Tag Archives: innovation

Innovation In China Makes Many Small Strides

DAVID WOLF, WRITING on Silicon Hutong, address the hoary question of whether China is innovative. Conventional answers tend to be wrong, he says, because

We tend to view innovation in China through the lenses of two fallacies. The first lens is based on our view of China, and the second on our view of innovation (via Silicon Hutong).

Chinese companies do not innovate in the way Western companies understand it, which is in terms of big breakthroughs. But, Wolf says, define innovation as producing something that is novel, useful, and relevant to a given audience, and you end up with a different landscape of innovation: “the process innovations, the incremental breakthroughs that turn out advances that are novel, useful, and relevant” — and that still have the potential to be disruptive.

Wolf cites three examples:

  • Huawei’s investments in R&D following the telecom bust in 2002 that have yielded industry-leading innovation for three years in its networks business;
  • BYD’s use of old battery technology in an innovative way; and
  • Yuneec being on the verge of doing for general aviation aircraft what Tesla has done for the family sedan.

This Bystander wouldn’t disagree (see: From Fast Imitation To Frugal Innovation), and would add another factor noted before.

Chinese companies’ increasingly outdated global reputation for being imitative not innovative is because much product innovation in China stays there, and so escapes the notice of those not on the ground.

Improving the technological capabilities of China’s manufacturers is a policy priority. R&D spending is being focused on the biotech, green energy, new materials, information technology and high-end equipment manufacturing industries. Measured by how much a country spends on R&D as a percentage of its gross domestic product, a measure known as GERD, China now ranks third after the U.S. and Japan.

Beijing’s long-term target is to raise its GERD number to 2.5% by 2020, up from 1.84% in 2011 and 0.57% in 1995. That would likely put it on a par with the U.S. by then. (America’s 2011 number was 2.77%, down from 2.91% in 2009, according to the World Bank.)

The implications for Western multinationals is that small-step innovation will let Chinese companies pick off niches where consumers are prepared to accept a small drop in quality in return for the large cut in price that is enabled by the redesign of entire business processes to do things better and faster than rivals. The commercial battleground will become not so much at the top end of the market in many industries, but in the middle.

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Ordering Up Innovation

If there is one thing that officials and employees of state-owned companies are creative at it it is filing quotas. In a bid to change Made in China in to Designed in China, Beijing has set quotas for patent filings. The target is 2 million a year by the end of the current five-year plan in 2015, backed up in part by the controversial indigenous innovation policy, a large increase in planned R&D spending and a big drive to increase the number of scientists being produced by China’s universities.

China’s innovators have set themselves to the task. At 1.6 million, China last year overtook the U.S. in the number of patents applied for, with two-thirds of China’s being applied for by medium and large state-owned enterprises. But quantity isn’t quality. A new report from the EU Chamber of Commerce says that only a third of those applications were for patents in the top category, new inventions.

The majority of Chinese patents are lower-end design or utility patents covering incremental developments to an existing product but not a technological breakthrough. It is a class of patents that the U.S. doesn’t award, though other developed economies such as Germany do. Innovation through commercialization, as utility development is also known, is arguably appropriate for developing economies where frugal innovation can be as important as step-change advances.

The lower-end skew of China’s patents leads the report to conclude that while China’s innovation potential is “impressive”, its actual innovation is “overhyped”. Creativity has to be nurtured, not mandated, true. Yet any multinational rival that fails to notice how Chinese companies’ innovation is not yet so much leading-edge technological innovation, as process innovation that uses the country’s labor quality, supply chain integrity and infrastructure to reduce costs puts itself in peril.

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The One Question That Matters About China’s Model Of State Capitalism

Monday’s publication will push the World Bank’s report, China in 2030, to center stage in the emerging, if ultimately pointless debate about whether China’s state-directed capitalism is better than the U.S.’s free-market capitalism. The later has undeniably damaged its case with the self-inflicted injuries that caused the 2008 global financial crisis. The revival of the 1930′s blend of banker and gangster, bankster, is timely and apt, in that regard, just as are the Occupy protests that have sprung up around the free-market world. But, in their rush to throw out some fetid bathwater, capitalism’s critics risk tossing out the baby, too. Nor is the Chinese model a proven substitute. For all that it has seen China though the post-2008 crisis period with higher growth rates than the Western Economies, the long-term costs have yet to fall due.

