Developing an Ecosystem of Innovation
I recently joined the second annual “Asia-Global Dialogue” held by one of Hong Kong’s leading think tanks, the Fung Global Institute. The two-day event brought together opinion leaders from business, academia and government from Hong Kong, China, and around the world.
One particularly thought-provoking session was “Innovation and Business Opportunity — Can Asia Lead?”
Since there is not much debate about whether Asia can continue to lead the world in terms of business opportunity, the real focus of the panel discussion was on whether Asia can take the lead in global innovation.
This question obviously butts up against a host of issues involving education and culture in Asia, which although different in each country, seem to share some similarities. Some of these systemic traits tend to obstruct the development of an innovative eco-system.
The moderator, Professor Dutta of Cornell’s Graduate School of Management, told the story of his recent visit to Stanford University, where he learned that many undergraduates there now receive recruitment overtures from Silicon Valley companies. The idea is not that they wait until obtaining their degree, but drop out of Stanford and join the company now.
The question then turned to what it would take for China, India, Korea or other Asian countries to create their own Silicon Valley. In terms of education, Asian countries clearly excel in producing graduates who are strong in math and sciences. The bigger question is how to enhance their abilities in creativity, lateral thinking, teamwork, and the willingness to risk being seen to be wrong. This is obviously not just a question involving classroom education, but culture in a broader sense.
John Rice, the Hong Kong-based Vice Chairman of General Electric, said that 20% of GE’s 60,000 engineers are now software engineers; and that they have 4,000 engineers in China who are on a par with any in the world. His perspective is that for MNCs, innovation is now a global process, requiring major and minor R&D centers around the world working together.
Jean Pascal Tricoire, the Chairman and CEO of another major MNC, Schneider Electric, who is also Hong Kong-based, said that 1/3 of his company’s R&D staff are now based in Asia. He echoed Rice’s comments about innovation being a global process for MNCs. He also observed that often the big breakthrough ideas come not from larger companies, but from smaller ones.
Tricoire and his fellow panelists (including former Sony Chairman Nobuyuki Idei and Lawson Inc.’s CEO Takeshi Niinami) agreed on one thing. That is, that innovation is usually born of necessity. For Asia, one major trend which should be an engine of innovation is urbanization. This could be the best sector of opportunity for Asia to lead the world in innovation.
When asked what the “secret sauce” required to create an innovation eco-system was, panelists offered a variety of advice, centering around these points:
• innovation is borne from diversity in the workplace; without diversity it is very difficult to develop
• innovation thrives in an environment of openness, where argumentation and failure are accepted as normal and good; one panelist used the term “freedom of speech” within the corporate context, as an essential element
• innovation often occurs at smaller companies, so a level playing field which enables these companies access to capital and a fair policy and tax environment is key
• cooperative bridges between leading research universities and the corporate world are important
All in all, the panelists had a fairly optimistic take on Asia’s prospects for an innovation revolution, especially centered around the mass urbanization trend which is well underway. At the same time, there remains a lot of work to do to change long-established educational and cultural norms — not an easy task.
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