Kopi Tiams as Creative Incubators?

By Professor Thomas Menkhoff, Director, MSc in Innovation, SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business

Singapore’s kopi tiams can be found across the island both in the heartlands as well as in the city’s dynamic business hubs. The Malay word kopi means coffee and tiam (a Hokkien word) refers to shop. Kopi tiam customers can enjoy various types of coffee, tea, and other drinks as well as kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs etc. Singapore’s kopi tiams are great settings for inter-ethnic communication and social gatherings. They offer traditional drinks and dishes from different ethnicities which allows members of different social groups to eat and socialise in a common place.

The majority of tables in traditional kopi tiams are round. Why? In Asian society, eating and drinking coffee is usually done in social groups. A round eating table can accommodate many people, friends and/or relatives and enables the host to effectively manage social occasions if the situation demands. Round tables also facilitate the sharing of food, allowing each member of a group of diners to easily pick up communal dishes of food regardless of where at the table they are seated. Apart from its obvious practical advantages, roundedness also has deep cultural meaning. The Chinese characters for a round table symbolise “reunion” and “success” (in the sense of being ‘united’, ‘rounded’ and ‘complete’). The significance of these concepts become widely apparent during Chinese cultural festivities such as the reunion dinner each Chinese New Year.

But beyond the communal dining experience and its cultural significance, the round tables and the overall Kopi Tiam culture plays a much more important role in Singapore society. They facilitate interaction, brainstorming and the creation of new knowledge. Singapore coffee shops are an ideal place for exchanging the latest gossip, problem-solving, and producing new ideas. Sitting cross-legged, sipping coffee and leaning forward to hear someone better over the din, or to whisper something patrons at other tables should not hear are all too familiar parts of the Asian coffee shop experience. The fertile mix of caffeine, the joy of being in good company as well as mental stimuli created by the proximity of fellow coffee shop patrons during a lively coffee shop discussion (in short: coffee shop talk) creates a conducive, organic culture of knowledge sharing and innovation which cannot easily be dictated by the sheer force of managerial authority. The numerous ‘buzz-creating initiatives’ such as healthy juice bars in new knowledge-intensive agglomerations such as science parks have made this clear.

It’s all about connection, authenticity (and roundness). I’m not alone in this view. A popular knowledge sharing and creation tool has been built on this very insight. The knowledge café method was pioneered by the collaborative learning specialist, Elizabeth Lank (UK) in the 1990s. It was popularised by British knowledge management expert David Gurteen who convincingly argues that the best way to share knowledge is, and has always been through conversations.

A local example of the effective use of the informal atmosphere of coffee chats is MP Grace Fu’s “eavesdrop” (ST Oct 3, 2012) which she conducted as part of her Jurong East Dialogue. As part of the Singapore Conversation, she met up with some 150 elderly ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ who shared their worries and concerns over issues such as health care costs and the rising cost of living.

Important yet poorly understood issues include possible differences between ‘Asian’ kopi tiams with their round tables and ‘non-Asian’ coffee houses with their predominant rectangular tables in terms of behavioural consequences (one might argue that the degree of new knowledge creation qua sharing is lower when patrons are seated at rectangular tables) or whether Singapore’s Gen Y appreciate their own cultural coffee shop heritage. Anecdotal evidence suggests that non-Singaporeans are more willing than Singaporeans to spend big bucks for a “grande mild with room” (i.e. a large, hyper-caffeinated coffee with cream and sugar) while older kopi tiam patrons enjoy their kopi (e.g. kopi susu = milk coffee) at a much lower price. Gen Y on the other hand seems to prefer an air-conditioned environment, a cozy sofa to lounge around and convenient plug-ins for their laptops, something most kopi tiams do not provide.

If these different social groups do not meet in ‘local’ coffee places, the lack of social contact (and thereby foregone communication and innovation potentials) could lead to serious socio-economic dysfunctions in the long run, e.g. by perpetuating both mental and physical boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Against such a rather gloomy scenario, I would argue, based on observations in coffee shop hotspots (and dessert bars) in Holland Village and Bras Basah, that Singapore’s increasingly diverse coffee shop scene is alive and kicking. Collectively, the city-state’s coffee shops represent a powerful social institution whose integration, knowledge creation and innovation potential is enormous.

Read Prof Thomas Menkhoff’s article on this topic in The Business Times here.