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Innovation in China.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 17, 2006

The oddest story on innovation in China appears in Saturday’s Washington Post. It combines a personal lead from a woman’s fashion designer with quotes from Beijing bureaucrats about the importance of innovation and technology. There’s a quote from President Hu Jintao telling Chinese scientists and engineers they must make China “a nation of innovators.”

The usual statistics on China’s spending on R&D (1.1% of gdp compared to 2.6% for the US nd 3.2% for Japan)are given. Then there is a discussion about Confucian culture and whether or not it stymies originality and innovation.

Very boring indeed. I’m glad to see the WP discovering the issue of innovation in China and putting it on page one (bottom right) but it has to do better. Newspapers in general have been way behind in dealing with the issue. The NYT still mostly defines “design” in terms of fashion, not strategy, thinking or tactics. And innovation remains as much a mystery to most reporters as it is to most CEOs.

Better for the WP’s reporter to have talked with the folks at Lenovo, Cherry or Haier than a fashion designer.

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Reader Comments

China Law blog

June 17, 2006 07:06 PM

I likeed the article for pointing out the lack of free thinking in China. It definitely contrasts with the usual China is graduating 600,000 engineers a year article trying to scare us into reforming our own education systems.

Fritz Fridlund

June 18, 2006 01:38 AM


On a side point, I think your a bit misguided in your comment that the WP reporters should have talked to someone from Lenovo, Cherry or Haier. While I have not read the referenced original article, I do take issue with the assumption that fashion designers do not think strategically.

I am full-qualified fashion designer and tailor, and have managed production in Asia for one of Australia's most-renouned designers. Currently, I work as a Senior Researcher for the world's largest market research conglomerate. Now that you have my CV, here's my point: fashion design, 'gets no respect' despite the fact that is a multi-bill$ a year industry. Fashion designers, like Industrial Designers, New Media Designers- ANY designer solve practical, everyday problems. AND fashion designers have the added challenge of being required to innovate at an exceedingly pressured pace and get a fullly-fleshed product to market before it literally, goes out of style! How many industrial designers are required to design and work with mfging to get a product into stores in 2 weeks time? That's what Zara fashion out of Spain does to best competition. Instead, most industrial designers I know have time to languish sketch after sketch over whether the 'on' button of a remote control is the ideal 'elliptical form' for months; I've seen them do it. How? because I used to also work for a multi-national industrial design firm out of Boston 5 years ago. Development times can span 1/2 year to years. However, fashion designers don't have that luxury or they'll be 'dead in the water'. What this means is that fashion designers often rely on intuition in design; they don't have the time to run stats on this or that, and they don't have time to put it in front of a focus group for reactions. And they don't have the luxury to chat about it, and as a result often don't have the business 'vocabulary' to do so when asked. (Thus the assumed general 'crappiness' of the aforementioned WP article.) Fashion designers, themselves don't realize the value of what they do, because they have no other reference point. If the fashion designer has 'good' intuition her or she can be successful, if not well. In part, you could say this comes down to education, but don't mistake a poorly articulated response for lack of ability. Yeah, alot of designers sound 'flakey' I don't deny that, but they are also damn good at what they do, only without the heaping of self-awareness.

To be honest, I think the lack of value attributed to fashion has to do with another issue entirely...but that's another discussion.

So, let me ask you Bruce, does innovation in your mind only apply to consumer durables? Seems by your annual awards, it does. How about thinking outside your 'box'.

Fritz (former IDSA) and yeah, we've met.

Lauchlan Mackinnon

June 18, 2006 09:16 AM

I liked the WP article, thanks for the link.

FWIW, I agreed with the WP, not you, on this one. Studies (eg a Booze Allen Hamilton survey report) have shown that the amount of money spent on R&D is not the key determinant of innovation success - it is the systems and processes in place to support innovation. In itself, the figure is almost irrelevant. In addition, the size of China's population (and GDP) is immense, and its hi-tech/innovative workforce quite a small proportion of the workforce. 1% of GDP on innovation in China would be comparatively quite a lot of innovation.

The main point of the article was about the attitude of China's leadership towards innovation, and the implications that will have for the world. I thought that the article did a reasonable job in pointing out China's focus in these issues, but not so much on following through and considering the consequences. When China aceives its ëconomic security", what will that mean for the rest of the world? The article pointed out that acheiving innovation will require cultural change - what will this mean for China's politics, and for capitalism and demcracy in China?

Georges de Wailly

June 18, 2006 12:51 PM

Communism has been and is still a very toxic doctrin. Generations of individuals have been "educated" to be identical to the others.
The result is that copy, spying, piracy or plagiarism are totally normal activities. In the other hand, new ideas are considered as deviationism and can be severely punished.
And if you don't reward new ideas you simply kill them. You may note that the TRIZ methodology has emerged in Russia due to their lack of problem solvers. The idea was to create an official framework, the 40 principles, giving a party's line conformist background to new ideas.
The problem with Chineses is that they are involved in a mass production identical as what was the Western one during the war.
It's a total opposite to the "lean management" approach. And by itself, this way of producing is an innovation. No innovative products, no patents, no copyrights, just cheap prices.
Guess where is the value?

Niti Bhan

June 18, 2006 08:24 PM

Taking a leaf from Fritz' comments one step further, China is seriously looking into 'soft power' of culture - which includes fashion design and style - witness their recent expo on 'culture and media' and their attempts to reach out to other countries/cultures here

And their own discussion on the need for local innovation and new ideas is emphasized here, (referring to Georges) comment,

bruce nussbaum

June 19, 2006 01:30 AM

ooops. Didn't mean in my comment on the WP story on China to downplay the role of fashion designers. Hey, I live in New York, after all! In fact, I think the role of fashion in society is generally downplayed.

I was actually trying to criticize the WP, the NYT and other media that solely associate design with fashion or pretty things. So in this article on innovation in China, the WP leads with a fashion designer.

That's it. The points in the piece about what it really takes to be innovative and the problems innovation and design have in China are well-taken.

Fritz Fridlund

June 20, 2006 01:15 AM

Thanks for the reply. I see; you wrote one thing and I read another. Hmm.. I guess I'll go start chiseling away at that chip on my shoulder now....cheers


July 18, 2006 09:38 AM

Chinese ID is becoming increasingly innovative in the context of manufacturing. Reason being, Chinese design companies are constantly in touch with manufacturers who are racing forward to offer the latest processes and materials. Chinese Industrial Designers are often aware of new processes and incorporate into common products before their Western counterparts know such things exists. Granted many new processes are initially created in the west, but these innovations are being utilized by the Chinese designers (often in products for western countries). We have seen a sharp increase of western companies coming to us because they understand that our proximity to manufacturing enhances their product development system. Let's remember, that innovation comes in all shapes and sizes. It could mean pushing the limits of a certain process to achieve a design. Or it could mean cross pollenation of technology and design language to strike a cord with the target audience.

As China accumulates experience designing for world renowned companies, they are also improving their service. It's this knowledgible, service oriented design system that is driving Chinese innovation. In respect to innovation, some Chinese firms is now capable of offering world class service at a fraction of western prices.


February 12, 2008 05:22 AM

“The future belongs to people who see possibilities before they become obvious.”
Theodore Levitt (US Professor)

Americans who insist on viewing China as a threat and continue to look at China and the Chinese as a bunch of communist idiots cut from the same cloth are doing the same thing the communists did in the 1970's.

With the reasoning that China is a threat, then the US is an incredible monster that has roamed the earth too long.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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