BE CREATIVE: Students at a vocational school in north China's Tianjin Municipality showcase a mini aerocraft built for aerial photography in December 2013 (XINHUA)
I am not an expat, but I come to China so often I feel like one. My mission is to build UK-Chinese links in innovation.
It is recognized that innovation flowers at the intersection of cultures either in time or space. For me the differences in culture between Europe and China are amazing and cover almost every area of life but they promise the most dynamic and fertile basis for innovation and creativity. In my view, they greatly surpass what either could do alone. China and Europe both wish to raise the standard of living of our peoples and we see innovation as the route to that goal. Together we can do it better.
We both wish to escape the race to the bottom with manufacturing, service industries and even agriculture exporting their jobs to the places with the lowest costs and driving down wages.
Innovation has to be at the heart of all commercial activity. In a competitive world industry dies without innovation and creativity, but it is not good enough to only have innovation to reduce costs. Kodak probably had the lowest costs of any photographic company but their management failed to change their business model until it was too late. Rapidly accelerating technologies from all the sciences present a vast canvas for innovation. Innovation needs people to innovate, which requires education to introduce a curriculum of innovation and creativity.
Four hundred years ago China was far in advance of anything in Europe and yet the industrial revolution took place in Europe. Europeans then had the secret to innovation. What is that secret today?
Practical science is regarded as the best educational route toward technological innovation and creativity. Practical science presents the student with a problem and the challenge to produce an explanation and then test out the explanation to see if it is correct. At the University of Bradford, we developed a completely robotic route into practical science which is widely used in the UK. It challenges and inspires our students and they can use it from school or from home. It is completely delivered on the Internet.
In the UK we have a long tradition of teaching practical science in schools. I am deeply concerned with bringing practical science into China but for cultural reasons—especially the examination system—I feel that it is unlikely that there will be much change in developing innovation and creative skills in Chinese children until practical science is included in the examination system. Perhaps Tsinghua University and South China Technology University, both of whom I work with, can be persuaded to pilot a program of practical science for the entrance examinations in their provinces. If it is successful, schools will then take up the teaching of practical science which, to date, is just an extra-curricular activity at a few schools.
But practical science is only half the answer. In Europe we are blighted by large companies that are unable to innovate outside their business model. Microsoft is almost a corpse kept alive by its sales of Windows and Office. Nokia completely missed the development of smart phones. Driverless cars would dramatically reduce the number of deaths on our roads and completely change the relationship between private and public transport through reducing the congestion and pollution on our roads, but they conflict strongly with the car marketing business model. There are many ways of generating nuclear power but the industry is stuck in the route with the business model that governments funded to make nuclear weapons. There are many more examples of a failure to innovate in large companies.
In the West, large companies lock themselves into their business model. The cost of influencing decision makers and newspapers to support and re-enforce their business model is trivial and easy to do. For example, the imperative to move away from burning fossil fuels will harm the profits of big oil companies. What could they do? Why not set up a charity to dispute the human cause of global warming? There is no need to declare who funds the charity and the charity can easily pay experts and consultants with influence to "advise" it. These experts only continue to be paid if their advice and general statements are in forms that the oil companies wish to hear. Equally, newspapers which agree that global warming is a result of burning fossil fuels will find advertising and other revenues decline, but if they change their policy they will not be surprised if their advertising income starts growing. Nothing needs to be said—just a nod and a wink.
Such corruption is trivial in cost compared to opening up a new oil field and effectively locks the large company into their old business model.
Innovation requires smaller companies that have many competitors, forcing them to think to stay alive. Four hundred years ago, when the industrial revolution propelled Europe into a world lead, there were no large companies. Size does matter and to have a degree of control over large companies is just as important as teaching innovation.
For China, the challenge is teaching innovation. In the West the challenge is to open up the business model of large companies. Innovating together promises to move both our nations into the high-wage, high-value industries of knowledge economies.
The author is a Briton who has visited China