The World Bank report reportedly argues that the dirigiste model that has seen China through a remarkable three decades of economic development has run its course. We don’t yet know the details of the Bank’s arguments, but this Bystander has long argued the necessity of structural change if China is to move up the development ladder. The heart of the real test for China’s state capitalism is not whether it is better than banksterism. It is, can it vault the country from the ranks of poor countries to rich. To do so, it will need to clear the middle-income trap or the economic Great Wall–choose your metaphor–something no developing country has done without institutional change. This Bystander thought it timely to republish China’s $10,000-12,000 Question, first published in January last year, examining whether China can defy history:

Whether political reform is an inevitable consequence of China’s economic reform has been a longstanding question. Ilian Mihov, an economics professor at INSEAD,  the Paris-based business school, flips the question on its head. He asks whether the country’s ability to develop its economy rapidly can continue without institutional reforms regarding the rule of law, governance and accountability.

In a recently published report of a session on China at an INSEAD symposium in Singapore last November, Mihov said China needs “deep structural reforms”. Command economies can only sustain fast growth with weak institutions for so long. The tipping point comes when per capita income reaches $10,000-12,000 a year, the point at which developing economies tend to stop developing without institutional change (see chart below)*.

“There is not a single country that has good quality institutions and is poor,” Mihov said in Singapore. “The gap between rich and poor is driven by poor productivity that is linked to poor quality institutions and poor business environment.”  As evidence he offers the contrasting experiences of Singapore and Venezuela. Even more dramatically, consider the economies of the old Soviet bloc, which collapsed as per capita incomes hit and then got stuck at the $12,000 a year level (adjusted for current prices).

China’s annual per capital income is $4,000. At current growth rates that gives it less than a decade before it starts bearing down in earnest on that tipping point or The Great Wall as Mihov inevitably dubs it.

What makes for the aforesaid poor quality institutions and a poor business environment includes political instability, government inefficiency and the prevalence of corruption. Those are factors within government’s control. There has been progress, albeit piecemeal, as with, for example, the current anti-corruption campaign and the improving quality of China’s civil, if not criminal courts. There are other reasons than planning for long-term economic development for those changes, but the $10,000-12,000 question is whether that progress continues at a sufficient pace to carry the country through the transformation to a new peak of development. Or will it be left stuck on the plateau of stagnation?

The growing economic and political clout of state-owned enterprises is another possible impediment to progress. Like Japan before it, China has grown fast by replicating and improving on what advanced economies have already done and producing and selling the results much more cheaply. Yet, as Japan found out, there comes a point where innovation has to replace imitation if growth is to be sustained.

China’s state-owned national champions and aspiring multinationals are ambitious, adaptive and fast learners (as were Japan’s). They are developing R&D and product development capabilities but they remain reliant on access to low-cost capital from the state, have rudimentary organizational and financial management skills by the standards of multinationals and have yet to acquire two of the most essential traits of a globalized multinational, managing diversity and allowing the intrapreneurship in which innovation can flourish (traits that few Japanese multinationals were able to acquire).

Beijing is throwing a wall of money and of engineers and scientists at making its national champions more innovative (dealing with diversity isn’t even on the radar). Yet in the process of building up the SOEs it is distorting markets and entrenching vested interests that increase the resistance to reform. It also crowds out small and medium sized companies where growth-generating innovation truly flourishes. Those need a particular business environment which is possible only with good institutions and a regulatory and governance regime that may not be to the taste of big business in the form of the SOEs, who see their (patriotic) role to be competing with other multinationals not fending off pesky upstarts at home.

That sets up a dilemma for the leadership. If the Party’s legitimacy to monopolistic rule depends on continuing to deliver the economic growth that keeps its citizens getting richer and Mihov is right that the country’s rapid economic growth cannot continue beyond a certain point without institutional reform, then managing the role of government in the economy and overcoming state-owned vested interests — in other words reforming itself — becomes China’s policy planners most important concern.

*There is a 2009 research paper on the $10,000-12,000 barrier by Mihov and his colleague Antonio Fatas, The 4Is of Economic Growth, from which the chart above was abstracted. A summary focusing on China, Another Challenge To China’s Growth, was published in the Harvard Business Review of March 2009.

