Innovation in China – Part II – Shanghai, Tongli, and Beijing

This is the second article in a two-part series addressing innovation in China.  The first part addressed the archaeological treasure trove of the city of Xi’an and its surroundings.  This article focuses on the better-known cities of Shanghai – China’s financial capital – and Beijing – China’s political capital.  While both cities contain a wealth of modern innovation in terms of firms working on new technologies, this article focuses on what we can learn about modern innovation by exploring some of the great achievements and structures from China’s past and present.

Imperial Palace – View from Tiananmen Square


As China’s financial and commercial capital, Shanghai is a city that seems to move at a pace that is fast even for one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.  Shanghai is probably among the most Western-feeling cities of China, and provides an interesting contrast of modern buildings, colonial-era art-deco structures, tree-lined boulevards in the French concession zone, and a few ancient (hutong) areas that are rapidly being replaced with more modern buildings.  Like many cities in China, Shanghai has a tragic history, ranging from its occupation by foreign powers after the Opium Wars in the 1840s to the Great Leap Forward in 1958 which saw millions die from famine to the massive disruptions of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, which was launched in Shanghai.  Intended by the Communist Party as a way of transforming the country, the Cultural Revolution saw schools closed and fanatical Red Guards attacking what were known as the “four olds” – old ideas, old customs, old habits, and old culture.  The revolution devolved into anarchy and over a million died across the country.  Despite this sad history, the city of Shanghai today is vibrant and full of life and is growing at an astounding rate, with skylines transforming almost overnight with massive new office and apartment buildings under construction as far as the eye can see.

View of Shanghai and Pudong from the Shanghai Tower


The Bund

The focal point of Shanghai is the famous Bund, a magnificent waterfront pedestrian walkway along the Huangpu river that separates a series of preserved colonial-era buildings on one side and the massive, modern skyscrapers across the river in the Pudong district.  The Bund is full of life throughout the day, but is particularly teeming with energy in the evening when crowds of residents stroll along the waterfront and admire the lights of Pudong’s massive skyscrapers sparkling across the river (Pudong is the section of the city where most modern office buildings are located).  The Bund walkway is long and flat and has constantly-changing 360-degree views.  One can look to one side and see a stunning collection of colonial-era buildings that were magnificently preserved (and miraculously survived the upheavals of the 1960s).  In the other direction one sees the stunning modern skyline in Pudong.  The river itself is a beehive of activity, with cargo ships, ferry boats, tugboats, barges and all sorts of other watercraft plying the waterway on a seemingly nonstop basis throughout the day and night.  The path along the river runs for over a mile on the Shanghai side, while on the Pudong side the government has made a massive investment to build a similar walking path that runs even further.

Shanghai Bund Walkway

Innovation Thoughts – Walking on the Bund led me to think of another Asian city’s downtown area that is bisected by a great river – Bangkok.  The old city area of Bangkok is split in two by the Chao Phraya River and, like the Huangpu, the Chao Phraya is abuzz with activity throughout the day and night, though perhaps it is even busier than its Shanghai counterpart because of the more numerous long-tail boats that one sees in Thailand but not in China.  While it is quite enjoyable to take a ferry on the Chao Phraya or to sit on one’s hotel balcony and watch the myriad boats pass by, the experience is very different from Shanghai because Bangkok does not have the equivalent of a Bund walkway along its river.  Private properties abut the river all along the route, so the only way to travel along the river by foot is to venture inland and follow a series of winding, narrow roads then periodically turn back towards the river.  One can take ferry boats along the river, but that is a different experience than walking.

Pudong at Night – View from the Bund

For the modern innovator, the lesson here is the importance of connectivity or a systemic view of a solution.  An innovator might be faced with two competing approaches to a problem yet one may be better aligned with a broader solution than the other approach.  In general, one can assume that the solution that is better connected to other entities will have greater value than a more isolated or piecemeal approach.  Indeed, just as popping out periodically to see activity on a river is quite different from being able to stroll along the river for over a mile, an innovator should consider systemic or connectivity as a variable when assessing the value of a potential innovation.

Chao Praya River in Bangkok

A good example of this appears in the recent BBC World Service podcast People Fixing the World.  The episode, “Stopping Wildfires in Their Tracks,” highlights a non-profit organization in Spain that works with local shepherds near Girona, Spain to combine the shepherd’s need for forage for their goats with the community’s need for measures to reduce the amount of scrub growth that is highly prone to fire.  Shepherds in this region were suffering economically trying to raise their flocks in a traditional manner.  Rather than simply paying shepherds to move their flocks from one area to another to consume scrub vegetation and reduce kindling for fires, the non-profit extended their operation all the way to butcher and cheese shops in town to create a new, specialty offering of the products from these fire-suppressing goats.  This enables the shepherds and retailers to sell their products at a higher price because consumers are willing to pay more for a product that helps their community as a whole.  Individual elements of this solution, such as using goats to suppress fire-prone vegetation, have value, but the extension of the system as a whole increases its overall value even more.

Another interesting example of this phenomenon comes from the same People Fixing the World podcast and addresses the issue of unlicensed doctors in India.  With a population of over 1.3 billion, India is running neck-and-neck with China for the title of the world’s most populous country.  Given the huge number of people and the existence of thousands of isolated and poor rural villages, India faces a constant challenge of determining how to provide medical care for its people.  One traditional means that has survived for centuries is that of the unlicensed doctor, also referred to as “quack” doctor, who sets up shop in a village and provides care (of dubious quality) for the residents of that town, building relationships with the people over the years and charging very small fees for services.  India has as many as 2.2 million of these informal doctors.  These doctors even prescribe medications to patients, and as India has undergone a transition towards a more developed economy, many are calling into question the value of these fake doctors.

Two camps have emerged concerning how to deal with these unlicensed physicians.  One camp wants to shut them down completely and force patients seeking medical care to go to proper clinics or hospitals, with additional government funding needed to increase the capacity of these institutions to meet the demand.  Another camp recognizes that India’s existing medical infrastructure is wholly inadequate to provide these services (many hospitals are already disastrously overcrowded) and thus cutting off these services completely would cause more issues than they are trying to solve.  As a result, some licensed doctors in India have launched a program that provides basic training to these unlicensed doctors to teach them basic medical skills.  In essence, the program teaches the unlicensed doctors to understand the difference between medical conditions that they can handle with their limited education and those situations that require them to seek out additional expertise at a clinic or hospital.  Presumably, an unlicensed doctor would then be able to continue to help address basic medical problems while engaging professionals for the more challenging conditions.  In other words, the camp seeking to educate these unlicensed doctors wants to make them part of a larger system, seeing more value in integrating them into the overall system than cutting them off completely and continuing to allow them to operate outside the mainstream.


