time working, and I wanted what I did to match what I believed. I want to see more top talent working on issues that affect the underprivileged rather than just making money. And the way the economics are set up, it’s not always easy to convince them to.

15 years in, I just find myself more gravitated towards solving social issues than business problems. Sometimes I still get involved in business level strategy, and it reminds me how much more meaningful it is to work on problems like alleviating poverty, mental health crisis, and the need to transform education for the future. These are important problems to solve. And they don’t have clear cut answers. It’s not as simple as business.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Having your own beliefs about what will create the most impact and value, and then having the courage to try it and stick with. If you do that, it’s hard to go wrong.

Where people might miss their full potential in social impact is following a more well-trodden path. Or turning into a service provider, doing whatever people want them to do or they get paid to do. Down that road, you start to lose your sense of why you do what you do.

The flipside of the lesson is that career isn’t everything. I was one of those people that poured all my life into that direction. But nowadays, I think it’s important to make time to be human—like having fun, and having close and meaningful relationships with friends and family. Don’t sleep on that stuff because that’s what life’s about.

If you can balance those two things, that’s the best career advice I can give.

What factors are key when trying to scale ideas and initiatives effectively?

That’s such a good—and huge—question. There are at least three core factors we look for.

Firstly, we want to know if there’s an endgame in mind. Or in other words, can you answer the questions: once at scale, who will pay for this and who will be doing it?

Because we want to know we’re solving this for more than just a handful of people. And there are only two engines that can scale: government and commercial markets. So you need to design your initiative in the context of your target scale engine.

For example, if your goal is government adoption, then your design should work with government budgets, operators, and manpower in mind. You also need to show why it’s effective versus other options, as well as where they’re already spending money. One of the biggest mistakes we see operators make all the time is that they want to talk about why a certain program is the best, but they can’t clearly contrast it with current alternatives.

The second factor we look for is timing. If you’re targeting government adoption, it’s largely affected by political will. That means sometimes it doesn’t matter how good an idea it is. If it’s out of season, you’re just pushing uphill—so you need to know when it’s the right time to push on.

The third is local leadership and commitment. One of the harsh realities younger folks in this space learn is that you probably won’t see the scale of impact that you’re proud of for at least five to ten years. So it’s key that the people driving the ideas and initiatives are local leaders. They’re from the community. They want to serve. They understand the issues, and have a lifelong commitment to solving them.

On that note, I really need to emphasize that context is everything. It’s why we need to step away from the traditional approach to global development and think of social impact in terms of local solutions to local problems.

To illustrate that, let’s think about poverty right here in Hong Kong. It’s a very wealthy city GDP-wise, but we have 24% of people under the poverty line. In Hong Kong, housing is a massive issue for poverty alleviation. You have the same wealth inequality in a place like Singapore, but nearly 80% of Singaporeans have access to public housing. It’s around 30% in Hong Kong. The job market in Hong Kong has a long-tail of low-end sales and service jobs, meaning many are trapped in low quality jobs. So you have to understand the big drivers of poverty in a region, and what social mobility opportunities are available. These opportunities, in turn, are dependent on the government’s view of what to make available in terms of social security and upward mobility programs, which are determined by how much tax we pay and so on. These are all very contextually different from government to government. Culturally and politically, we need to think as local as possible.

Why is it so important to measure impact?

I think it’s obvious why it’s important: We all have limited resources, and so we want to know where we can get the biggest bang for our buck. However —and I think this is the reason you’re asking—impact measurement lacks investment and is usually done poorly.

Behind closed doors, people say, “it’s too difficult”, or “it’s impossible”, or “it’s too long term to know”. I don’t think it’s impossible. I do think it’s genuinely difficult.

As a starting point, at the very least, I want to see two levels of impact measurement. First, at the intervention level. Answering essential questions: what works, for whom, and in what setting? How does that compare to the existing alternatives—how much faster/better/cheaper is it? Without this analysis, general output results aren’t enough to know if we have something that can change the game.

Secondly, at the scaling level—the endgames I spoke about earlier. What is the scale engine they’re targeting and to what extent is the intervention well placed to achieve that?

Essentially, I want to be able to say: “the thing we’re doing works, it’s better than what’s currently out there, and we could potentially do it at the scale we need to truly solve the problem”. And that’s the narrative you ideally want impact measurement and evaluation to give you.

What made you interested in joining the Yidan Prize Judging Committee?

The prize is unique. I like the core ambition of having a prize for research and a prize for development, since the greatest potential lies in the intersection: for a project to have impact it’s got to be evidence-based, and it’s got to work in the field at scale.

I’m excited about doing whatever I can to help realize that. Especially as I think we’re far behind on transforming education for the future. Schools are still largely a product of the industrial era, mass producing education, and not tailored to the far more agile reality. And I don’t just mean technology: the whole role of education needs to shift.

For example, what if the role of education was about these three things: fostering meaningful relationships; a safe environment for experimentation and learning; and helping children connect with the outside world. If schools focused on these things instead of knowledge and exams—how different could they be?

And yes, these changes are already happening in top tier schools and international schools—or schools for the wealthy, I should say. But I would love to see that available across the board, not just for those with the means.

So that’s what I’m excited about, as we’re all part of one shared future. How can we transform education for everybody? What does that look like in different parts of the world, and how could we get there faster?