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Interview by Amelia Chew

TechLaw.Fest 2018 will bring together leading Technology Law thinkers and Legal Technology vendors from 4 to 6 April 2018 at Suntec Convention Centre, Singapore. Within it, the TechLaw.Fest Hackathon will be an intense, fast-paced 48-hour event challenging legal professionals, software developers and designers to come up with out-of-the-box solutions to problems faced by lawyers, in-house counsels and users of legal services. The event has a particular focus on personal data protection and the challenges faced by data protection officers (DPOs) in Singapore. The top three teams will receive prize vouchers worth up to $12,000 and the opportunity to develop their solutions further under SAL’s Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP) Accelerator Programme.

Hugh Mason, CEO of JFDI.Asia, is partnering with the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) to operate the FLIP Accelerator and will also serve as a judge in the TechLaw.Fest Hackathon. Here, the LawTech.Asia team asked him how he saw teams from the hackathon following through to make their ideas real.

We understand that you will be running the accelerator programme under SAL’s Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP). How does this fit into SAL’s Legal Tech Vision?

One way of thinking about innovation is to see it on three ‘Horizons’.

Horizon 1 is the known world of work we see today: the core business of lawyers and their clients as we know it. Here we are looking for efficiency savings by using off-the-shelf productivity tools. The LIFTED programme at SAL addresses this aspect of the SAL Legal Tech Vision, as does the incubator at Collision 8.

Horizon 2 includes all the technologies, business models and markets that might seem a little less familiar today but they are adjacent to what we are already doing. For example, Artificial Intelligence is now fairly well established in some areas of the law and we will see it ‘turbocharging’ legal professionals by taking away a lot of drudge work into the future, perhaps adding some unexpected bonuses too. The FLIP Accelerator will boost startup companies doing this kind of thing, for example by lining them up with first customers in Singapore that are willing to experiment and be used as a reference. We imagine that startups fulfilling this part of the SAL Legal Tech Vision will demonstrate significant value to the sector on a timescale of maybe 2-3 years.

Horizon 3 includes all the technologies, markets and business models that we are only just beginning to imagine. For example, it’s clear that computational law and blockchain are going to transform not just the practice of law but perhaps also what we think of as ‘legal tech’. Thinking of that in the context of mobility, for an example, many are now predicting a world where most vehicles are shared on the roads (whether or not they are autonomous), not owned by individuals as they are now. These new ownership models open up fascinating questions of liability and insurance, especially (as has already been shown by BOSCH in Germany) when we get moving vehicles autonomously striking and delivering on ‘smart contracts’ with each other and the fixed environment. It may be, for example, that a smart contract affords the right to enter a stretch of road, or to leapfrog a queue for a fee, much as ships waiting to unload at the Port of Singapore can do today. We could end up with a world where ‘contracts’ are not the relatively uncommon, formal, substantial paper things that we think of today but rather are much more like ERP payments: something we do as a matter of routine many time in a day. In that future, legaltech could be as big and ubiquitous as fintech and become just as vital as an enabler for a Smart Nation. I find it inspiring that the SAL Legal Technology Vision anticipated this kind of development and look forward to including some of these ‘long shots’ in the FLIP accelerator portfolio. We can’t expect these kind of innovations to transform our world for perhaps 3-5 years but, the sooner we start, the sooner Singapore will get to the future and lead the world in this regard.

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child and – by analogy – an ecosystem to raise a startup.

You spoke about building a blockchain-based accelerator at the recent Computational Law and Blockchain Festival. Drawing on your experience at JFDI, what would you say should be the key elements of such an accelerator?

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child and—by analogy—an ecosystem to raise a startup. An accelerator program for startups is like a school for human beings where the education happens experientially, with structure and guidance from mentors who have ‘been there, done that’ before. All education is an investment in the future so we cannot expect youngsters to start yielding a ‘return’ to their families and society from day 1. We have to take a ‘portfolio approach’ when we educate kids. It’s impossible to try to pick just the future scholars at the start and cast aside all the rest. Apart from being immoral that would be unwise because history teaches us that it takes diversity in the workforce and society to build a healthy human ecosystem that will be resilient as the world evolves.  

Likewise, if we want a rich, resilient legaltech future we cannot just try to ‘pick winners’ based on what the market needs today. Rather, we must invest in a diverse pool of baby businesses and accept that some will be ‘late developers’—’ugly ducklings’ at first that turn into ‘beautiful swans’ later. By definition innovation is about doing something that has not been done before, so every accelerator must take a risk on a pool of future talent and projects, accepting that (particularly at Horizon 3), failure is a necessary part of discovering the future.

So the FLIP accelerator will offer a safe space for new businesses to try to fly and a big trampoline to bounce them back up when they fall. The emphasis is not on efficiency but rather on getting smart people faster to the future, deploying the resources we have in a lean way, making lots of little bets as we discover what is working. If something is not going to work, let us please find out sooner and stop wasting time and money. But if it is going to work, let us put more energy behind it and give it the biggest boost we can.

The depth of engagement that SAL has already achieved with the demand side of the legal services industry will be incredibly important during the recruitment and selection phases of the FLIP accelerator. Today’s major legal practices on our island are a national asset and they have the resources, credibility and brainpower to keep reinventing themselves for the future if they choose. An exciting aspect of the accelerator will also be reaching out to include disruptive outsiders who are not currently part of the legal services sector and who will add new vitality to our island’s offering.

What advice do you have for participants in the upcoming TechLaw.Fest Hackathon?

JFDI has run many hackathons and their close cousins, Startup Weekends. Our experience is that it is quite rare for ideas that originate at a hackathon to make it all the way to a successful business unchanged. That is because hackathon projects grow out of the passion and vision of a group of people who meet for the first time at such an event. In other words the projects have not been validated on real customers. So the ‘idea’ part of the venture is very likely to ‘pivot’ in response to ‘customer discovery’ that can only happen after the hackathon where there is time to do it properly.

However, the unique value that arises from a hackathon is the opportunity to dive in and start working on something—anything—with a group of people for which you feel kinship. It’s best, in my experience, not to think to hard about this and just go with your gut. Your team might be very different to you. Their ideas might challenge your assumptions. Their working methods might seem very alien. But if something clicks on a human level, that’s a sign worth picking up and noting. It is the unexpected teams, relationships and conversations that emerge from hackathons that ultimately have the most enduring value.

… go with what your group is trying to do to say ‘and …’ instead of ‘but …’ when an idea strikes you as a little crazy.

So I would recommend anyone joining TechLaw.Fest Hackathon to turn off their critical filters for a couple of days. Don’t try to be the smartest person in the room and find reasons why something won’t work. Instead, go with what your group is trying to do to and try to say ‘and …’ instead of ‘but …’ when an idea strikes you as a little crazy. In a nutshell: go with an open mind and seek to make friends who are as different to you as possible in every way, because diversity fosters creativity and innovation.

Finally, when you come to present your ideas at the end of the hackathon, storytelling is everything. It’s not a rigid template but, as a starting point, the story format shown below seems to work well for our startups at JFDI and my students at NUS.

This piece of content was jointly produced by LawTech.Asia and the Singapore Academy of Law.

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