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The Next Stage Of Innovation In China

The McKinsey Quarterly has a newly published package of pieces on innovation in China. As the authors of the overview, Gordon Orr, a director of McKinsey’s Shanghai office, and his colleague Erik Roth, note:

Considerable innovation is occurring in China in both the business- to-consumer and business-to-business sectors. Although breakthroughs in either space generally go unrecognized by the broader global public, many multinational B2B competitors are acutely aware of the innovative strides the Chinese are making in sectors such as communications equipment and alternative energy.

Chinese companies’ increasingly outdated global reputation for being imitative not innovative is because much product innovation in China stays there, and so escapes the notice of those not on the ground. That is as true of advances by local companies in domestically oriented consumer electronics as it is in tech media such as instant messaging and online gaming.

Orr and Roth acknowledge the importance of government support, clearly already evident in the development of industries, from high-speed rail to pharmaceuticals to green energy technologies, that Beijing considers strategically important. There will be more of that to come. The current five-year plan calls for a large increase in R&D spending. Up to 10 trillion yuan ($1.5 trillion) is a figure being bandied about. The anointed industries are biotech, post-fossil-fuels energy, energy conservation and environmental protection, clean-energy vehicles, new materials, and next-generation information technology and high-end equipment manufacturing.

But government support for R&D is far from the only reason for China’s increasing innovation. The quantity and quality of the country’s scientific and technical talent is growing. China’s universities graduate more than 10,000 science PhDs each year. That is enabling a potent blend of technology transfers from multinationals and indigenous R&D.

The formula isn’t infallible. Again, as Orr and Roth note:

Some notable examples [of flops] include attempts to develop an indigenous 3G telecommunications protocol called TDS-CDMA and to replace the global Wi-Fi standard with a China-only Internet security protocol, WAPI.

As we noted yesterday about some Harvard Business School research on the management of Chinese companies, the heavy preponderance of state-owned companies acts as a counterweight to developing the internal corporate cultures of risk taking, learning and collaboration that are necessary to nurture innovation. Chinese companies have traditionally preferred what Orr and Roth call “innovation through commercialization”—putting a new product or service into the market quickly, however rough its initial quality might be, but improving its performance rapidly through subsequent generations.

What also needs not to be lost sight of is that this is a different stripe of innovation, not so much yet leading-edge technological innovation, as process innovation; the use of China’s labor quality, including its intellectual capital, supply chain integrity and infrastructure to reduce cost. As S.D. Shibulal, chief operating officer of Infosys Technologies, noted in an INSEAD article on innovation in emerging markets, Chinese companies “are redesigning products to reduce costs; they are redesigning entire business processes to do things better and faster than their rivals.” He dubs this “frugal innovation”.

This lets Chinese companies pick off niches where consumers are prepared to accept a small drop in quality in return for a large cut in price. The real challenge for foreign firms is going to be not so much at the top end of the market in many given industries, but in the middle market. No doubt China will eventually be making breakthrough innovations; Orr and Roth say it will only be a matter of time before China evolves “from a country of incremental innovation based on technology transfers to one where breakthrough innovation is common”. But before that happens, Western multinationals are going to have to learn to compete in the middle market as well as the top-end one, as that is where the next battles for world market share will be fought.

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Rooftop Innovation

An excavator operates on the rooftop of the Shanxi Science and Technology Hotel, Yingze West Street, Wanbailin district, Taiyuan city, Shanxi province

When our attention was first directed to this picture on China Smack of an excavator demolishing a hotel in Taiyaun in Shanxi from the roof down we thought it a mere curiosity, or possibly even a fake. Yet after our man in a hard hat dismissed our initial suspicion that the image might be the result of some photoshopping, telling us that tearing down a hotel that way was feasible from a civil engineering point of view, we came across this post on WebUrbanist, giving several examples of the practice and linking to some TV video of this particular one.

On reflection, it all makes some sort of sense. Explosives are kept closely within the provenance of the military and police and the former hotel is cheek by jowl with other buildings so blowing it up to bring it down is out of the question. A crane can easily hoist an excavator fitted with a concrete breaker in place of its bucket to the roof. The no doubt shoddy construction would help the excavator operator make short work of knocking the building down, working his way down half a floor by half a floor. The debris goes down elevator shafts or over the side.

It is is probably the most cost effective way of demolishing a building, if not necessarily one of the safest in what is already a perilous undertaking. Health and safety laws are unlikely to be much of an impediment, though excavators are more stable and maneuverable in small spaces than might be imagined for such large pieces of machinery. Our man says it is no more difficult and dangerous for a skilled excavator operator (with a head for heights) to do the work at that level than it would be on the ground. It is just that the margin of error is smaller 12 stories up. Rather him than us.

In its peculiar way, this is another example of China’s frugal and process innovation: good enough results for a fraction of the cost.

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From Fast Imitation To Frugal Innovation

China, like India for that matter, has set off down a development path to convert its companies from imitators to innovators. President Hu Jintao reaffirmed that at an exhibition in Beijing showcasing the country’s scientific and technological achievements during the just concluded five-year plan, urging scientists to enhance China’s capacity for innovation so as to seize the initiative in global competition.

China has made a purposeful start, but it will be a long journey. The country ranks 21st out of 40 countries on its own global innovation list. Against the oft-used benchmark of patents granted, China generates 2,000 a year, one fortieth as many as the U.S., and half of China’s comes from local affiliates of multinationals. Yet that belies advances China is starting to make in fundamental science and technology. Measured by how much the country spends on research and development as a percentage of its gross domestic product, a measure known as GERD, China now ranks third in the world after the U.S. and Japan, having raised its GERD from 0.57% in 1995 to 1.54% in 2008. That translates into annual R&D spending approaching half a trillion yuan ($75 billion), though China’s critics will jibe that much of that should be called R&C spending, for research and copying.

Beijing’s long-term target is for a 2.5% GERD by 2020. The new five-year plan calls for a large increase in R&D spending. There are straws in the wind that suggest that that will manifest itself as an up to 10 trillion yuan ($1.5 trillion) boost for selected advanced industries over the next five years, both directly through soft loans and government procurement and via incentives for foreign companies to set up more R&D facilities in China. The number being floated may be pie in the sky (it is after all two and a half times the size of the 2008 stimulus package) and it is far from clear how much would go for R&D as opposed to infrastructure development, but it is clear that improving the technological capabilities of China’s manufacturers is a policy priority. The anointed industries are biotech, post-fossil-fuels energy, energy conservation and environmental protection, clean-energy vehicles, new materials, and next-generation information technology and high-end equipment manufacturing. The plan calls for these industries to account for 15% of China’s GDP at the end of the next five-year plan, up from 5% going into it.

It is easy to forget that China’s exports have been moving up the value chain away from low-tech products since the 1990s. Firms like Huawei and Lenovo have prospered by absorbing foreign technology and business expertise, and adapting them to produce products for the Chinese market before taking the same strategy into global markets. Not all foreign suppliers of technology and expertise have been happy with the first part of that strategy. They have had to agree to hand over technology to win access to domestic markets and then found that Chinese enterprises are preferring — or being encourage to prefer — to buy locally developed products, patriotic support of the pursuit of “indigenous innovation’.

What also needs not to be lost sight of is that this is a different stripe of innovation, not so much yet leading-edge technological innovation as process innovation; the use of China’s labor quality, supply chain integrity and infrastructure to reduce cost. As S.D. Shibulal, chief operating officer of Infosys Technologies, notes in an INSEAD article on innovation in emerging markets, Chinese companies “are redesigning products to reduce costs; they are redesigning entire business processes to do things better and faster than their rivals.” He dubs this “frugal innovation”.

This lets Chinese companies pickoff niches where they can refine their products and market entry. Haier, the white-goods manufacturer, was a harbinger of  this approach with wine-cooler refrigerators, turning what was a high-end consumer good into a much cheaper middle-market one, and grabbing 60% of the market in the process, according to Peter Williamson, a former INSEAD professor who has written a book on the topic. Consumers were prepared to accept a small drop in quality in return for a large cut in price.

“The real challenge for foreign firms is not so much the top end of the market in many given industries, but the medium sector, which we call the ‘good enough’ sector,” says Anil K. Gupta, a current INSEAD professor. The lesson is that Western multinationals are going to have to learn to compete in the middle market as well as the top-end one, as this is where “future battles for world market share will be fought.”

