By Perry Wu
These days, 'innovation' is on everybody's lips, and perhaps in no way more so than with respect to China–a quick Google search will generate hundreds of articles; virtually all major business and technology conferences will focus on it; and public relations companies love the term. The question that everyone asks is, "Will China become a driving force in innovation?"
Three or four hundred years ago, this wouldn't have even been a question. Until the middle of the fifteenth century, China had been leading the world in innovation for a thousand years. Their list of creations was seemed endless–gunpowder, paper, the compass, porcelain, ships that could traverse the oceans. Critics and historians may be split on whether China took full advantage of its innovations, but there is little doubt that, 600 years ago, China did innovate.
Or, more accurately put, it invented. Of course, innovation was taking place all the time during that period, but what made China famous then was its capacity for invention, rather than innovation.
Nowadays, the modern world is getting a bit confused about these two related, but essentially different, concepts.
Global opinion currently appears to be that China does not now innovate, but will do soon. At the same time, it appears to some that China does innovate–examples such as the new wireless standard (WAPI) and new technology formats such as EVD, all spring to mind as forms of innovation.
Many disagree–what I have listed as 'innovation', they view at best as 'improvement' or 'parallel development', and at worst as 'plagiarism' or a 'knock-off.' Is one side wrong? Or, as I said earlier, is there confusion as to what 'innovation' really means?
The dictionary definition of 'innovate' traces back to its Latin root–innovo–meaning "to renew or restore." The current Oxford English Dictionary defines innovation as "making changes to something established". That is worth noting–when companies brag in their press releases of the great emphasis they place on innovation, I'm pretty certain they're not talking about their dedication to refreshing their existing products!
It is clear that people now do not consider 'innovation' to be something that is, by definition, renewing–they think it means doing something novel and new. The term they're thinking about is 'invention'–the act of "coming upon or finding: discovery".
It is quite possible that there has been a blurring of the lines between the definitions of 'innovate' and 'invent.' Invention is the creation of something novel, while innovation should be something that is renewing–whether what it renews is a product, a line of products, a process, a service, or anything else. The Personal Computer, for example, was an invention; the laptop was an innovation.
The meanings are blurring, but they should not be. China's EVD technology is not really invention, but it is innovation–a new way of storing and playing media on discs. Neither the WAPI standard nor TDS-CDMA are examples of invention, but they are clear examples of innovation. The West no doubt disagrees.
An added problem is that innovation itself is comparative. Lenovo would consider a computer that controls all of the electronics in your house via wireless as an innovation. For the computer and IT industry as a whole, however, it is not innovation since other companies elsewhere have already done it. At best it is parallel development, and at worst a simple knock-off of features and functions. Lenovo wants to call it innovation; the industry has a different view.
Thus the question arises: should innovation be absolute, like invention is, or is it fine for it to be comparative?
An absolute definition does seem tempting. 'Invention' is such an easy definition: if it is novel, completely new, then it is invention. People may disagree over a particular example but they do not disagree about what 'invention' means. It certainly would save a lot of trouble if 'innovation' was the same.
The answer lies in the context. In the context of Chinese technology firms, Lenovo's wireless house is 'innovation', but in the context of global IT development, it is not (though that does not necessarily make it a knock-off). Similarly, WAPI, in the context of China's standards and its wireless industry was innovation, globally, it was not.
This has become an issue, at least in part, through the popular misuse of the term around the world by such entities as marketing departments and the PR staff of technology firms, which are always ready to offer the best-sounding, rather than most factual, definition. In China, the misuse has been particularly egregious, mainly because of a general lack of policing. In the US, UK or Europe, the mass media, the Fourth Estate, makes a career out of digging up these kinds of consistencies and airing their grievances: "Innovation? Excuse me?" Not so in China.
In addition, in the US you are allowed to publicly–and in advertising if you choose–directly attack and contradict your competition to your heart's desire (as long as you don't mind getting the same back in return), while in China that's a little bit more difficult. Indeed, China has no tradition at all of real muckraking, especially not to the extent of calling companies on their exaggerations.
It is for these reasons, and a multitude similar, that innovation has become such a hot topic of dispute–nothing much more than reinforced misuse that has yet really to be pointed out.
So, ultimately, does China innovate? China says yes, public relations companies say no, and the rest of us are still floundering somewhere in between.
About the author:
Perry Wu is a writer and correspondent for ChinaTechNews.com and can be reached here at the site. Perry Wu does not hold any positions, long or short, on any of the Chinese or American company securities mentioned in this article.