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Bernise Ang, co-founder and Chief Alchemist of Zeroth Labs, believes treating people right is at the core of any good leader. After all, Ang’s work in Zeroth Labs, a consultancy that diagnoses “difficult policy problems”, is all about improving the lives of individuals.

As she puts it, Zeroth Labs helps government agencies in developing countries identify the underlying issues driving social-economic challenges, such as urban poverty, unemployment, rapid urbanisation and more. She works mainly with government agencies and multilateral institutions, which sees her dealing with all sorts of personalities daily.

“A good leader needs to be people-centred, because even with big institutions you are ultimately dealing with humans, and I believe it’s important to treat people right. In doing so, you also sometimes get deeper insight into their perspective; how they see things and the local system in which they’re operating” she says.

The pandemic put her judgement to the test. While her work sees her travelling globally, travel bans meant she could only take on virtual projects. Instead of taking on as many virtual projects as possible to make up for any shortfalls, she prioritised her staff’s well-being and reinvented her business strategy in the pandemic.

“My priorities during this time have been to make sure the team is okay, and take perspective on what to push on and what to accept,” she explains.

Ang tells the Greater what being a chief alchemist is about, and how Zeroth Labs navigates the pandemic era.


Tell me about Zeroth Labs and how it seeks to improve the status quo?

Einstein is quoted as saying, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

My team works to uncover the messy system dynamics underlying difficult policy problems (like youth unemployment, rapid urbanisation, urban poverty, and more) to help government agencies in developing regions better identify where to shift their focus. 

Some policymakers seem drawn to sexy, silver-bullet solutions (if only things were that simple). But before deciding that the answer is industry reform, or creating an entrepreneurship training programme, how do you know your favoured solution actually targets what created the unemployment to begin with?

So we try to shift the status quo of this type of work in international development to be more informed by understanding the nature of these complex adaptive systems.


What are your roles and responsibilities within the company?

I’m the Chief Alchemist, or more plainly, research lead. Why?

Our projects often have very different contexts, so we can’t use the same approach or tools every time. Instead, we combine various methods, such as anthropology, data analysis, network science, and other funky approaches like agent-based modelling, to map out our research. We put them together and sequence these methods for projects. That’s what my “alchemy” is about.


How has Covid-19 impacted your company, and what measures did you take to rise above the crisis?

Business took a hit because many of our projects involve field work. For us, the reality is you can only go virtual so far. So we’ve had to take on only projects where we can actually do everything virtually.

However, this has also allowed us to discover new strengths and new joys: the pandemic gave an opportunity to create and run a mini module for the NUS medical school completely virtually.

The topic was complexity and systems thinking (affectionately named CAST), for medical students, so going virtual on such an abstract topic posed its challenges — but it taught us so much about what makes learning good and fun in a zoom environment.


A leader can take their business to new heights. What do you think makes a great leader?

The humility to take perspective from all levels, whether it is from the big picture systemic view, or in more local detail. To see in systems, and to deal with the business of tackling complex, multilayered problems is almost impossible without being able to hold different perspectives, especially when they come into conflict.


How do you define success?

I don’t. I think the notion of success comes across as an external measure and has a validation-seeking sense to it, which doesn’t motivate me as much as it used to when I was younger.

Instead I respond more to the notion of thriving. So, what is thriving? To me, it’s when you find alignment among your multiple selves: creative, cognitive, emotional, spiritual. It takes a lot of inner work, which I am finding to be more and more important over time.


Who is your mentor or your inspiration and why?

My inspiration is nature. As a kid I was always fascinated with the universe and how it works. I still am, because I am a kid at heart. I think a lot of the problems we face (and frankly as humans we create a lot of them ourselves) can find answers in nature — but only if we know to look for them there.

I find that a lot of lessons I’ve learnt about balance, flow, boundaries, even scale — have their expressions in nature. Nature is a really practical (and crazy innovative) teacher.


What are some activities you do to rally your staff in times of low morale?

In times of low morale (and in the good times too), a priority of mine is to create psychological safety. I feel a lot of organisational culture features key words like values, mission, vision; but many groups in their well-intentioned zeal for “success” can sometimes forget about psychological safety.

Which in bad times is important for finding solutions together to make bad situations better, and in good times is important for new ideas and new thinking — you don’t get “innovation” in a vacuum because risk is necessary for invention, and psychological safety is necessary for taking risk.


What rituals do you have to prevent burnout?

I practice a simple form of breath meditation that makes me feel more present in my surroundings. But I think a general principle is to practice kindness. To others, but also to oneself, and in whatever ways that means for you.


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