The Street-Side Kitchen

As one walks around some of the older, more traditional neighborhoods in Shanghai, one sees a number of tiny restaurants where the chef cooking the key offering of the restaurant is working in open air in front of the store, occupying part of the sidewalk space.  Inside the restaurant are a few tables for diners to sit, but most customers order and are served their food in front of the restaurant on the street.  It is a similar concept to the ubiquitous street food offerings that one sees throughout Asia, especially in Southeast Asia, though the latter are usually not fixed edifices.  In Shanghai and elsewhere in China, such as Muslim Street in Xi’an and Wangfujing Night Market in Beijing, these fixed-base street food stalls are quite popular with locals and tourists alike, serving excellent fare that the consumers eat on the street.

Street-Side Kitchen

Innovation Thoughts – Looking at these tiny restaurants from an innovation standpoint, the question arises as to what advantages the owner of one of these shops might receive from operating in a semi-fixed location but cooking in open air on the sidewalk.  By working in a fixed location, the restaurant provides a stable location for repeat customers who do not have to guess where a rolling food cart might be from one day to another.  By cooking on the sidewalk in front of the shop, the restaurant can take advantage of many the customers’ senses (sight, smell, hearing) and make it more difficult for someone to walk by and not notice the food being prepared, as would be the case with a traditional restaurant that could only present a menu and a glass window to pedestrians.  By cooking outdoors, the restaurant can also show potential customers exactly the quality of the ingredients in the food, rather than having the meal be something that is prepared invisibly behind a closed door in the kitchen.

Street-Side Kitchen

Although a more Western focus on sanitation makes one nervous about food being prepared outdoors, by allowing customers to see the exact ingredients, the chef provides a sense of confidence in what he or she is creating.  One could not use any expired food products in a kitchen in front of a restaurant in full sight of dozens of people on the sidewalk in the same way that one could work surreptitiously in a closed kitchen.  The street-front kitchen is also likely smaller than what would be needed in back of the store, so the overall footprint of the restaurant can be smaller, with lower rent.  A final benefit of this arrangement concerns the speed of ordering, paying for, and receiving the food.  The chef preparing the meal takes orders directly from customers and thus the customer knows he or she is getting a freshly-prepared product that is ready quickly.  Using China’s ubiquitous mobile payment 3D bar codes, one can also pay the vendor quickly without having to exchange any unsanitary currency.  Finally, when the food is ready it is delivered directly from the cooking surface to the customer, with no need to ring a bell and wait for a waiter or waitress to deliver the food to a customer.

As an innovator, one can see how many benefits can arise from a non-traditional structure for a restaurant, which lends credence to the well-known innovation strategy of turning a problem inside-out to find possible new solutions.  In other words, when faced with a challenge, the innovator should approach the problem from a completely different standpoint to search for innovative solutions.  This is often done by asking simple yet profound questions, such as why is a kitchen always in the back of the restaurant?  By asking these types of questions and changing one’s perspective (flipping the restaurant around so what is usually in the back is now in the front), one can find innovative solutions.


The Zig Zag Bridge in the Yu Yuan Gardens

Among the most popular attractions in Shanghai are the Yu Yuan Gardens (the “Gardens of Happiness”), located in the French Concession district.  The gardens contain numerous Ming Dynasty-era (16th century) structures and one of the more interesting pedestrian bridges in the world.  Known as the “Zig Zag Bridge,” this structure crosses a pond within the gardens and is renowned for its peculiar shape.  Rather than crossing the pond on a straight line, this 18-meter-long bridge consists of a series of right angle turns so that it resembles a repeated “Z” shape.  One often sees this kind of bridge in Chinese and Japanese gardens and although the shape allows for structural advantages (shorter lengths and spans, stability from non-linear placement of posts in weak soil [these bridges appear elsewhere in the world in unstable terrain, such as swamps]), the Chinese rationale for the structure has to do with the need to fend off evil spirits.  It is said that evil spirits must travel in a straight line, so by embedding a series of sharp turns in the bridge, one can assume that these spirits will be thwarted in their travels and will not be able to traverse the bridge.

Zig Zag Bridge

Innovation Thoughts – Although one benefit of the zig zag bridge is that it became an iconic structure in Shanghai that lasted hundreds of years because it was so unique (not to mention that it thwarted evil spirits), an innovation perspective on this bridge has more to do with other aspects of the bridge.  A popular area of research in innovation today concerns the importance of serendipity.  The author Pagan Kennedy, writing in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World, observes that many of the great discoveries of the modern era emerged through what we would term as “accidental” discovery.  The innovators may have been working on a particular topic, but the key event that permitted them to find an exact solution may have come about haphazardly or even serendipitously.  Many cutting-edge companies are even engineering serendipitous interactions into their office spaces, with stairwells replacing elevators and hallway designs that force workers to cross paths frequently while transiting to various parts of the buildings.  Common areas, too, are being designed with the desire to produce inadvertent interactions among employees from different parts of the company.

Zig Zag Bridge and Tea House

As innovators we often seek the path of least resistance.  Stated another way, when crossing an open field we take the most direct route, which often is a straight line.  Straight lines are sometimes the best solution, as evidenced by architects who, in designing new hospitals, try to make their corridors as straight as possible so they are easier to clean in the battle against the spread of germs.  Yet just as there is value to a straight line, so, too, can there be value in zig-zag lines.  By taking a more circuitous route, we may stumble across an insight that we might have missed had we followed a straight pathway.  The zig zag bridge reminds us of the importance of exploring alternatives and following paths that are less well-trodden.  An innovator can leverage this perspective by not rushing to present a new solution to colleagues but, rather, taking the time to explore it from a different perspective.  Likewise, an innovator could seek out input on a solution from a person whose expertise lies in a different field from the area of the innovation.  Non-linear approaches can bear fruit in innovation, and the zig zag bridge reminds us that straight lines are not always the best routes.


The Threshold

When one enters an ancient Chinese temple or royal building, the first thing one notices is the threshold.  This is not the half-inch threshold that is typical for a modern doorway.  Rather, these old Chinese thresholds are often several inches high and require one to pay close attention so as not to trip over them.  The thresholds in Chinese structures serve three distinct purposes.  First, as was the case with the Zig Zag Bridge, the thresholds are designed to keep spirits out of the building, as in addition to not being able to make sharp turns, spirits are also unable to climb over thresholds.  Second, the threshold forces the person entering the room to always look down when picking up one’s foot to step up and over the obstacle.  This forces the person entering the room to tilt his or her head down, thus demonstrating respect to the owner of the building.  The third and final attribute of the threshold is more utilitarian, as its height above the ground level serves to keep out dirt, debris, water, or small animals, thus keeping the building cleaner than it would be with a flat entrance.

