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China's Innovation Problem: Why The Wok Can't Compete In An iPhone World

Wok in progress
Wok in progress
Betty Ng

Despite the rise of the China's economy in recent years, many people still doubt that Chinese enterprises will be able to develop innovative products or new manufacturing methods or business models.

The Financial Times recently published an article in which it referred to two Chinese corporations, Haier and Huawei, which have learned and rapidly adapted themselves to the Western management model, but nonetheless still fail to bring to the world any fresh sets of products or break new ground in how companies are run.

Many so-called innovations or inventions are in fact just popularizations.

When it comes to the arrival of automobiles, we often think of the American Henry Ford, who built his first car in 1896. But it was actually Germany's Karl Benz who was the inventor of the world's first petrol-powered automobile. When we talk about the light bulb, we are most likely to think of Thomas Edison who demonstrated his light bulb in 1879. However, the English physicist Joseph Swan showed a similar incandescent lamp a year earlier. Meanwhile, before him, the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta has also showed a set of glowing wires decades before.

Likewise, when it comes to computer operating systems we think of Bill Gates, but before him there were all those engineers who had written and designed other programming languages and operating systems.

The reason why we connect certain people's names to certain inventions isn't because they were the inventors but because they had successfully popularized the products or concept. Henry Ford was an industrialist rather than an inventor. His contribution was to have developed the assembly line production technique so that the efficient manufacturing of the car could make it a mass-market product.

Similarly, the success of Thomas Edison lies in his use of a carbon filament that considerably reduced the price of the light bulb, and with its lower electricity demand and longer life span it came to be widely used. Edison's creation and invention in essence came from irrigating seeds sown by others.

Bill Gates followed this American tradition of mass commercialization. The key to his success lies in his adaptation and development of an operating system to be applied to personal computers while at the same time retaining the product's copyright.

Innovation is often simply a well-timed improvement...

All these examples show that sometimes it's difficult to differentiate innovation from improvements, upgrades or even switching. The truly revolutionary creation, invention, discovery and insight are rare indeed.

Function over form

China has brought to the world the compass, paper, printing, gunpowder and silk, just like the United States has brought to the people the telephone and camera. Compared with other nations, China is a vast land with a massive population. In its long history, there has been no lack of real innovation and invention.

However in modern times, China has shown a lack of inventions or innovative business ideas to spread around the world.

There are probably two reasons limiting the popularity of Chinese products: a) the country's massive domestic market; b) the emphasize of function over form, as well as the lack of brand-building and packaging capacities.

Traditionally, China attaches great importance to standardization, the mass-oriented and the functional. For instance, left-handed people have always been encouraged or forced to use their right hands to adapt themselves to the tools designed for the right-handed. It is a society that caters to the majority.

As early as the Qin Dynasty, the emperor Qin Shi-Huang had already standardized the measurements and the axles on carts across the whole country. Mandarin, a Beijing dialect originally, became China's national language in the 20th century so as to promote communication among provinces. The Chinese characters were simplified within mainland China in the 1950s with the aim of improving people's literacy.

The emphasis on universality and functional application is the traditional symbol of Chinese cultural development.

But the huge population means that Chinese companies have access to a massive domestic market that provides considerable profits and growth. Even for multinationals such as Haier, overseas business accounts for only a small part of its total revenue and benefit. Unless the domestic market is saturated Chinese corporations might lack the motivation to develop other markets and make products for a global consumer.

In addition, in having to deal with an enormous population, Chinese products and inventions tend to emphasize practicality, and often ignore aesthetics, which can limit attractiveness to consumers.

The quintessential example of this is the Chinese wok. This cooking device is actually similar in certain key ways to an iPhone - they are both multi-functional and a wonder of engineering. Strictly speaking, the iPhone was also not an innovation. It was a re-packaging of existing tools - the mobile phone, camera, music player and computer, then simplified in use and made convenient for users.

Wok and rolls

So is the Chinese wok. The Chinese use it to steam, fry, braise and stew, unlike in the western kitchen where various pans and pots are used for different preparations. The round bottom design allows heat to be distributed evenly to every part of the wok. This cookware is a great example of the universality of Chinese efficiency.

However, compared with the iPhone, the wok is clearly neither cool nor attractive -- plenty of bulk and very little beauty. This is probably why it has never been widely accepted in other parts of the world.

In the face of current globalization, appearance and packaging are part of a universal language that crosses borders and sells to diverse customers. The recent spreading of Japanese cooking and ingredients around the world, regardless of whether it really tastes better than Chinese food, is a testament to the attention given to the aesthetics of culinary tradition.

To create momentum behind Chinese products in the world, not only do their innovators have to be innovative, but must also pay more attention to design, branding and packaging.

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