Setting China’s Innovation Bar

Hutong West
Disrupting my reading
1953 hrs. 

Now that I am spending more time in Silicon Valley and its satellite outposts of innovation in the US, the question posed to me over more meals and espressos is “do you think China will ever become innovative?”

After a lot of time to think about that question on planes an in hotel rooms, the best answer I have to that is another question.

“How do you define innovation?”

One expert with whom I shared a panel about a year ago said that innovation is like pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

That’s witty, pithy, and, I have found, gets your audience on-side. Which is nice when your audience is a client writing big checks for your advice. Unfortunately, it is also wrong.

A Relevant Definition

You can define innovation if you think about it. Franz Johansson has thought a lot about it, and the way he defines it as something that is both novel (new, never seen before) and useful.

That’s actually a pretty good starting point, but global experience proves something may be novel, useful, but not particularly relevant. The XboX Kinnect is novel and useful, but not particularly relevant if you live in China, where video game consoles are essentially banned. The Founder Group was built largely on an innovation laser typesetting of Chinese characters, a remarkable breakthrough in China but largely irrelevant to three-quarters of the planet. A review of the history of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) offers a list of innovations that never found the proper context that made them commercial, meaningful, and worthwhile.

A good working definition of an innovation, then, is something that is novel, useful, and relevant to a given audience.

What is more, innovation need not be in product: breakthrough innovations in process can be incredibly disruptive: think Fred Smith’s breakthrough with overnight freight processing that created FedEx, or, classically, Henry Ford’s moving assembly line.

Through a Filter, Darkly

We tend to view innovation in China through the lenses of two fallacies. The first lens is based on our view of China, and the second on our view of innovation.

Our view of China suggests that because China does not have a consistent record of innovation in recent years, and because many Chinese companies and entities proclaim they are being innovative when (by our definition, anyway) they are not, that China does not innovate.

This could be disproved, except for the second fallacy, which is our view of innovation. We tend to look at innovation like John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” seeing only landmark breakthroughs and totally original ideas as true innovation. This is a natural prejudice: our lifetimes have witnessed so many breakthroughs that our personal standards are high.

But they are unrealistic. The advances that turned the technologies used for mainframe computers into the personal computer revolution were not breakthroughs, but they were profound innovations nonetheless.

When we reframe our standards and work with the definition of innovation above, we can view China’s current innovation – and its prospects – differently.

Innovation Happens – Even in China

China is not yet an economy that is driven by its own innovations, but by those of others. Nonetheless, there are indicators that innovation is taking place in Chinese enteprises. Huawei’s investments in R&D following the telecom bust in 2002 have been yielding industry-leading innovation for three years in its networks business. BYD is using old battery technology in an innovative way. And Yuneec is on the verge of doing for general aviation aircraft what Tesla has done for the family sedan.

All of which goest back to my clients’ question. If Chinese enterprises are disrupting the mobile communications, automotive, and aviation industries, what industry is next? The best way to answer that is to watch for the little innovations, the process innovations, the incremental breakthroughs that turn out advances that are novel, useful, and relevant. Find those, and you will find the next point of disruption.

China Business Briefs 25/12/13 | China Stocks Watch

[…] Setting China’s Innovation Bar – Silicon Hutong China is not yet an economy that is driven by its own innovations, but by those of others. Nonetheless, there are indicators that innovation is taking place in Chinese enteprises. Huawei’s investments in R&D following the telecom bust in 2002 have been yielding industry-leading innovation for three years in its networks business. BYD is using old battery technology in an innovative way. And Yuneec is on the verge of doing for general aviation aircraft what Tesla has done for the family sedan. […]