Typical Chinese Door Threshold

Innovation Thoughts – For the innovator, the threshold provides us with a possible technique to use in complex design.  Our goal in developing a new idea, product, or service is usually to incorporate multiple features or attributes into our design to maximize the utility of the creation.  Yet we sometimes forget to look beyond the basic characteristics of the product or service to expand into other areas.  The lesson of the Chinese threshold is that one can combine, in a single component, elements of the spiritual, temporal, and practical.  The innovative quality of the Chinese threshold design is that it does more than just keep dirt and water out of a building.  It provides spiritual benefits, in terms of keeping our evil spirits, and temporal benefits, in terms of ensuring that visitors to a structure show the proper respect when entering.


The Tongli Water Village

No visit to the Shanghai region of China is complete without a visit to a nearby ancient water town or water village.  This area of China is known as the “Venice of the East” due to the prevalence of canal-lined villages such as Zhouzhuang, Yongzhi, Xitang, Wuzhen, and Nanxun.  Although it is difficult to conclude which water village is the most attractive, Tongli is often seen as among the most interesting to visit due to its mingling of architecture and relics from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  Originally built in Song Dynasty (960 A.D. – 1279 A.D.), Tongli is seen as once of the best-integrated sites with consistent canals, streets, small bridges, residences, and gardens throughout the village.

Tongli Water Village


The Retreat and Reflection Garden

Although much newer than some of the buildings that surround it, the Retreat and Reflection Garden in Tongli is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage sight and one of the highlights of Tongli.  Designed by the artist Yuanlong and built from 1885 to 1887, the garden and houses were owned by Ren Lansheng, an official from the Qing Dynasty who returned to his hometown after being dismissed from his government post.  The formal Chinese name of the home and gardens reflects Ren Lansheng’s employment status – “meditation over one’s previous faults when discharged from duty.”  The property contains 24 buildings, 12 steles (upright and engraved stone slabs), 15 valuable old trees, and 28 tablets and plateaus.  As one wanders through the grounds, one encounters a number of beautiful buildings, including the Lotus Blooms Pavilion, the Stone Boat, the Hardship Terrace, the Zizania Rain Brings Coolness Pavilion, and the Celestial Bridge.

Retreat and Reflection Garden

While the property is renowned for the beauty of its structures, what is more interesting to us from an innovation standpoint is how the structure is laid out.  From the outside, the entrance is a wall and small door, and when one crosses the first threshold and enters the complex, the initial courtyard and buildings are small and not imposing.  As one ventures deeper and deeper into the complex, the rooms and courtyards become larger and more imposing, culminating in the grand sweep of the main garden with its rocks, bridges, buildings, and trees.  The experience is almost like a show in which as one moves away from the public and towards the private, more and more impressive elements of architecture are revealed.  This contrasts with a more Western approach where we tend to see more ostentatious elements of design in the public-facing aspects of architecture, such as grand entrance ways, large curving staircases, and large doors and porches with tall columns.

Retreat and Reflection Garden

Innovation Thoughts – The effect of this reverse approach (a design that gets more impressive the deeper one enters the design), is quite interesting and offers a potential method for innovators seeking to impress a client or patron with a proposal.  We are often taught that we need to deliver our most important information very early in a presentation so that the information is absorbed quickly by the often time-strapped executives attending the briefing.  Our presentations become slightly longer versions of the ubiquitous elevator pitch, in which one has to deliver the core components of a proposal in the amount of time it takes to ride a few floors in a chance encounter with a key decisionmaker in an elevator.  While this can be an effective way to pique the curiosity of an executive, it is not always the best way to impart information to someone.  Perhaps the innovator should consider a design along the lines of the Chinese home and garden with a progressive build of impressive details as one goes from the start to the finish of a presentation.  By hinting at what is coming and ensuring that each step in the process rewards the viewer in an incremental way, the overall effect of the presentation can be enhanced.

Retreat and Reflection Garden

Rock Farming

When one thinks of rock farming, the first thing that comes to mind is the unfortunate state when a farmer is working to till a field where the soil is interspersed with lots of rock material to the point where after repeated plowings, it seems as though the best the farmer will be able to do with that field is find more rocks rather than crops.  In the past, farmers would have to remove these rocks by hand but could use them to build barrier fences and shelters around their farms.  Yet as one can see in the numerous gardens in and around the city of Suzhou, rock farming is a legitimate endeavor that is quite different from simply turning up the soil to find stones.  In traditional Chinese gardens, the elements of the garden are meant to represent on a small scale the larger world beyond, so a pond would equate to a lake or sea, small plants would signify trees, trees would equate to forests, and rocks would serve as mountains.  As such, designers place a great deal of attention on the shape of the stones they procure, particularly if they want to represent realistic mountain formations in their gardens and courtyards.

Water-Sculpted Rocks

To obtain the perfectly-shaped stone, rock farmers in Suzhou would search for certain pieces that possessed the correct basic attributes then cut and carve them to the appropriate form.  At this point, rather than placing them in a garden, they would submerge the rock into a river and allow the forces of nature to sculpt the rock, sometimes for over 100 years, in order to achieve the perfect design.  The rock sculpting would obviously outlast its original designer, who would have to teach an apprentice about the intended design and deliver it far into the future.  One can see these water-sculpted rocks in gardens around Suzhou, and they are rendered more impressive with the knowledge that they took multiple generations of craftsmen to complete.

Innovation Thoughts – In innovation today it is sometimes difficult to look beyond the next quarterly results, much less consider any project that would take multiple years.  The story of the Suzhou rock farmers is a reminder that sometimes the fastest path to a solution is not always the best path.  In some cases, a longer process is the better approach, particularly if one is dependent on slow-working processes to render changes that might not be achievable through faster methods.  One could argue that an astute innovator could develop a high-pressure water-jet machine that could sculpt the rock in a shorter period of time, but when one stands in front of these rocks in a Chinese garden, one sees the value of a non-artificial means of sculpting.  The random structure of the rock as a result of its decades of immersion in fast-moving water transforms the design into something that no human could achieve through technology.  For the innovator, this reminds us that sometimes there is more to the world than measurements, quick turnaround times, and application of modern technology to solve problems.  As Hamlet says in Act I, Scene V, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

An interesting example of the value of infinite patience comes from the field of archaeology.  In December 1998, a team of archaeologists led by Ron Clark of the palaeo-anthropological research institute of the University of the Witwatersrand, found an intact skeleton deep in a cave in South Africa in an area known as the Cradle of Humankind.  Rather than using typical methods of extracting bones from rock, such as hammering and blasting, the team decided to excavate the skeleton in a way that can only be described as exceedingly tedious.  The team used very gentle methods to extract each bone from the rock almost grain by grain, and this process took nearly 20 years to complete.  This attention as warranted, however, because the skeleton they found was nearly 3.5 million years old and is seen as the archaeological find of the century.  As reported in the BBC Inside Science podcast, Clark recently presented the fully-extracted skeleton and his findings, highlighting his finding as the best intact australopithecus skeleton and the oldest hominid in Africa.


Roof Tiles

The roofs of ancient and modern buildings in China leverage a simple but highly significant human invention – the clay roof tile.  Many observers are familiar with the sloping, curved roof of a traditional Chinese building, and this style through the centuries spread throughout the rest of East and Southeast Asia.  The general design of the roof provides for good luck by deflecting evil spirits away from the building while also serving the purpose of keeping rain out.  Yet this latter feat is accomplished primarily by the clay roof tile, an unheralded element of this structure.  Each tile is made of baked clay in a U-shape with a relatively small size.  This size allows for easy handling by the manufacturers of the tiles as well as construction workers who must carry the roof tiles up scaffolding and onto the roof for final installation.  What few people notice about tile roofs is the fact that the way the tiles are installed demonstrates an ingenious re-use of the exact same tile over and over again.  If one tried to build a roof that only had the U-shaped tiles in the inverted position (with the rounded part facing up like an upside-down bowl), the roof would leak water because it would be impossible to seal the seams between the different sets of tiles as one progressed across the roof.

Chinese Roof Tiles

The solution to this problem is to take the same tile and flip it over so the rounded part is facing down, then running a row of tiles with the round part facing up.  Water hitting the roof will flow from the rounded part of one set of tiles into the rounded part of the next set of tiles and flow via gravity down the roof towards the edge, avoiding any long side seams and keeping the structure underneath it very dry.  The brilliance of this design is in its simplicity, since the tile manufacturer can just keep cranking out the same design over and over and does not have to build one set of tiles for one purpose and another for a different purpose, and construction workers can simply grab the next tile in the stack and install it in the appropriate manner the complete the roof.

Innovation Thoughts – The clay tile roof is an innovation that appears throughout the world across many different continents and civilizations, and this is likely attributable to the effectiveness and simplicity of the design.  For the modern innovator, the lesson of the tile roof is that when one is seeking to create a solution, sometimes the best approach is to find a way to design a component so it can be reused with little effort to accomplish a slightly different task.  The roof tile both beads water and channels water downwards with just a single flip of the clay piece, and this design is infinitely more valuable than would be the case with an approach that created two different tiles for these different purposes.

Modern European Roof Tiles

From a manufacturing and installation standpoint, the design we see in numerous countries around the world is clearly superior to other approaches, though, interestingly, there were advanced civilizations that did not arrive at this solution.  The renowned Inca civilization in South America did not build tile roofs until after the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s.  The Incas were capable of incredible feats of architecture and engineering with their stonework, assembling buildings with such tight tolerances between huge pieces of stone that even today it is impossible to slide a single sheet of paper between the rocks.  As I chronicled in a previous article on Incan Innovation, the Incas built earthquake-resistance into their structures and their buildings survived tremors that toppled nearby Spanish-constructed masonry buildings.  The Incas even excelled at the use of clay, as it is said that they would construct detailed clay models of cities they were building or battlefields where they were planning to meet their enemies.  Yet in any Inca structure during the peak of their empire, one would always find thatched roofs made of ichu straw, which proved susceptible to water inundation, housed rodents and insects, and were highly prone to fire.  The latter attribute worked against the Spanish invaders when, holed up in the Inca city of Cuzco, they were attacked by Incan forces who set the thatched roofs on fire with flaming projectiles during their attack.

Inca Thatched Roof at Machu Picchu

Interestingly, the existence of tiled roofs on Inca structures appears in the Yale University explorer Hiram Bingham’s search in 1911 for Vilcabamba, the famed Lost City of the Incas.  After he had introduced Machu Picchu to the world, Bingham continued his search for other Inca cities and found a large Inca complex near Espiritu Santu, Peru.  Although the city contained many interesting structures overgrown by jungle, Bingham concluded that this site was probably not the fabled Vilcabamba because he found clay roofing tiles next to one of the buildings, and he knew that the Incas only used thatched roofs.  Five decades later, in 1964, the amateur archaeologist Gene Savoy retraced Bingham’s steps in the region and found the same city, but he concluded that it was likely Vilcabamba because he was armed with an additional piece of information.  The Inca Emperor Manco, who fought unsuccessfully against the Spanish and is considered the Last Inca Emperor, at one point captured several Spanish prisoners of war and clergy and it is likely that they captives taught the Incas how to manufacture clay roof tiles for their structures.  As Savoy notes, “[t]he Incas would have been adept at making such tiles; they had worked clay for centuries.  [… and f]rom our findings it would appear that the Incas of Vilcabamba learned the art of manufacturing roofing tile and were utilizing it in their modern building; proof that they were experiencing a kind of transition, absorbing Spanish refinements while retaining their own.”



When visiting China one is left with the impression that everything in the country is done on a large scale, as one would expect in a country of nearly 1.4 billion inhabitants.  The capital city of China is no exception to this rule, and it seems as though in Beijing everything is done on a vast scale.  Rather than a typical city with one perimeter highway, Beijing has six of them, with epic-sized traffic jams.  Beijing has the largest palace complex in the world – the Imperial Palace.  Tiananmen Square is one of the largest public squares in the world and can purportedly hold one million people, stretching so far that it is hard to see one end from the other.  Unfortunately, this mass of humanity also leads to air quality issues that appear not just in Beijing but also in many other cities in China.  Locals even refer to the color of the sky in the Chinese capital as “Beijing blue,” which is actually a grayish haze, as opposed to actual blue, which they rarely see.  Yet modern challenges aside, Beijing is a city that possesses amazing history and culture and is a location where innovation seems to be always just around the corner.

Beijing Ring Road


Headquarters of the People’s Bank of China


Woodblock Printing

Western-focused history dates the inventing of the printing press with moveable type to the year 1450 AD with the work of Gutenberg in Germany.  Yet printing via other forms existed in China well before this timeframe.  Printing via woodblock cut, in which an artisan would carve characters into a flat piece of wood then use ink and a roller to transfer the images to paper, dates back to the Tang Dynasty in China in the year 618 AD.  Printing flourished in China in the centuries that followed, with cheap printed books widely available through the Song Dynasty between 960 and 1279 AD.  In this period, some 200 years before Gutenberg, the Chinese invented printing via movable type, though woodblock printing continued as well.

Chinese Woodblock Print

Innovation Thoughts – It is clear that the Chinese mastered the art of printing on paper centuries before it became commonplace in the West.  One question, though, is why the Chinese continued to work in the woodblock format for so long rather than using movable type.  The answer lies in the complexity of the Chinese language, with over 2,000 characters required for printing.  The work effort for a typesetter to create one complete set of the 2,000 characters in small metal pieces for printing would be quite intense, and printing would require the typesetter to have more than one copy of many of the characters so that he or she could set them in a frame to print each page.  In other words, a typesetter would need multiple copies of thousands of characters, creating an enormously complex set of requirements for printing via moveable type.  This is in stark contrast to the relatively simple 26-character alphabet used in the West.  The Chinese also were printing the same books over and over again for hundreds of years, so a reusable woodblock cut method would be very economical in this scenario.  Although the Chinese eventually developed the ability to print works using moveable type, they were hamstrung by the complexity of their language.

For the modern innovator, the lesson here is when one is searching for innovative solutions, one should zero in on areas of a product or process that are particularly complex and determine if there are ways to simplify that complexity with a new approach.  There is almost always a simpler way to perform a task, and the role of the innovator is to apply different techniques until he or she comes up with a new idea to simplify the project.  In the case pf printing, movable type was limited by the complexity of the Chinese character set more so than any intellectual limitation on the part of the innovator seeking to find new ways to print.


Security and the Imperial Palace

The Imperial Palace dominates even the gargantuan city of Beijing.  When one enters the palace grounds, the buildings, courtyards, plazas, and stairways continue as far as the eye can see, and just when one thinks one had reached the end of the palace grounds, one passes through a portal and another massive courtyard and set of buildings appears.  The palace is surrounded by enormous walls and in addition to communicating the message of authority to the population of Beijing, the palace also sends the message of security.  The palace integrates numerous security measures into its design.  In its foundation, there are 15 layers of brick to prevent an enemy from tunneling into the complex.  While inside the walls, one sees hardly any trees or plants (except in the designated garden areas), in order to avoid providing a place for an enemy to hide.  The Mong Emperor’s bedroom contained 27 different beds based on the presumption that any assassin who was able to get inside the bedroom would not know which bed to attack to find the real emperor.  In addition, the moats between the palace wall and the public parts of the city were 53 meters wide, which was based on the distance an arrow could travel at that time.

Imperial Palace

Innovation Thoughts – Given the large number of threats faced by the typical information technology organization today, Information Security is topic that receives a great deal of attention.  Some of the security techniques leveraged by the Imperial Palace merit examination to determine if they can provide insights for innovators working in this area.  The 15 layers of brick in the foundation could be seen as a non-traditional approach to securing a facility.  Typically one focuses on the outer walls, assuming an attacker would arrive via a traditional route.  The architects of the Imperial Palace took this one step further and thought about how to protect the space beneath them as well.  As such, a modern innovator should consider all possible directions in which an intruder could approach a target (insider access), not just the most obvious approaches (external firewalls).

Imperial Palace Courtyard

The lack of foliage in most parts of the palace harkens to an approach whereby a company would limit the number of places where its systems are exposed to the outside world.  The fewer exposures that exist, the fewer chances an attacker would have to breach a system.  The 27 different beds serve as a reminder of the power of confusion in thwarting an attacker, particularly in terms of ensuring that an attacker’s chief objective is not easy to find once the attacker breaches outer defenses.  One of the purposes of the 27 beds was to force an attacker to reveal himself or herself and provide the Emperor with time to escape or for his guards to seize the attacker.  An innovator could similarly figure out ways to lure an attacker to a point where the attacker would have to reveal himself or herself without obtaining anything of value from the system.  Finally, the 53-meter-wide moat is a reminder that technology is always evolving and that one has to be careful not to focus too much of one’s attention on the current state of technology (the distance an arrow will fly) and design defensive solutions that are better able to evolve as offensive technology evolves in parallel.


Firefighting at the Imperial Palace

With the large number of wooden buildings in the Imperial Palace, the outbreak of fire was a constant threat.  As one walks around the grounds of the palace, one sees numerous large stone urns that, while they appear to be decorative, are actually there to provide ready access to large amounts of water in case of a fire.  There was one problem, however, with this approach to firefighting in the palace.  Beijing suffers from extremely cold winters, so the stagnant water in these urns would freeze in cold weather, rendering them useless for firefighting.  The solution to this problem was for the designers to create small openings in the back of the urns where workers could build and maintain small fires throughout the winter to prevent the water from freezing.

Firefighting Urn at Imperial Palace

Innovation Thoughts – At first glance, it seems counter-intuitive that the best way to maintain one’s firefighting capabilities in winter would be to bring fire – the very element that one is trying to keep at bay – inside the walls of the palace.  In other words, the solution to the problem consists of leveraging elements of the problem itself.  The solution designed by the palace architects is an elegant and simple one in that the same urn can be used for all seasons, as opposed to letting the water freeze and trying to come up with some other approach for wintertime.  The concept leveraged by the designers, which can also be used by modern innovators, is to transform a vulnerability (fire) into a strength (melting ice).

A great example of this is the use of the double gate in a castle or fortress, as one sees in the city walls of Xi’an.  When building a fortress, the most secure section is an uninterrupted wall, which is usually tall and made of stone.  Gates, on the other hand, must be made of lighter materials and rest on hinges so they can be opened and closed.  The double-gate consists of one outer gate which opens to a courtyard within the wall but still surrounded by walls on two sides plus another gate that must be breached before an attacker can reach the actual city or palace that is being defended.  The idea behind this is that once enemy forces get through the first gate, they will be delayed in a confined space while working to get through the second gate, which gives the defenders time to attack the invading forces.

The double gate thus creates a vulnerability in terms of an opening in the outer wall, but uses that same vulnerability to increase the overall security of the structure.  A more modern example of this is reactive armor used by various militaries around the world.  When one sees a picture of a tank with reactive armor, the normally-smooth, metal surface of the tank is covered by small square blocks of material.  These blocks consist of explosives that, when hit by an enemy shell, will explode and counteract the force of the incoming round.  This prevents the shell from penetrating the armor of the tank and protects its occupants.  Just as it seems counter-intuitive for someone riding in an armored tank to be safer when that tank is surrounded by explosive blocks, so, too, would the inhabitants of the Imperial Palace be safer from fire in the winter when they are surrounded by fire-heated urns bearing water.


The Number Nine

As one explores any building that is part of the Imperial legacy in China, one notices a remarkable consistency in the exterior doors to these structures.  The doors are always large and red and, curiously, have a number of round, brass knobs on the door arrayed in a symmetrical pattern.  The knobs are not used to open and close the door.  Rather, they are geometrically aligned and one can count nine knobs across and nine knobs down on each and every door.  The doors are red because that is the color that the Chinese associate with good luck.  The brass knobs, however, communicate a deeper message.  For the Chinese, the number nine is seen as the largest number (because ten is a combination of one and zero, therefore nine is greater).  Nine times nine is thus the greatest combination of the two greatest numbers and represents the infinite power of the Emperor.  By looking at the door, a Chinese person at a glance would immediately appreciate the immense power of the Emperor.  The number nine also plays a role in the symmetrical design of the Seventeen Arches bridge at the Imperial Summer Palace outside Beijing.  The bridge has seventeen arches because the Emperor wanted the central arch of the bridge to be the ninth arch (eight smaller arches on each side, with one in the middle, equals seventeen), again showing the infinite power of the Emperor.  The complex yet elegant design of the bridge thus communicates a more profound message to the observer simply by its number of arches.

Imperial 9×9 Doors

Innovation Thoughts – As Hamlet states in Act 2, Scene 2, “brevity is the soul of wit.”  There is an art to the ability to communicate rapidly a complex idea in an extremely simple format.  Innovators should take heed of this concept and search for ways to share their thoughts and insights in the most concise manner possible.  This may run counter to current trends in various fields in which we believe that the more data we are able to gather, the more valuable our revelations about a subject will be.  Speaking in the BBC Business Daily podcast, Teppo Felin, Professor of Strategy at Oxford’s Said Business School, points out the fallacy of relying on more and more data, noting that “there is a sense that more data will give us greater insight [. . . b]ut the history of science tells us that is not always the case, that in fact very small observations gave us very fundamental insights about the nature of reality.”

As innovators we should be on the lookout for the simple observations that can reveal these insights we are searching for, and we should also seek to devise simple means of communicating our conclusions to others.  While walking around in Shanghai I fell prey to the subtlety of messaging when I noticed a large electronic ticker board showing stock prices.  The majority of the stock numbers were in the red and I immediately wondered what financial issue was occurring that was causing the Shanghai stock exchange to suffer losses.  Yet when I looked closer at the numbers, I began to notice that the red numbers were positive (indicating gains) and the green were negative (indicating losses), signifying the Chinese predilection for red as a way to communicate positive outcomes.  Innovators should remember that simple messages can communicate a great deal quickly.

Shanghai Ticker – Red Numbers are Positive

Another good example of the power of concise messaging to deliver complex information appears in the Long Corridor at the Imperial Summer Palace.  Built in 1750 by the Qianlong Emperor, the Long Corridor is an architecturally-stunning covered walkway that spans a distance of nearly 2,400 feet (almost half a mile).  The Emperor ordered the construction of the covered walkway so his mother could walk from the palace to her gardens under shelter.  Years later, the Dowager Empress Cixi enjoyed taking walks along the corridor and liked to be entertained by her eunuchs with fables from Chinese history along the way.  As such, the interior surfaces of the corridor are decorated with nearly 14,000 small paintings depicting episodes from classical Chinese literature (such as the Tale of the Peach-Blossom Land), folk tales, historical figures, nature scenes, and other images.  The eunuchs used these small visual clues to remind them of stories with which to regale the Dowager Empress.  This likely proved to be easier than trying to remember 14,000 stories on the fly during repeated long walks along the corridor.  The innovation parallel that struck me at the time was the scenario where one is walking a client or executive through an innovation lab or workspace and one needs to share details about each innovation without necessarily having the author of that innovation present.  In this scenario, an innovator needs all the simple visual clues he or she can obtain to be reminded of key elements of the innovations under discussion.

Summer Palace Long Corridor


Long Corridor – Detail


The Large Stone Carving

In a compound of amazing buildings, courtyards, and carvings in the Imperial Palace at Beijing, one piece of stonework stands out among all the others.  Known simply as the Large Stone Carving, this is a single, massive piece of stone that originally weighed over 330 tons and sits between two sets of steps to one of the Palace buildings.  The stone itself came from a quarry over 43 miles away from the Palace, which raises the question of how the workers were able to transport such as huge and heavy object over vast distances.  Scholars originally thought that the stone was transported using massive wheeled carts, since the Chinese had been using the wheel since 1500 BC.  However, recent scholarship suggests that the Chinese had an alternative method for this transportation feat.  Jiang Li, from the Engineering Department at the University of Science and Technology Beijing, recently discovered a 500-year-old document that indicated that workers in the winter of 1557 AD hauled a 135-ton stone slab from the quarry to the Imperial Palace using sleds over a period of 28 days.  The workers dug wells about every 1,600 feet along the route to extract water which would then freeze along the surface of the ground, allowing the sled to pass.  Li performed detailed calculations on the engineering aspects of this endeavor and concluded that moving such a sled across ice would have only required 50 workers and would have slid at a rate of 3 inches per second, which would be more efficient, faster, and cheaper than building and pushing/pulling a massive wheeled cart to accomplish the same task.

Imperial Palace – Large Stone Carving

Innovation Thoughts – Sometimes as innovators we are faced with the challenge of naysayers who argue that existing technologies suffice for a task at hand and thus it does not make sense to invest time and money in searching for a newer solution.  In the case of the transportation of the Large Stone Carving, the tried and true technology of the wheeled cart probably would have sufficed to move the stone the 43 miles from quarry to palace.  Yet someone involved in the project probably uttered the famous phrase, “there has to be a better way,” and began thinking about different mechanisms for hauling heavy loads.  This is the role of the innovator, and this example reminds us that no matter how well-refined existing technologies may be (wheels had been in use for thousands of years at the time this rock was hauled by sled), it is always worthwhile to explore alternative approaches to find better solutions to problems.


The Marble Boat

At the Imperial Summer Palace, the Marble Boat is a 118-foot-long pavilion that juts out into the water of an enormous lake at the complex.  The building is made of a stone base with a wooden boat-like superstructure painted gray to resemble stone, but it is not a boat in the sense that it does not float (it sits on the ground beneath the water).  The Marble Boat was first built in 1755 by the Qianlong Emperor then renovated in 1893 by the Dowager Empress Cixi, who used it as a place to sit and look out over the water without fearing the instability of an actual boat.  The construction of the boat may be associated with a Chinese proverb from Wei Zheng, a Teng Dynasty Chancellor, who stated that “the waters that float the boat can also swallow it.”  This saying was interpreted to mean that the people (the water) can support the Emperor but they, like the water, can also overturn him.  As such, the Qianlong Emperor built the Marble Boat on a solid foundation of stone, indicating that the Qing Dynasty was so stable that it would never be overturned (alas, this did not hold to be true).

Summer Palace – The Marble Boat

Innovation Thoughts – The story of the Marble Boat is an excellent analogy for the work of the innovator.  In this case, innovation for an enterprise is like the water around the Marble Boat.  Innovation has the ability to support a company and keep it afloat amid the turbulent seas of the marketplace.  The more stable and long-lasting an innovation program, the more stable and long-lasting a company is likely to be.  However, innovation can also overturn an enterprise if one’s competitors innovate and disrupt the marketplace.  Alternatively, internal innovation that is costly and fails dramatically (such as a “bet the company” initiative), can also overturn a company and lead to catastrophe.  Just as the Qianlong Emperor built his Marble Boat on a stable foundation, a modern enterprise should consider the same technique to ensure that innovation in part of their strategic planning.


The Temple of Heaven

Just to the south of Tiananmen Square lies an imperial compound known as the Temple of Heaven.  The compound consists of several beautiful buildings and a large stone platform that was used by the Emperor in the annual process of ensuring that harvests were successful in the country.  This complex consisted of numerous buildings dedicated to these endeavors, such as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Imperial Vault of Heaven.  First built in 1406 by the Yongle Emperor and used by successive Emperors until the 1900s, the key events that took place at the complex were directed by the Emperor and often focused on precipitation.  If there was a drought, the Emperor would send one of his officers to the complex to pray for more rain.  If this did not work, the Emperor himself would go to the site and pray.  If too much rain was falling, then the same process would be repeated but the prayers would ask for less rain to ensure good harvests.

Temple of Heaven

Innovation Thoughts – Visiting this stunning complex with a modern perspective, it is hard not to scoff at the unscientific nature of the activities that took place here for hundreds of years.  With the power of our modern instruments of observation (satellites, rain gauges, anemometers, barometers, etc.) and our analytics engines (computers, databases, artificial intelligence), we possess a knowledge of atmospheric events that would have boggled the minds of our ancestors.  Yet from an innovation standpoint, the lesson from the Temple of Heaven is not a simple reflection on the value of using modern technology to observe nature.  Rather, there is a valuable innovation process that can be discerned from this example.  Today, when we look at the Temple of Heaven and imagine the Emperor there is all his grandeur praying for rain, our reaction is to think about how silly this process was.  We cannot believe that the people of an entire Empire would be naïve enough to accept that what happens in that Temple complex could actually affect the weather.

This skeptical mindset is a powerful tool that we can use in our day-to-day innovation work to uncover new areas to explore.  In other words, as we go about our daily activities, we almost always encounter things that make little sense in terms of how they are functioning, as would be the case with, for instance, an employee onboarding process that takes three weeks to procure a laptop for the new worker when one knows there is a cabinet full of unused laptops in a storage room, or a week-long process to get a new ID card for an employee when the ID-making machine is in the next room.  A recent example of this the ubiquitous Microsoft Office product suite.  Many of us remember the first Office tools (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) and appreciated the productivity improvements these tools offered, but it was always puzzling why these applications had so many toolbar buttons, particularly so many buttons that seemed to be used on an infrequent basis.  Over time we were given the ability to move these around and add/remove them as needed, but the core complexity of the application still existed.  Perhaps this simple observation from so many years ago is finally being addressed.  In a recent review of the new Microsoft Office suite in the Wall Street Journal, David Pierce lauds the fact that Microsoft has finally built an application that simplifies the screen and contains buttons for only the most popular tasks:

When I think of Office, one image always comes to mind: the ribbon at the top of every app, chock-full of every option and feature anyone could possibly need, blocking out a third of the screen.  Microsoft has simplified the space, shrinking the ribbon into something smaller and more legible.  The ribbon now displays about a dozen popular actions, relegating everything else to a three-dot button on the right side. You can pin actions you like, and remove ones you don’t.  This simple change makes a big difference.  There’s more room for content; every app looks lighter and more modern. If you love clutter or just miss having all those buttons around, you can always go back to the way things were: Just click the arrow on the right side of the toolbar.  But seriously, don’t.  It’s better this way.  I’d prefer Microsoft go even further and condense the menu to a single line.  If you really need the footnote tool for your 1,000-page novel, you can search for it.

An innovator at Microsoft armed with the example of the Temple of Heaven could have asked the simple question of why there are so many buttons on the screen when so few of them are actually used.  That innovator may have even been armed with user data showing exactly which buttons were being pressed and how often (perhaps this became easier to obtain when the Office applications moved to the cloud).  An even better innovation to the product would be to start with the full toolbar then after a period of time of measured usage, the application would redesign itself to align with the needs of a particular user, removing those buttons that are never used and re-positioning those that are used most frequently.

An innovator should always be prepared to ask the simple question of why everyone is doing something a certain way, and should always be prepared to investigate new approaches.  There is one caveat to this, however.  At the Imperial Summer Palace, there is a stone sculpture of an ox next to the lake, known as the Golden Ox.  The statue was cast during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in 1755 AD.  It is said that the purpose of this ox is to prevent flooding.  One day the sculpture was removed from the lake and soon thereafter there was flooding nearby, so the locals decided to put the ox back in its original place.

Summer Palace – Golden Ox


The Great Wall

With a total length of over 13,000 miles, the Great Wall is an enduring image of China and perhaps its most famous tourist destination.  There are several different sections of the Great Wall that one can visit, and perhaps the most visually stunning section is near the town of Mutianyu, about an hour outside of Beijing.  Originally constructed in the 3rd century BC to defend the Chinese heartland against incursions from barbarians in what is now Mongolia, the Great Wall was a never-ending construction project, with the most famous and best-preserved sections built between the 14th and 17th centuries AD in the Ming Dynasty.  When one sees the Great Wall for the first time, on is struck by how the structure itself is not that tall (15 to 30 feet) and maybe 10 feet wide at the top.  What is amazing, particularly at Mutianyu, is how high up in the mountains the Great Wall was built.  As one stands in the town below the Great Wall, one sees a high ridgeline hundreds of feet above the valley floor, and perched on top of that ridgeline like a frozen snake is the Great Wall.  Once one reaches the Great Wall itself (via gondola or many, many steps), the other interesting aspect is how steep some of the sections of the wall are as one walks along the top of the structure.  In some places, the steps are so high that one almost has to ascend and descend on hands and feet to move from one section to the other.

