Mind the Gap

Innovation in China’s technology companies missing a creative spark

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 January, 2016, 8:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 10:26am

“Sex, drugs and rock n roll.”

It’s certainly an inappropriate topic for a business section, but there was a time when this expression used to embody a spirit of rebellion and independence against authority.

It inspired a generation to rebel against conventional beliefs and create new technologies and businesses that could change the way we live. Today it is a forgotten cliché that isn’t even referred to by young people.

Ian, “Lemmy” Kilmister, founding member and lead singer and bassist in the British heavy metal band, Motorhead, recently died at the age of 70. The band released 23 studio albums with titles like ‘Overkill’ and ‘Bomber’. For those readers who aren’t heavy metal fans, their squalling guitar volleys on ‘Ace of Spades’ hit you like a panzer tank column starting up their engines on a cold morning on the western front.

I heard my first Motorhead album in 1976 and it changed my outlook on life. From then on, I knew what cultural rebellion and thinking differently truly meant. It’s that burning need to do it your way that drove so much innovation and creativity in US technology from the 60s to today.

Despite their massive size and revenues, China’s biggest internet companies have failed to make a significant impact or innovation outside of their own country

The outsiders, blasphemers and outcasts were always the creative ones although they mostly ended up broke. It wasn’t solely about making money. Well, maybe it was. But, even if lucre was the goal you needed more than that mirage to lead you because no one would return your calls when you started your business.

The heroes that ignite ambitions usually have nothing to do with the government. So reading the declarations from the Chinese Communist Party when they recently approved the 13th Five Year Plan for China’s economy was a look into a parallel universe of innovation.

In addition to targeting a GDP growth rate of around 6.5 per cent per year, the government places innovation in a core position for China’s development in the following five years. In fact, the word innovation was mentioned numerous times in the document.

It would certainly be prejudiced to think that true innovation can only exist in the western context of popular culture. However, governments rarely invent great technologies or industries.

Without an adventurous, almost nihilistic attitude, there is no individualistic spirit or abiding fire that propels western style creativity in China. It certainly can’t arise without delaminating the individual from the government control in a one party state.

Whatever kind of Chinese style innovation we are witnessing today is actually quite alien to anything that the west has experienced.

Despite their massive size and revenues, China’s biggest internet companies have failed to make a significant impact or innovation outside of their own country.

Perhaps one of the main reasons is that their success in China means that they don’t share the same values as their western counterparts so their message is lost.

Turning a unique idea into a business is about as elusive as capturing lightning in a bottle. Perhaps the missing creative spark for China is that element of individual insouciance and rebellion.