Innovation: Ferment, not Foment

In the Hutong
It’s quiet…too quiet
1252 hrs.

In a post entitled “R&D in China” that is old but by no means dated, Enterra Solutions’ Steve Angelis (annotating Geoff Dwyer’s excellent roundup piece on innovation in China) takes us on a walk through what stands between China and Hu Jintao’s goal of “independent innovation.”

In so doing, he hones in on what is probably the single most critical – and difficult – challenge: China lacks an academic establishment capable of fostering and driving world-class research.

Both authors note that simply focusing on the research end of the educational process won’t work. From kindergarten through graduate school, emphasis has to shift from neo-Confucian rote learning and theory to “problem solving” and “working as a team.” Not to mention, of course, rewarding true excellence rather than obsequiousness, and teaching and rewarding academic integrity.

Unfortunately, the suggestion that in order to encourage innovation there must be a complete free flow of ideas is a non-starter. That kind of rhetoric scares the hell out of China’s leaders – the minute you suggest educational reform and “free flow of ideas” in the same sentence, you are immediately tuned out. Innovation is nice, they feel, but not at the expense of stability. Return to square one.

Western thinkers are polarizing the issue, and we are doing so for our own selfish reasons. What nobody has suggested is that if free flows of information were allowed – but with some very clear areas where open discussion (i.e., politics, pornography, etc) was restricted – China could build an innovation-fertile culture. There might be, in other words, a middle ground between the Soviet Confucianism that seems to dictate China’s current academic philosophy and the “anything goes” approach popular in U.S. and European universities over the last four decades.

That kind of thinking is repugnant to Westerners. The idea of encouraging a wider – but still limited – flow of ideas and information in China smacks most of us like Chamberlain selling out Czechoslovakia.

The result, however, is a nation that is economically vibrant and academically stagnant, a place where you find the great minds of the nation not in its universities, but in the arrival halls of its international airports, returning from abroad with educations and experience they should have received at home.

Perhaps you are not comforted by the thought of an innovative China: there are plenty of people out there who are secretly happy with China doing the grunt work while others hang on to the intellectual property, and would be quite pleased to see things stay that way.

But we must recognize that our own all-or-nothing political orthodoxy about the flow of information and ideas does nothing to help China find a safe way into its future. If we genuinely want to see the Chinese people – and not just a privileged few – continue to prosper with a reasonable expectation of improving lifestyles, we need to find approaches that will bring Chinese education into the 21st century in a way that invigorates the system without rending the very fabric of Chinese society.