The Accelerating Innovation Tide Across Asia

The Accelerating Innovation Tide Across AsianAsia is moving towards the remaking of the innovation landscape, I have no doubt about that. Over the next ten years or so, along with a number of other wealth generating activities, the centre of gravity for innovation will shift increasingly towards the East.

I have been lucky to see part of this taking shape in my 15 odd years being based in Asia until recently. For twelve years I was based in Singapore and it is still, like all of Asia, on my advisory radar. Innovation in Asia is quite different; here are some of the dynamics. Others will follow.

The combinations abound are ‘rich and heady’

With the attraction of fast growing markets, rapidly growing middle classes, rising education standards with millions of graduates emerging across Asia and plentiful state funding you have a powerful cocktail to ‘kick start’ innovation. For many countries in Asia they are well passed the ‘kick start’ and more into the establishing and maturing of their specific ‘brand’ of innovation.

The West views Asian innovation through the wrong lens

Cultures have a complex make up too and it does influence our thinking. Cognition works differently it seems, depending on your cultural background and upbringing influences. Asians clearly ‘see’ innovation solutions in different ways. The generating of ideas, developed by different thinking approaches or modes is an interesting area to discuss further, but not here. One critical outcome leads to a more ‘collaborative’ approach in Asia, while the West would be more pursuing a far more “open’ one.

The history of innovation is different

Most of Asian countries have for many years (thousands) been heavily controlled by the state and it is only recently that the heavy hand of regulation has been gaining a lighter touch. There is a present battles going on between market based outwardly looking approaches (for example in India & China) and those internal diehards, seen as solid nation defenders, wanting only a inward-looking set of approaches to solve many of the internal structural problems that still beset these countries. This provides a lot of tension on where the ‘push’ for innovation should go. There is still enormous scope for the ‘pull’. This tug of control and deregulation creates many mixed signals of state or market driven to evaluate.

Asia has mastered much of the outsourced innovation, in many industries it is a world leader. Many of the countries have become technically adept and moving beyond fast followers into global outsourced leaders.

The West simply comes at innovation at a different point and, yes, you can argue it is more advanced but you do have to careful on this generalised statement. There are many emerging examples where the West is lagging the East and this will only increase unless a thorough, thoughtful analysis of the differences to give true ‘differentiation’ to focus precious resources behind them is made. Western policies still are too generalized when it comes to innovation areas they support. This needs greater ‘rifle targeting’ not ‘shot gun’ approaches.

Everyone in Asia is snapping at each other’s heels

With so many knowledge parks, high tech zones and innovation centres of excellence springing up across Asia these are breaking down many past barriers of where innovation resides. Nearly every global company has transferred some or even all of its R&D research to specific places in Asia as protection, quality of researchers and the availability of grants and incentives becomes overwhelming not to take up.

Knowledge is flowing East to the many hot spots and the airport connections simply accelerate this knowledge exchange. Scientists, corporate managers and serial entrepreneurs are connecting daily face-to-face or through all the available means open to them in technology and communications.

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Going in reverse

We have been recently discussing reverse innovation, frugal innovation or appropriate innovation. All are well beyond ‘fads’ they are the outcome of products adapted for Asian markets increasingly finding new homes in the West, where many products are over-engineered, over-designed and over-spec’d.

Stripping away what is not needed for customers is going to be the winning play in the next few years and Asian centres of innovation development are more equipped to manage this within their type of innovation methodology and ‘proving’ grounds close to the production sites, mostly situated with these countries. Appropriate innovation is going to become a key battle ground.

The other type of reverse is still the flow of reverse migration. The returning Asians, picked out by their countries’ roving ambassadors, were attracted back due to the ‘heady’ cocktail mentioned above. Let’s be honest having your budgets cut, working through constant layers of ‘push back’ going on in the West (our famous red tape) or being fast tracked back into your natural society, with a more attractive package of money, contacts, feeding ambition and blending your Eastern and Western techniques, understandings and methods. Of course this is not always easy and many have found out the promise was not to their liking for many lingering inhibitors or obstacles. Many are staying and thriving.

Relationships- those are often not as ‘open’ as you think

Asian countries do have a real intensity. This can make for some really insecure relationships with external collaborators. If you don’t start on the same page, in harmony, you certainly will never end on that same page without enormous blood, sweat and tears. The ‘prize’ within collaborations needs to be well worth it. All the Asian countries are as hungry as you can get for recognition as emerging equals to the West. Not only as it shows the virility, it does often shows the prowess and their adeptness. They still maybe weak on certain aspects but I don’t think the West can claim perfection!

Yes Asia is often accused of fast following, exploiting and sometimes stripping down innovation emerging from other places or organizations but as they strengthen the intellectual property regimes and have well qualified researchers this will take on a really different level of sophistication. They will increase this type of ‘investigative’ innovation and produce many different and new products ‘schooled’ in reverse engineering or simply employing the latest skilled researcher, to break down the code, product or molocule and apply different intellectual logic bolted on to ‘sensing’ new value opportunities, exploiting the gaps. Again, Asians do think and research differently often at a higher level of intensity of purpose and with different biases and ideas of potential value.

