The journey to a more innovative China

By Eugene Clark
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, August 10, 2018
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Innovation [Photo by Xu Lin /]

The recently published latest Global Innovation Index (GII) ranks China 17 out of 126 national economies – up five places from last year.  This highly regarded index is published annually by Cornell University, INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The top 10 places were awarded to: 1. Switzerland, 2. Netherlands, 3. Sweden, 4. United Kingdom, 5. Singapore, 6. United States, 7. Finland, 8. Denmark, 9. Germany, and 10. Ireland.  

The GII considers 80 indicators of innovation, such as educational spending, scientific/technical publications, mobile-app creations, IP filings.  In China's case, the government's general strategic direction, investment in research in key areas (for example, artificial intelligence, robotics, bio-tech, green technology and outer-space), promotion of greater IP production, establishment of an infrastructure that encourages growth in the knowledge economy, encouragement of competition, and general opening up have all been major factors in China's continuing improvement as an innovative nation.  

The future of innovation in China is to be found in the next and future generations.  For this reason, China has invested heavily in its universities and research infrastructure.  It has implemented strategic plans and policies to strengthen education and training, to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, and to promote capital investment, both public and private. 

Around the world, while universities perform well in relation to basic research, their record of commercialization of intellectual property is an area where improvement is needed. Governments also need to promote stronger relationships among government, industry and educational institutions.  Financial institutions and other capital sources also need to play a proactive role in helping to ensure that innovators have the capital required to make their dreams a reality. 

Innovation and creativity are "caught" as well as taught.  Schools and universities also require inspiring teachers who are themselves role models of innovation. In an age of "knowledge explosion" our curricula continue to be focused on content, rather than sufficiently emphasizing creative processes and deep learning.  Neither do our universities do enough to warn about the misuse of technology. Used wrongly, technology can make us passive and dependent rather than active, creative and more engaged with one another and society. 

Evidence is mounting, for example, that technology, such as mobile phones and the Internet, can become too addictive.  It can demand and dominate our attention, leaving us less time to reflect, to think critically, to create.  In our quest to be online and entertained 24/7, we have perhaps forgotten that a good night's sleep and unscheduled time, even boredom, is often a first step toward a new creative idea and resultant innovation.

Truly creative and talented people are always in demand and in short supply in every country.  It is thus important for countries to develop incentives and conditions that nurture, attract and retain top talent. Innovation is also promoted by diversity. Talented, creative and innovative people tend to create and congregate around clusters, most often in urban settings just as they did in the coffee shops of London in the Industrial Revolution. It is thus important for countries to give greater attention to the design of cities so that they better encourage, support and promote innovation. 

China also must continue to enhance its innovation at work. While we tend to think of innovation in terms of major breakthroughs, the reality is that most innovation is incremental, involving small improvements. The innovation of the workplace is thus key to the development of innovative solutions that address the evolving complex needs and challenges of society. It is in the workplace, too, where project execution is constantly adjusted and perfected. As famous Chinese entrepreneur, Jack Ma noted: "The lessons I learned from the dark days at Alibaba are that you've got to make your team have value, innovation, and vision. Also, if you don't give up, you still have a chance. And, when you are small, you have to be very focused and rely on your brain, not your strength."  

Workplaces and innovation are all about people. Innovation thrives when the workplace is diverse, accepting and willing to cooperate. New ideas are more likely to emerge when people come together from different backgrounds and cultures. Again, China's opening up has helped greatly in this regard.

There is also a cultural element to innovation. Societies must be willing to suffer the pain of change in order to achieve a better future. Government should create the environment and incentives to stimulate investment in sustainable innovation.  Barriers to innovation and adoption should be identified and removed. Those countries which celebrate and support innovators and innovation are more likely to encourage more of the same. 

Innovation systems also require a supportive legal infrastructure.  Some of the components of this infrastructure are intellectual property laws, courts that understand those laws and enforce them, effective contract and related commercial laws. One of the greatest barriers to innovation is corruption. Corruption destroys faith in basic institutions of society. It diminishes incentives for creativity, diverts funding away from government expenditure that provides the infrastructure and incentives for innovation.  Corruption wastes talent and diverts funds away from worthy projects. 

While the GII indicators are important and helpful, it should also be realized that much research remains to be done regarding "innovation systems," especially as they occur in different contexts. There is no universal agreement on the definition of an innovation system and the factors which comprise it.  There are likely to be differences between innovation conceived globally versus regional or local innovation. There are also differences between technological innovation and sectoral innovation systems. 

I argue for a broad and flexible definition which also considers cultural, regional and qualitative factors and takes a long-range view of innovation. For example, how does a nation promote creativity and innovation generally?  How can governments better support a person's earliest, and often most influential teachers – one's parents, grandparents and other family members? How can a country look not only at innovation through technology production, but also focus on the best use of that technology? 

As economist Michael Porter noted, "Innovation is the central issue in economic prosperity." Yet, there is no one way to achieve an innovative society. There are different ways to do innovation. Innovation systems can be top-down or bottom up, or both.  The important thing is to ensure there is fertile ground upon which innovation is encouraged, can be nurtured and effectively grown. 

Collaboration and augmentation provide the platform for a more innovative China. The various components of China's innovation system have generally worked effectively. They have fostered a collaborative culture and developed high performing teams focused on results. All of this augurs well for China's future as it continues its innovation journey.

Eugene Clark is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of

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