Could Asia Reach an Innovation “Glass Ceiling”?

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While the United States and Europe are feverishly working to reduce their debt levels, borrowing is at an all-time high in emerging Asia as nations take out loans to fuel surging economic growth. This grab for fast cash and willingness to invest reflects optimism for the future, but it’s fair to question whether or not Asia will continue to grow at such a rapid rate.

Could Asia Reach an Innovation “Glass Ceiling”?

While Asia’s emerging economies are growing, it is still heavily reliant on the West in terms of both exports and knowledge. For example, many of the products produced in Asia’s humming manufacturing facilities were originally designed in the United States, Europe or Japan (the so-called Triad). And while Asian companies are well known for building things from cars to real-estate developments, they seem to lag in innovation.

Asia’s many companies have developed few truly innovative products. Even Japanese companies have often relied on taking the basic concepts of Western inventions, such as the television, and figuring out ways to make them better. In a sense, many Asian engineers could be thought of as “tinkerers” rather than inventors.

Several authors and pundits have argued that many people raised in Asian education and culture systems simply lack creativity. Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, for example, charged that many of Asia’s best minds leave the region because of stifling control and a respect for hierarchy that encourages seniority over intellectual capacity. While such views may represent an extreme, they do point to Asia’s difficulty at producing truly ground breaking work.  And consider this, China has produced numerous Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, but most of them emigrated to the United States before conducting their fundamental research.

In order to produce the next great innovations, Asia will need to break the rigidity of its social structures, which are often based on an outdated reading of Confucianism, and even reform its education system. For example, South Korea’s education system is often hailed as the best in the world, and yet a system so obsessed with route memorization and producing the “right” answers culls creativity to such an extent that South Korea, despite being a small country, regularly ranks in the top 5 for sending students to college in the United States.

Memorizing facts isn’t a bad thing, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of analytical and critical thinking. Students must be taught not only facts, but also critical thinking processes that will allow them to apply those facts to real life situations. Students need to be encouraged to think outside of the box and to produce new and novel ideas, not just regurgitating what’s already been written.

Even for those who do want to conduct fundamental research and figure out a way to break through Asia’s rigid social hierarchies, a serious lack of property law enforcement could discourage investment. According to the International Property Right’s Index, Asia as a whole lags far behind Europe and North America. China receives a ranking of only 57 out of a 130 and even Singapore, often well-regarded for its public policies, comes in at an abysmal 113.

Why would an Asian misrepresenter or inventor even bother trying to drive innovation, if the idea could simply be stolen by someone else? It’s no coincidence that the Western world enjoyed a period of robust economic growth after the installation of property laws in the 18th and 19th centuries. If Asia truly wants to climb up the value chain, it must both reward and protect creativity and innovation.

Asia is filled to the brim with potential. Various nations are posed to post strong economic growth in the years to come, and yet without social and cultural adjustments, many nations risk falling behind. From China to Malaysia, there is a serious risk of Middle Income Traps blocking continued progress. It doesn’t boil down to genetics or resources, but instead encouraging dynamic thinking that can challenge long-held beliefs and encourage people to accept the fact that there often isn’t a “right” answer.

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