Sunway FutureX: Future Proofing Malaysian Enterprises and Talent

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Sunway Group has become synonymous with sustainable development. Education is known to be its chairman, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah’s strong passion and life goals. Second to education is sustainable development. How Sunway University has creatively combined its chairman’s two strong passion is what Matt van Leeuwen, Sunway Group chief innovation officer and Sunway iLabs director shares with The Petri Dish editor-in-chief, Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan.

Can the multi-dimensional issues such as food security, developing talent for the digital era, sustainable development, healthcare and commercializing research outcomes put in one basket and weaved with one another to become a new fabric that shapes the future?

Matt van Leeuwen tells us it can be done as that is exactly what he is doing at Sunway iLabs, or the Sunway Innovation Labs. True to its name, Sunway iLabs exudes innovation in every aspect of its programmes. Aptly, his latest project is called FutureX, where any field can be transformed to fit into the age of digital and technological disruption.

The pandemic saw the broken supply chain in the food sector right from the farmers to the consumers. Farmers in Netherlands were disposing tonnes of tulips that could not reach their customers. In Malaysia, farmers turn to digital platforms to sell their produce. This is where FutureX Farm, one of the components under FutureX addresses issues related to food security. Launched in Nov 2020, decentralising farming is one of the critical areas that van Leeuwen is attempting. “Consumers today want to feel the connection with the history of their food – where and how they are produced”, says van Leeuwen.

To provide this connection urban farms are built five kilometres within the vicinity of residential areas. This provides fresh produce to the consumers and provide them opportunity to buy directly from the farm, a luxury for urbanites. This also means transportation is eliminated, reducing greenhouse gasses. Sunway Group is exploring conversion of idle land and rooftop car parks into urban farming, were herbs and leafy vegetables will be the focus. The urban poor will also reap the benefit where nutritionally disadvantaged society will have access to fresh produce at a lower price.

Unlike traditional farming, urban farming is not all about sowing, weed and pest management and harvesting. FutureX Farm incorporates elements of precision agriculture to control growing conditions, pests and nutrients through IoT and data infrastructure. Hydroponics and vertical farming technology are being explored where plants can be stacked.   These elements make urban farming very attractive among students, who have already shown a keen interest to participate in agri-talent development programmes at FutureX.

Not only food security became an issue during the pandemic but access to quality healthcare was also affected. This was when Sunway Medical Centre became the first to adopt digital healthcare where patients were able to consult doctors from the comfort of their homes. Medical records, payments, insurance and even checking the queue were all computerised.

Digitalisation and innovation were also extended to malls to provide online solutions and support SMEs and start-ups to go online. Multichannel platforms and payment modes were created to make life easier during the pandemic.

Another flagship project under FutureX is developing Smart Cities. This is not just about environmental friendly or sustainable cities but liveable urban ecosystem where human behaviour is fully understood. Whether they are malls, hospitals, public transport or universities, sustainable or smart cities are redefined as understanding what the public wants, working closely with the population, integrating technology and ultimately improving quality of life.

All these futuristic ideas require young talents with a completely different mindset groomed to have entrepreneurial skills and an innovative and creative mind. This is where FutureX related to education kicks in.

One unique concept adapted from France is Ecole 42 – a no-fee, no-teachers, no-classrooms coding school. It relies on peer-to-peer and project-based learning, gamification and collaboration with industry players where students solve industrial problems. The structural programmes from advanced to Level 21 develops IT and data experts for futuristic disciplines in the new education game-changer based in Sunway City, called 42 KL.

Besides 42 KL, students solving industry problems, taking part in entrepreneurship bootcamps or spending a full semester in learning all about start-ups are the norms at Sunway University under its flagship Startup Foundry. Just like a foundry, these programmes shape the students to become modern day entrepreneurs with key surviving skills needed in the world of start-ups – customer-centric, legal perspectives, venture financing, prototyping, pitching, leadership, problem solving and design thinking. These young talents are the hope to bring research to the market with novel commercialisation ideas.

All these initiatives connect the dots in creating a sustainable future and bringing all players together ranging from researchers to tech companies, urban farmers, young talents, entrepreneurs, medical fraternity and the public. This is part of nation building.