Friday, 22 February 2008

Is Innovation Over-Valued?

Much has been written recently about whether the Chinese are, or ever will be as innovative as western countries. Whilst I agree that China's education system does not emphasise individual thinking or the development of problem-solving skills, I think the main part of the problem lies in corruption in research institutes and an over-emphasis on trying to catch up with the west via reverse engineering rather than trying to set their own paradigms.

My own experience of Chinese R&D is that joint ventures established with universities (such as the one that Foxconn established at Qinghua university) do produce useful research. However, even the top research institutes suffer from professors embezelling research funds to subsidise their relatively meager salaries, and then faking or plagiarising their results.

One question that hasn't been asked, though, is "How much is innovation actually worth?". One finds that, at least in industry, the vast majority of inventions are fairly minor improvements over previous designs which have been developed by engineers working to set problem-solving schedules. Reverse engineering is a valid way of catching up with competitors, as can be seen from Microsoft excusing their refusal to licence IP on the grounds that its competitors could find out the information they needed by reverse engineering and decompiling Microsoft products.

Other countries such as Japan and Korea which have, in the past, been equally accused of lacking innovation have not suffered noticeably grave effects from it. In fact, they have perfected the incremental approach, creating high-quality products which the whole world enjoys. Economies ethnically and linguistically linked to China like Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have also done fairly well. One of the first sights which met my eyes stepping off the plane at CKS airport (as it was then) on my very first time in the far east was a large advert touting Taiwan's 'Innovalue', a concept which sums up the Taiwanese experience for me.

It is also worth mentioning that few countries have come out with as many brilliant inventions as the UK did in the years between the start of the first world war and the end of the second, but this did not translate into a brilliant advantage for the British economy. Instead, it was those countries which were best at perfecting inventions and mass-producing them that reaped the real benefits. If you ask the average Chinese person which country invented the television, the computer, and the jet engine they would most likely say America, an answer which is at best only half right. Innovation has its value, but you have to be able to turn that into a saleable product to gain the reward which comes from innovation. Can China do this? I would say that all the evidence so far says yes.

No comments: