Whether with smartphones, trains or robotics, Asia has moved to the front of the pack – though many of its new products arrive in Europe incognito.
China is no longer just the world’s factory, but a major source of innovation.
► David Li, head of the Shenzhen Innovation Lab, explains this evolution and its global impact.
TECHNOLOGIST Has China really become a leader in innovation?
DAVID LI We have to draw a distinction between invention, which consists of revolutionising a field, and innovation, which aims to make incremental improvements to a product or its manufacturing process. China has only recently started investing in basic research, so it has a long way to go where invention is concerned. When it comes to innovation, however, China has become a powerhouse.
TECHNOLOGIST What sets Chinese innovation apart?
DAVID LI Traditionally, businesses carry out innovation internally, and the resulting improvements are protected by patents. In China, by contrast, innovation is an open and collaborative process. A whole ecosystem, made up of small-business owners, researchers and suppliers, will form to develop a solution to a specific problem, and everybody gets to reap the rewards.
TECHNOLOGIST What is the outcome of the model you are describing?
DAVID LI These non-patented innovations have a larger and more varied set of uses than their Western counterparts. Chinese innovations tend to target the largest possible audience, rather than an exclusive club of early adopters. China is creating a kind of innovation for the masses.
TECHNOLOGIST For example?
DAVID LI China is at the forefront of everything to do with mobile communication, be it hardware (smartphones), software (apps), or mobile payments, which are everywhere in China these days.
TECHNOLOGIST Are Western companies drawing inspiration from new Chinese products?
DAVID LI Clearly, that is an emerging phenomenon in the technology sector. The best example is Facebook. They unveiled a number of new functionalities directly inspired by WeChat, like the ability to send your friends money via Messenger.
TECHNOLOGIST Do Chinese tech companies have their sights set on the European market?
DAVID LI In the West, Chinese innovation is already ubiquitous, and yet not necessarily visible; that’s because new made- in-China technologies are not always marketed as such. The French company Wiko’s smartphones were developed in Shenzhen, for example. Philips smartphones are also Chinese designed; yet consumers generally are none the wiser. We should also note that a lot of European innovators, like the German robot manufacturer Kuka or Sweden’s Volvo, are now owned by Chinese conglomerates. Innovation advances little by little, layer by layer, spanning international borders.
By Julie Zaugg