The Technium

Asian Innovation

While there are many ways Asian cultures differ from the West, the truth is that they have much more in common that they do have in difference.

However there are two characteristics in Asian culture today that hinder the innovation spirit. These two traits are loosely but widely held. They are held by the society at large, and they are self-reinforcing by the society, but — evidence shows — are in no way genetic, or rooted in individuals. Those two traits are: embracing failure, and questioning authority.

In most traditional Asian cultures, the good of the group is elevated. Failure by one person disgraces the whole group, and questioning authority undermines its integrity. Yet, embracing failure and questioning authority about “what everyone knows” is a key attribute for innovation. The relative lack of these qualities in Asian societies is one reason it is not as fast in developing breakthrough inventions compared to cultures that do. However, the evidence shows that when hundreds of thousands of Asians migrate from their homeland to a different culture, they can very quickly adopt these two traits to become the most innovative people in the world. Some very high percentage of successful startups in Silicon Valley were founded by Asians coming directly from traditional Asian cultures. This suggests that these traits are fairly malleable, and that it does not take much to alter in place. I can easily image Asian cultures in the future becoming beacons for innovation, by embracing failure and adopting challenges to authority.

Indeed this is already happening. While innovation centers like Silicon Valley tend to dismiss the innovation capabilities of regions like China and India, the west is somewhat blind to the speed at which these cultures are changing. In Asia there is a collective and individual desire to be more innovative, and there is also a wide-awake realization that the two missing qualities need to be addressed. And so they are being addressed through education, government policy, and new company culture. The results are that a first order innovation is spreading in Asia. This is sometimes referred to as incremental innovation: a long chain of continuous improvements. Japan, Korea and China are the world leaders in the excellence of manufacturing. Nobody makes things at scale as well as they do, and this was achieved through many innovations in the manufacturing methods. They choose to innovate machine excellence and they did.

The second order innovation — the breakthrough — does not happen as often in Asia, but it will very soon. In the 1800s America was derided by Europe as the land of pirates, thiefs, copycats, counterfeiters, and dumb imitators — and it was. Americans stole technological know-how, IP, and anything that could be copied (like Charles Dicken’s novels) wholesale in order to jump-start their own culture and industries. There was a very long tradition of this. First the student copies the master to perfection, and then the student becomes a master that others can copy. Asia has been doing the same as a student. But it is quickly becoming a master of technology, and it will begin to create masterpieces and deep innovation.

It is important to recognize that these two qualities of embracing failure and questioning authority are not the only qualities needed for innovation. Creativity, hard work, empathy, endurance, and many others are required. But these latter qualities are already widely shared in Asia, and the former two are relatively sparse — but becoming more common. I fully expect to see a major technological advance come out of China in the next 10 years that will wow the world, and lead to something that everyone in the world wants.