An article I read recently on ZDNet Asia stated that Asia-Pacific economies such as Japan, China, Taiwan and Singapore led the way in the submission and approval of patents from the United States Patents and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2009, indicating a rise in innovation within the region. That struck me as being questionable at the very least. While Japan has proven herself to be an innovation leader, I was less inclined to believe that China, Taiwan and Singapore were catching up, other than possibly with incremental innovations, rather than breakthroughs. Indeed, in delving further, the article mentioned that while China led the way in patent activity (contributing 3,108 patents, reflecting a 36 percent growth per annum from 2005 to 2009), these patents lacked innovation quality (calculated by average number of citations received – a rough measure of a patent’s influence & importance). Singapore, on the other hand, topped in innovation quality but these patents belonged to well-known multinational companies operating out of Singapore, and not to locally owned companies.
Why does Asia – minus Japan – lack breakthrough innovations?
Great idea creation isn’t inherent in us all, but is fostered by factors that influence creative thinking & problem solving. The average Asian operates in an environment that doesn’t encourage creativity, not least being a lack of focus on innovation, as well as government policies that do not reward development of new ideas.
1. The Captured Mind
Asia continues to look towards the West for knowledge. Biting though this may sound, I’ll use the term Colonized Mind to describe this phenomenon. Perhaps a long history of colonization has shaped the Asian mind into don’t-think-just-do, and what’s been developed in the West must be good and hence adoptable. New products? Just look West.
2. Why Reinvent the Wheel?
Asia tends to be a new technology or product adopter than creator. It’s about making money not generating new ideas. Why spend on R&D when you can adopt a product/technology, tweak it to suit the local market then flog it off at a profit?
3. New Idea = Danger
Asians are risk averse. An old idea tried & tested is the way to go, even if it barely impacts the bottom-line, or even if a new idea has the potential to boost performance. Time & time again I meet managers of companies in the red that simply cannot bring themselves to embrace product/service development. They prefer to wait for another organization (in keeping to the captured mindset, they mean a western organization) to come up with a breakthrough product that would boost industry performance, rather invest in their own product development. To illustrate, a product manager from an engineering firm – with its own team of engineers whom I’m sure could do wonders if given the opportunity – said to me recently, “What our industry really needs is [followed by detailed description of new product]…but no one else has done it abroad so we can’t produce it, that’s why our industry’s in trouble.”
4. Societal Conventions
Societal attitudes create norms in which children are raised & nurtured. Risk averse & colonized Asia bred youth who lacked creativity. Parents of Generation X struggled through an emerging Asia & were big influencers, and even decision-makers, of their children’s choice of tertiary education & career. They did this in the very noble desire to lead their children to stable income & a struggle-free life. Creative fields were viewed as unstable & unsustainable, hence children went into ‘safe’ fields like medicine, law, accounting. These Gen X professionals created the rise of a mid to higher income society, able to purchase inventions from abroad, at the expense of developing their own creativity.
5. Government Actions
Governments are key influencers in building the right environment for innovation. For decades post-WWII, governments focused on rebuilding their economies by heavily promoting foreign direct investment & importing knowledge. Unfortunately, none of this knowledge imported was directed at inventing breakthrough new technologies or products.
Moreover, continued bureaucracy and or corruption hampers efforts & rewards to patenting & innovation in some countries.
A New Asia?
To end on a more positive note, the above lack of general attitude towards innovation is surely changing. In the next 3 – 5 years, China is expected to be in the global top two ranking for number of patents filed for domestic applicants, & the quality of patents is expected to further improve. Financial Times reported that in 2008, Huawei, a Chinese telecoms equipment and service provider, topped in patent registration, per World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) statistics. In 2010, Huawei was second only to Japan’s Panasonic in number of patents filed.
Furthermore, today’s Generation X are now parents exposed to a complex & fast-changing environment, & recognize that options available to their children can be limitless. Unlike their forefathers who struggled in post WWII Asia, this generation appreciates that careers in creative fields can be lucrative & sustainable. Higher education institutions are increasingly focusing on innovation & entrepreneurship in their curriculum, in keeping up with student demand.
Also, as cost of labor & living continue to rise in Asia, governments are realizing the urgency of competing on knowledge. Steps are being taken towards encouraging innovation in the form of grants, quality of courses in government-funded universities, tax breaks.
Asia has vibrance, a growing working age population, resources & increasing knowledge. If policies, bureaucracy & corruption are addressed, & if Asians are willing to believe & invest in themselves & not keep looking abroad for solutions, then Asia’s youth today could almost certainly lead the way in the world’s next new discoveries.
Marianne Mai is the Principal of Aria Strategy Asia, a training & advisory company specializing in creating innovative solutions specifically with the Asian market & economy in mind. Marianne is also the author of Innovation Asia.