Imagination, Innovation, and Incubation. Which of These are Different From the Other in China?

Monday, November 24, 2008 6:48
Posted in category Uncategorized

Innovation in China has been a topic discussed in many forums in China, and the typical slant is that China does not have the capacity for innovation, and that China will simply continue to copies and assemble the designs of others.

For me, the best conversation I have had to date on this topic was with Jon Li of Asentio (see video here) where he went through what he has seen as a designer in China.

Another recent conversation though, opened up a new avenue to explore though – One I hope to explore here – as it added a new element to the conversation.

It was not a matter of innovation (as some argue) or incubation (my primary arguement), but that there is a lack of imagination in China.

Imagination is the faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses, and the action or process of forming such images or concepts.

that the education system has essentially dulled the senses of China, and that it is their repressed sense of imagination that is the root cause.

At this point, I am inclined to end the post here and open it up to comments.

My personal feeling is that Japan and Korea with their similar education systems, but proven innovative talents, blow a hole in the above theory, but perhaps not.

thoughts?  comments?

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8 Responses to “Imagination, Innovation, and Incubation. Which of These are Different From the Other in China?”

  1. ian channing says:

    November 24th, 2008 at 7:38 am

    .. but there aren’t too many tech breakthroughs coming out of South Africa, Brazil, India or Indonesia these days either, are there? I think this is a matter of time. China is cranking out far more patents these days, but an expert at a patent translation agency I occasionally work for says they still suffer from ‘bad science.’ I am sceptical about this ‘imagination’ stuff. I think innovation depends just as much on good resources and solid focus. Spending a quarter of your revenues on R&D is just not realistic for companies still in the cheap mass-production zone. It’s a matter of time.

  2. Chris says:

    November 24th, 2008 at 7:41 am

    I completely disagree. I have seen some very creative, very innovative approaches to every-day problems by every-day Chinese people. I believe until China can create within its culture a reliable standard of justice so people can know that they can rely on the courts to do their best to dispense justice, as well as a sense of public trust and security for intellectual property and for venture capital, you are not going to see innovation in China the way you see it in the west. Certainly there are approaches to education universities can take to enhance creativity and innovation, but that is not the root cause of the problem in China.

  3. kai says:

    November 24th, 2008 at 11:35 am

    While the education system may be partly to blame I think the larger issue is with the socioeconomic forces and the fact that many have had parents who lived through the cultural revolution and some hard times that were the enemies of the kind of creativity so highly valued today. Books burned, intellectuals maligned, music controlled, propaganda came up in its place. My feeling is that what happens at home and after school are as important in fostering creativity as what happens in school. Japan and Korea have had their difficulties but nothing as widespread and traumatic as what happened to the Chinese.

    With that said I do think there are great examples of Chinese creativity and that it is not always appreciated enough as it doesn’t come in the same western flavors. The same could be said for Chinese humor.

  4. davesgonechina says:

    November 24th, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    I wonder if some of the creativity you see in Korea and Japan is in spite of the education system, like a defiant reaction to it. Even if it is, though, no reason China couldn’t do the same. I do imagine, though I don’t really know, that in Korea and Japan that primary/secondary school activities involving politics or large, orchestrated spectacles/ceremonies are not nearly as mind numbing or uninspiring. That’s a hunch, though.

    I think there are examples of brilliant imaginations, I just think its not where many of us might assume it would be. Consider how much inventiveness goes into Shanzhai stuff like this:

    http://www.blackandwhitecat.org/2008/11/24/chinas-super-shocking-shanzhai-trains/

    I don’t think that people lack imaginations here, I think that the structures (school, government, workplace) are governed by rules and assumptions that don’t encourage them – and many people are already discouraged, so its gonna take alot of work to change it.

    BTW, you forgot to link the video in your post.

  5. ian channing says:

    November 25th, 2008 at 4:21 am

    Education in Japan (and, from all I have heard about the place, Korea too) puts zero emphasis on imagination. Their schools are a reflection of their disciplined, top-down societies, and are geared at producing efficient human social-contribution units.
    Japan’s success in innovation is due to focused teamwork, targeting specific problems, an obsession with getting detail right, and inputs of very large sums of money. That’s what made the Walkman and DVD. Imagination had its part of course, but it was basically good organization and patience. China (and the rest of the world) will never match the Japanese genius at getting detail right, but it can do the rest. I think Japan offers a good model for innovation in China.

  6. Teach English Asia says:

    November 26th, 2008 at 7:20 am

    Education in China is not perfect. However, people their understand that getting a good education is the ticket to personal progress.

  7. In Emerging says:

    November 26th, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Surprised no one has mentioned access to capital – specifically credit constraints and regulatory blocks – as an applicable factor. While I do agree with some points made in comments above, I believe the financial ability to be creative is a crucial aspect to consider:

    Firstly, when speaking about China’s ability to innovate/i* we are speaking about an aggregate – a collective of the entire economy.

    Socially – China posesses little in means of social security and much in terms of family pressure to conform. An creative or innovative individual may not pursue a ‘creative’ career for fear of a lack of income or opportunity cost in doing so (or indeed partaking in creative hobbies).

    Business funding – Funding for small businesses is hard at best. Bank funding is extremely hard, esp. for a start-up with a non-tick-box idea, private equity is just starting to get off the ground. No creative businesses because there’s no funding for them.

    Regulatory situation – Ever tried to create an upstart magazine in China – or a website with an editorial or comments open to the public. It a hell only the largest/more established companies start do legally and pay the fines on.

    Therefore I do not think the question is whether China is creative or not, but that credit and regulatory systems (baring the entire argument about education) prevent the country from developing it’s potential more fully.

    Thanks for the post, you gave me an interesting line of thought I’d like to refine somewhat more.

  8. Shawn in Tokyo says:

    November 26th, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    Japan and Korea are essentially the same, although probably more diamonds in the rough than in China.

    To put it briefly, the “Japanese corporation” used to be the primary educator of the population towards becoming what the Japanese consider a contributing citizen (shakaijin 社会人). Schools are standardized to feed into this system with lots of rote memorization specifically for exams and little synthesis of what is actually studied. Universities are generally the equivalent of a 4-year break before becoming shakaijin. It is the time to rebel while you can and yet do enough to graduate.

    Some dynamics generating change in Japan–a) breakdown of lifetime employment and transition to performance-based employment, b) hiring competition from an increase in foreign businesses, c) globalized world changing faster than the internal environs of Japanese companies, d) Japanese HR functions outsourced heavily to headhunting firms, e) aging society with lack of knowledge transfer to younger generation, and f) Japanese educated overseas and with experience in overseas branches returning to Japan in leadership positions or quality management positions.

    I think the above is forcing more and more Japanese to imagine rather than conform to group-think. The education system feeding Japanese society will change very slow, perhaps even slower than China. Basically, Korea is in the same boat as Japan, with some different quirks.