The future is made in China


innovation and futurescaping in China

It’s never easy to “map” things in China – we are talking about a nation covering around 9.6 million square kilometers with a population of over 1.37 billion, and which is home to internet companies worth billions of dollars and more web users than the entire population of the United States. China is often referred to as the world’s factory for good reason – sometimes for original products, sometimes copies or adaptations – but always for global distribution. Worldwide many are familiar with the “made in China” label. Here’s one label that’s not frequently applied to China : The Future is made in China.

When Patrick and I first met Noah Raford at a UNDP Innovation Summit in Bangkok, we were given a comprehensive presentation on how it can be possible to predict the future in this fast-changing world by using crowdsourcing tools like Futurescaper (a crowd-source strategy company that specializes in participatory scenario planning and foresight) to leverage the “wisdom of crowds”.

The potential benefits of predicting future innovations can be felt in fields from healthcare to transportation to banking. Discovering and mapping new ideas and innovations can yield effective solutions to the persistent deprivations as the world prepares to adopt a new set of development challenges.

It wasn’t love at first sight. Impressed as we were by the sound of the concept, we quickly saw how difficult it would be to make something like this work in China. This country is a complex, diverse and dynamic. On one hand, in China rapid internet development has revolutionized people’s lives and unlocked a series of innovative business bonanzas by pooling everything from taxi services to restaurants to masseurs. On the other hand, because of the Great Firewall (the government’s comprehensive internet surveillance and content control system) and other factors, all of these innovations are taking place in a slightly more low-key manner than their foreign equivalents over the wall. As Noah put it: “there is a boiling sea of activity going on beneath the surface – the challenge is finding them”.

But who doesn’t love a challenge?

Using Futurescaper, UNDP launched an online public survey to gather information on innovation trends in China. This survey-based exercise examined the climate for innovation in China, as reported by Chinese citizens and other experts from the general public residing in China or abroad. This project combined human insight with analytics together with a great visualization tool, to help organizations uncover and map out the drivers and dynamics of a specific topic – in this case innovation.

Initially the web-surveys were created in English and Chinese to reach the maximum number of participants. The survey asked participants to answer a series of questions on the most popular emerging trends in Chinese innovation, the social benefits coming out of innovation, the factors driving and hindering innovation, and the key actors in Chinese innovation.

Participants suggested five emerging innovation trends in China. These were internet of things (as identified by 38% of the respondents), e-commerce and mobile payments/internet banking (21%), 3D printing (19%), mobile applications (15%) and drones (7%).

By tracking every survey respondents’ answer to every question, the exercise also gathered a list of innovation leaders as mentioned by participants. Some example of frontrunners in innovation included Xi’an Jiaotong University for innovation in 3D printing while Tencent and WeChat were applauded in mobile applications, CINNOVATE Nesta for Internet of Things (IoT), and Alibaba and Ali Pay for internet banking, e-commerce and mobile payments.

Drawing on this analysis, UNDP has published The Future is Made in China: An Analysis of Emerging Innovation Trends in China, a report arguing that innovation can go hand-in-hand with finding solutions for development challenges in China and across the world. Globally and locally, UNDP is already working to see where innovation can be used to make the world a better place. In China for example, UNDP used mobile applications to engage the public with efforts to tackle pollutants (POPs Hunter smartphone game) and improve e-waste recycling (Baidu Recycle app for e-waste disposal). UNDP, based on these identified innovation trends and leaders, can find possible areas and partners for further development cooperation.

As this exercise has shown, China has a thriving innovation field, and can offer the world more than just a place to manufacture its products. Being a Chinese national privileged to have the global perspective that working for UNDP allow, I have to say the innovation in China really resembles a boiling sea of activity going on beneath the surface and the future looks brighter. 

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