Great Wall of China

Although the Great Wall appears to be a formidable defensive structure, it never accomplished its objective of keeping invaders out of China, as armies found other ways to bypass it and reach China’s interior.  One particularly astute military tactician visited the wall in 1878 and concluded that “[i]t is hard to see any practical use these walls can serve in the present age unless they should be converted into drives.”  The visitor was the former U.S. President and Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who embarked on a whirlwind tour of the world after he left office.  When Grant hinted at the idea of driving cars along the top of the Great Wall, however, he was inadvertently pointing out a practical use of the Great Wall that the Chinese had intended all along.

Great Wall of China

While the Great Wall was meant to deter invaders, it also provided transportation and communications capabilities that would not otherwise have been available in the mountainous regions of northern China.  From a transportation standpoint, Chinese soldiers could move easily along the top of the wall and traverse a large amount of rough terrain in a relatively short period of time.  An army moving on the ground in the areas around the Great Wall would have to stick to valleys and move along roads or rivers, as the terrain leading up to the Great Wall was often steep and covered with trees and other foliage.  Forces maneuvering on top of the Great Wall could move quickly and respond to incursions more effectively than enemy forces stumbling the rough terrain anywhere around the wall.  The Great Wall also consisted of a number of regularly-spaced guard towers that rose above the top of the wall and provided barracks and weapons stores for troops.  From these guard towers, Chinese troops could use simple smoke signaling to communicate information rapidly along the Great Wall concerning what they observed at their outpost, such as the size and location of an approaching enemy army.  The message could go from one tower to the next and, in a short period of time, traverse great distances to get crucial information to the military leadership located far away from the Great Wall.

Great Wall of China – Guard Tower

Innovation Thoughts – An under-appreciated aspect of innovation concerns the importance of creating innovations that have multiple uses.  The Great Wall is a marvel of ancient engineering and was built over the course of many centuries with hundreds of thousands of workers.  It is an awe-inspiring sight in and of itself, but it is more than just a physical barrier.  The designers of the Great Wall understood that they needed the give their troops the ability to move quickly in rough terrain to respond to enemy incursions and they also knew that they needed to be able to communicate information about the status of the enemy at a speed that was faster than the enemy could attack, thus giving themselves sufficient time to muster forces to counter the incursion.  The Great Wall’s design enabled these ancillary purposes without compromising its core function.  Modern innovators can heed the lesson of the Great Wall to focus their energies on finding ways to extract multiple uses from their creations.


Have You Eaten?

As a foreigner visiting China, one quickly begins using the Chinese greeting of “ni hao,” which is the equivalent of “hello.”  Yet in Beijing (and in some other parts of China) there is another greeting that is used more colloquially by the Chinese, “ni chi le ma” or just “chi le ma,” which translates into “have you eaten?”  Asking if someone has eaten seems like a strange thing to say when one encounters a friend or acquaintance, as it is a much more specific inquiry as to one’s well-being than a phrase like “how are you?”  Indeed, the phrase may engender confusion if one thinks that it represents an invitation to share a meal, as it would if spoken in English.  The phrase may derive from an old Chinese proverb about the importance of food – “the common people regard food as heaven.”  A more modern interpretation ties in closely with China’s recent transformation into an economic powerhouse and its growing importance on the global stage as an emerging superpower.

Chinese Night Market and Food Street

For the last 200 years, China suffered a series of humiliations and devastating events, ranging from lopsided foreign treaties to military occupation to civil war to revolution and famine.  During these periods, millions of Chinese died and food was often difficult to obtain.  The contrast to the present era in China is astounding, as China’s middle class has exploded in size as workers migrate from rural to urban areas seeking their fortunes.  Although there is still poverty in China, its rapid economic growth of the last few decades is viewed as one of the most rapid and successful poverty reduction campaigns in world history.  Scarcity of food has been replaced by the challenges of obesity within a single generation.  As one walks the streets of China today and sees the abundance of prosperity, it is hard to imagine that just a few decades ago, China during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution experienced a famine that saw millions die and many, many more suffer for years from hunger.  The Chinese greeting of “have you eaten?” is thus a mechanism for the modern-day Chinese to remind themselves of what they have been through in the recent past and what they have accomplished in such a short period of time.

Innovation Thoughts – One attribute of a good innovator is the ability to embrace failure.  After all, if an innovator never experiences projects that fail, then that person is probably not pushing the boundaries of technology to the point where he or she is trying something that is truly unique, but also truly challenging.  Although an innovator who fails repeatedly may need to spend more time assessing the viability of projects before launching those efforts, failure should be something that is always nearby when one is working in cutting-edge areas.

I wrote in Innovation in China – Part I that the innovation challenge for China will be whether a society organized around the concept of order can be innovative, as opposed to Western societies that are organized around the concept of individual liberty and freedom.  Liu Yadong, the editor in chief of the Chinese government-run Science and Technology Daily, recently admitted that it is “common sense” that “[t]here is a big gap between the science and technology of China and those of the United States, as well as other Western developed countries.”  An interesting perspective on China is offered by Lee Kuan Yew, the authoritarian leader of Singapore who led his tiny, resource-poor nation from poverty to wealth in just a few decades.  In 2013, Lee Kuan Yew sat down for a series of interviews with American scholars of international politics and provided his thoughts on the last two centuries of Chinese history:

Why did China’s technological advance slow down and halt, just when the Renaissance was beginning in Europe?  China’s stagnation was caused by its arrogance and complacency.  It refused to learn from the West.  When the British emissary Lord Macartney arrived in Beijing in 1793, bringing with him the marvels of the industrial revolution, the Emperor Qian Long was not impressed.  The great emperor told the English nobleman, “There is nothing we lack nor do we need any of your country’s manufactures.”  The price China paid for this arrogance was 200 years of decline and decay, while Europe and America forged ahead.  Two hundred years later, another Chinese leader, more thoughtful and practical, set out to undo the damage.  Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the world in 1978.

The Chinese greeting of “have you eaten?” suggests that the Chinese may understand the uniqueness of their position as a society in that they know intimately what it is like to fail and suffer.  As such, they focus their energies on finding ways to improve their lives and secure the successes that they have achieved.  Despite their emerging superpower status, the Chinese seem to exude an underlying humility based on their recent experiences.  The Chinese refuse to rest on their laurels to enjoy their accomplishments, cognizant of the fact that they have come a long way in a short period of time and that they must continue to be competitive to succeed in a challenging global marketplace.  This attitude is a key attribute of innovation, and the question for the future will be whether this kind of approach can spur innovation without the requisite freedom that is also a key ingredient to developing new thinking.




Pagan Kennedy, Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Boston: Mariner Books, 2016).

Kim Macquarrie, The Last Days of the Incas (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007).

Andrew Dickson, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys around Shakespeare’s Globe (New York: Henry Holt and company, 2015), p. 374.

Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), p. 878.

Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), p. 143.

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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.

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Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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