Meanwhile the challenge for Chinese firms will be to develop their own brands and innovate their own products, then move from manufacturing them at home to designing them there and manufacturing in lower cost countries.

Update: The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that China’s R&D spending of 500 billion yuan in 2009 will rise to 1.2 trillion yuan by 2015 and to 2.1 trillion yuan by 2020, which is $320 billion at today’s exchange rates. Much of the support will come via fiscal inducements, it says.

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China’s $10,000-12,000 Question

Whether political reform is an inevitable consequence of China’s economic reform has been a longstanding question. Ilian Mihov, an economics professor at INSEAD,  the Paris-based business school, flips the question on its head. He asks whether the country’s ability to develop its economy rapidly can continue without institutional reforms regarding the rule of law, governance and accountability.

In a recently published report of a session on China at an INSEAD symposium in Singapore last November, Mihov said China needs “deep structural reforms”. Command economies can only sustain fast growth with weak institutions for so long. The tipping point comes when per capita income reaches $10,000-12,000 a year, the point at which developing economies tend to stop developing without institutional change (see chart below)*.

“There is not a single country that has good quality institutions and is poor,” Mihov said in Singapore. “The gap between rich and poor is driven by poor productivity that is linked to poor quality institutions and poor business environment.”  As evidence he offers the contrasting experiences of Singapore and Venezuela. Even more dramatically, consider the economies of the old Soviet bloc, which collapsed as per capita incomes hit and then got stuck at the $12,000 a year level (adjusted for current prices).

China’s annual per capital income is $4,000. At current growth rates that gives it less than a decade before it starts bearing down in earnest on that tipping point or The Great Wall as Mihov inevitably dubs it.

What makes for the aforesaid poor quality institutions and a poor business environment includes political instability, government inefficiency and the prevalence of corruption. Those are factors within government’s control. There has been progress, albeit piecemeal, as with, for example, the current anti-corruption campaign and, as Dan Harris from China Law Blog points out, the improving quality of China’s civil, if not criminal courts. There are other reasons than planning for long-term economic development for those changes, but the $10,000-12,000 question is whether that progress continues at a sufficient pace to carry the country through the transformation to a new peak of development. Or will it be left stuck on the plateau of stagnation?

The growing economic and political clout of state-owned enterprises is another possible impediment to progress. Like Japan before it, China has grown fast by replicating and improving on what advanced economies have already done and producing and selling the results much more cheaply. Yet, as Japan found out, there comes a point where innovation has to replace imitation if growth is to be sustained.

China’s state-owned national champions and aspiring multinationals are ambitious, adaptive and fast learners (as were Japan’s). They are developing R&D and product development capabilities but they remain reliant on access to low-cost capital from the state, have rudimentary organizational and financial management skills by the standards of multinationals and have yet to acquire two of the most essential traits of a globalized multinational, managing diversity and allowing the intrapreneurship in which innovation can flourish (traits that few Japanese multinationals were able to acquire).

Beijing is throwing a wall of money and of engineers and scientists at making its national champions more innovative (dealing with diversity isn’t even on the radar). Yet in the process of building up the SOEs it is distorting markets and entrenching vested interests that increase the resistance to reform. It also crowds out small and medium sized companies where growth-generating innovation truly flourishes. Those need a particular business environment which is possible only with good institutions and a regulatory and governance regime that may not be to the taste of big business in the form of the SOEs, who see their (patriotic) role to be competing with other multinationals not fending off pesky upstarts at home.

That sets up a dilemma for the leadership. If the Party’s legitimacy to monopolistic rule depends on continuing to deliver the economic growth that keeps its citizens getting richer and Mihov is right that the country’s rapid economic growth cannot continue beyond a certain point without institutional reform, then managing the role of government in the economy and overcoming state-owned vested interests — in other words reforming itself — becomes China’s policy planners most important concern.

*There is a 2009 research paper on the $10,000-12,000 barrier by Mihov and his colleague Antonio Fatas, The 4Is of Economic Growth, from which the chart above was abstracted. A summary focusing on China, Another Challenge To China’s Growth, was published in the Harvard Business Review of March 2009.

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