Exploiting their own intellectual property is clearly happening

So there are more brains, more ideas, more innovation centres working in increasing connected networks in Asia. These are not just Asian specific but global in their intent and dissemination. The West has to figure out what are its complementary skills to collaborate with this rising tide of innovation knowledge found in Asia. More innovation will clearly emerge from these collaborations but they are not going to be truly open, they are going to be open/closed, selective on what they bring. There is an ever increasing flow of people, ideas, technologies, followed by money and chased by different organizations to commercialize. The pace of innovation is getting faster and faster to manage. The art of orchestration comes to mind and Asia is a networked environment of inter connected relationships. It always has been in history, this time it is web driven making it even more ‘connected,’ fast and powerful.

One Asian country is certainly not another for innovation

South Korea and Taiwan are both highly adapt at technology led innovation. They have highly connected networks of Conglomerates, Institutions and Government all drawn together on specific platforms to grow the internal competences of often the larger conglomerate operating out of these countries. Often it is seen nationally as a struggle for survival so they have to innovation- it is an imperitive.  Yet state pressures and large companies often stifle new entrants or entrepreneurs through this extensive network- hence my open/closed analogy. Korea and Taiwan still have difficulty attracting foreign investors due to this closed up approach unless you are brining the technology or processes that resolve part of their jigsaw for moving up the innovation value chain.

As for India, they are different, really different. They seem to stumble along but don’t be fooled by this. Their appetite for innovation is as big as it is for seeking food dependency. Indian’s have the premier networked system around the world. Someone once said it is not an innovation system but an innovation networked class of global non-resident Indians embedded in social and business systems anywhere from Silicon Valley, to Australia, to Cambridge, UK, Singapore or Boston. Indians debate, then think, debate and think again even more, and then find ways to innovate, often to get around obstacles others would have given up upon long ago. That is inbuilt within Indians who have had to navigate the roadblocks just to live in India on a day-to-day basis. They are really inventive. India is going to excel at many different types of innovation. India will become a real world centre for reverse or appropriate innovation.

Then we have China. They are mobilizing their amazing resource of people, both educated and partly skilled into a powerful innovating machine. China has such ambitions for growth over its different economic state plans. Universities are ‘churning out’ more engineers than the West or near enough, it is attracting world class contributors to the education of the higher skilled and anchoring many multination innovation centres to build its momentum and depth. Presently China focuses on the ‘hard’ of innovation, the more right brain, less on the ‘soft’ left brain, so engineering, research both flourish. Creativity, design and market empathy all lag behind. They are trying to move from their quantity to a more quality perspective but this is going to be a hard road for them to travel without some real mindshift to a more open culture. The sheer power and commitment for making these ‘leaps’ in the global standing in many areas is frighening and innovation is in the centre of this determination to transform the Chinese society and be a global innovating powerhouse.

Many other contenders for parts of the innovation throne

When you look beyond these Asian innovation leaders you see Singapore constantly moving up the value curve. It has a unique model that attracts, employs and promotes innovation for its ongoing value creation. It stays fluid, adaptable and flexible in every way. It is like the bamboo- strong, pliable, can bend when it needs too but is powerful in its ability to not break, it is a constant surprise. It is always fast growing and very versatile. A place that keeps innovation in the forefront of its growth plans and systematically ‘picks off’ who and what it wants to anchor into its business in Singapore, to fulfil the growth plans of being a hotspot of ‘targeted’ innovation expertise. Singapore is famous for exploring boundaries in thinking and experimenting with lots of ‘seed’ money.

Then you have Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the significant power of Japan – each has their own innovation model, one size or type does not fit all. Innovation in Asia is made up of many different models. I could dig into each but I will not for this blog. I’ve illustrated enough of the rising tide accelerating in Asia for innovation in enough ways. The innovation tide runs both deep and broad.

The changing landscape for innovation

Asian countries are remaking the innovation landscape. In the West it is not best to dismiss this phenomena and the West has to find imaginative ways to embrace these emerging innovation ‘tigers’. To learn to collaborate and play to traditional strengths may not be enough and this thinking beyond needs a real clarity of mind, believe me. Of course Asia is a fast learner and sometimes has incredible ‘blind spots’. To understand these and exploit them takes knowledge and the tide is certainly coming in fast.

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.

Paul Hobcraft

Paul Hobcraft is recognized for his consistency to champion and informs on innovation. He focuses on building innovation capacity, competencies, and capabilities and promotes innovation in informative, creative and knowledgeable ways, piecing together the broader understanding of innovation. Paul continually constructs a series of novel and relevant frameworks to help advance this innovation understanding and writes mainly through his posting site of where he regularly publishes his thinking and research based on solutions that underpin his advisory, coaching and consulting work at




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No Comments

  1. Yannig on December 14, 2011 at 6:06 am

    A fantastic post, Paul, thanks a lot for sharing these insights !

  2. Liz Kamei on December 14, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Paul, what a great posting! You have raised a lot of points for consideration here. I am interested in your comment as to Asian innovation being more ‘collaborative’, while Western is more ‘open’. I agree with the statement, but I would be interested to hear you elaborate on your view of ‘collaboration’ and ‘openness’ in Asia.

  3. Paul Hobcraft on December 14, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Liz, elaborating on the differences will come sometime (early) next year.
    Thanks for your comments

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