Can Asia Lead the World in Innovation?


Can Asia innovate—and even become a world leader in the innovation and creativity that have made the West so successful? That was the question that management and innovation guru Navi Radjou sought to answer at an evening talk at LKYSPP, chaired by Senior Visiting Research Fellow James Crabtree.

Radjou described a trend he has found incredibly exciting, as an Indian with French and American citizenship. Asia is beginning to lead the world in innovation, as seen in the results of the Global Innovation Index.

Since the Index’s inception in 2008, Asian countries such as Singapore and South Korea (and the Chinese territory of Hong Kong) have ranked as among the most innovative ones in the world—thanks to their booming markets, stable economies and tech-friendly government policies. China itself is catching up, joining the top 25 for the first time in 2016.

By investing in research and development, large countries such as China and India are becoming global engines of innovation. Incredible new innovations are happening in Asia, and it is the result of more global trends involving Europe and America.

Going Where the Market Is

This, Radjou noted, is the result of a shift in the conception, development and marketing of new products and services. For a long time, new ideas came from Western designers, built for affluent Western markets. Companies were set up in the West, and took their cue from what those markets wanted. Most of the twentieth century saw Westerners getting the most cutting-edge products first, and Asians having to make do with older ones as they got replaced.

But that began to change in the 1990s. East Asia underwent an economic miracle, as Western companies began outsourcing manufacturing and innovation there. Asians could work for less than Westerners, and products began to be developed and marketed in Asia itself.

But the trend gained momentum. More and more products began to be built for Asian markets, and Asian companies caught up with their European counterparts in innovation and new product creation. Moreover, a middle class growing in affluence was changing market demand.

To survive, Western companies knew they had to get “closer to the customers of tomorrow.” Labs and technology centres were opened in China, India, Singapore and many other places with emerging markets.

Those centres began coming up with new concepts, such as medical devices branded as Western products and sold in the West, but designed and built entirely (and with less resources) by Asian engineers.

Making Do With Less

As cutting-edge, low-cost innovation solutions emerge from Asia, this has created a trend towards creating economic, environmental and social value with fewer resources. No longer does new technology cost astronomical sums of money to develop, and Asian companies now compete directly with European and American ones for a global market.

This is a by-product of what Radjou sees as “the MacGyver spirit”—after the 1980s TV show about a hero who fights crime using improvised weapons and tools. Like MacGyver, Asian engineers have been able to make do with less, and find unorthodox solutions with the materials on hand. As such, their products, from cars to medical devices, can be developed and sold more cheaply than in the West. (This has been the subject of his books, Jugaad Innovation and Frugal Innovation.)

This reversal has created its own trends towards frugality and minimalism in the West, and Western companies are adjusting accordingly.

But part of this worries him. There is a tendency to celebrate the rise of Asia, but it’s easy to forget that before we’re Asians or Westerners, we’re all human beings first, and all in the same boat. We now share more and more in common, and national borders are becoming less relevant to trade and industry. At the same time, the potential problems of the future need to be foreseen and resolved, such as the drastic effects of a changing climate on the food and healthcare industries.

There needs to be a cooperative mindset between East and West, to put our various ideas together and co-create new solutions for the future. There are no longer first-world problems and third-world problems—only one-world problems.

One-World Synergy

Singapore’s position makes it ideal to serve as a hub for those ideas. It has historically been a gateway to Asia—and today it needs to stay in that role as a “global innovation broker” of world-class technological solutions, combining the best ideas of both East and West.

To close, Mr Crabtree posed two major questions—first, what about the criticism that the cost of true innovation must remain high to stay competitive, and second, can the whole world truly innovate together, given political trends such as the collapse of trade agreements?

Radjou responded by pointing to more world-changing, yet simple devices such as the Raspberry Pi mini-computer, which is cheap yet modular enough to be everything from a simple aid for learning to code, to an offline server capable of streaming lessons to an entire classroom. This led into his response to the second question—that new technologies enable cooperation and innovation to naturally flow across national borders, and political differences are merely one factor in this.

Asia may be able to become a world leader in innovation, but that is only part of the story. The challenge of the future is whether Asian countries and companies can work in synergy with the West to solve the global problems of tomorrow.

This article is written as an event coverage piece for the Can Asia Lead The World in Innovation? talk which took place at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on 6 October 2016.

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