Can Asians innovate?

Try to stop yourself from whatever you are doing at the moment and answer this question: what is the most useful invention of all time?

It is not the wheel. Apparently, it is the cellphone. Yes, the cellphone is the most useful invention ever in the entire human history. You can say this on the authority of a Time Invention Poll, which was conducted by Time Magazine in cooperation with Qualcomm. The sample size was 10,000 people across 17 countries.

This was revealed on 28 May by Jefferey Kluger, editor at large of Time, in Singapore at a conference on innovation and invention, aptly titled 'The Future of Invention'.

"Invention does not happen in a vacuum," said Julie Welch, senior director, Government Affairs, Southeast Asia and Pacific, Qualcomm in her introductory remarks. She referred to her company Qualcomm that had started small in San Diego around the wireless industry. There was an ecosystem in California that enabled the birth of this innovative company. When it was founded, there were many who doubted if the company would succeed but time proved them wrong and Qualcomm has been helping in the birth of the digital revolution that we have seen taking shape right in front of our eyes.

Inventing Globally

The first track of discussions included Jefferey and Kishore Mahbubani, the well-known Singaporean diplomat and dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. Mahbubani is known for his thought-provoking book, Can Asians think? Jefferey interviewed Mahbubani on the theme of 'Inventing Globally'.

Mahbubani said that before the age of globalization, there were seven billion people living on seven billion different boats. Today, seven billion people live in separate cabins on the same boat. "In (creating) inventions we are on the same boat," he said.

"This is Asia's moment in history," Mahbubani said. "Waves of inventions will transform Asia."

Invention depends on time and place, he argued. The time and place, the historical forces, are in Asia's favour now. Centuries ago, Asia led the world in inventions and accounted for more than 50 percent of the world trade.

Mahbubani gave the example of the Arabs who were once at the forefront of innovations. After the Arabs, came the European Renaissance, which took the West to newer heights of civilization. It also changed the world. Now, history is coming back full circle, and Asia once again is on the vanguard of world leadership.

Mahbubani gave many examples to illustrate his point. Most of them were around the increasing ownership of cellphones among the Asians. Four years ago, there were about 70-80 million smartphones in Asia. Today, we have 800 million smartphones in Asia. That is a ten fold rise in numbers. It will have huge implications, he said. This kind of connectivity is going to provide the platform for innovation in the next coming years, he predicted.

Similarly, he said, quoting a researcher in China, that what's happening in the Chinese Internet world is more innovative than what's happening in the same space anywhere else. What's baffling is how is this innovation happening in a closed society like China, he wondered.

The East vs. the West

However, innovation is not a zero sum game, and on this both Jefferey and Mahbubani agreed. "We will all be learning from each other," Mahbubani said, emphasizing the opportunities that both the East and the West have in front of them.

For example, talent goes from Bangalore to Silicon Valley and vice versa, cross-pollinating the culture of innovation in Asia and the USA. "In the last 30 years we have seen more change than in the last 300 years," Mahbubani said. "We will see even more change in the next 30 years."

Even though Mahbubani is a great admirer of Steve Jobs and Elan Musk, he said Asia differs from the West in terms of leadership. Asians believe in collaborative innovation. He gave the example of Apple and Samsung. Everybody knows that Apple is Jobs' baby but who is the father of Samsung? Have you heard of any Steve Jobs in Samsung? How come you haven't? Actually, there aren't any Jobs like figures at Samsung and yet, they are able to compete successfully with Apple. This is an example of collaborative innovation. "The American strength is in individualism," Mahbubani said. "Asians are much more collaborative."

Mahbubani also discussed the education system in Asia in relation to the education system in the West. "Our children are exam smart but not life smart," Mahbubani admitted. "Asians will continue to learn from the west in creativity."

Mahbubani also commented on the surfeit of information that we have subjected our lives to. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? How do we deal with it? "We have too much information," he said. "Our capacity to step back and look at the data and make sense of it will determine our success."

Invention by Design and Inventing ecosystems

Mahbubani's session was followed by two panel discussions. The participants were Edward Jung, founder and CTO, Intellectual Ventures; Susmita Mohanty, CEI-India, Earth2Orbit (E20); Raj Thampuran, MD, ASTAR; and Wong Meng Weng, co-founder and chairman, JFDI.Asia.

The discussion ranged from the role of governments in fostering innovation to the significance of culture in promoting innovation.

Here is a summary of the main points the panelists made:

Success factors for innovations

  • Build the proof of concept
  • Technology is never enough. The last thing we want is a technology looking for a problem
  • You need patience and resilience
  • Timing is very important
  • Political support is very important
  • Much better to be two years ahead of time than ten years ahead of time
  • Market orientation and customer focus is necessary to succeed

Role of Government in promoting innovation

  • A lot of technology in the past was initiated by government in universities, governments made the investments - military-industrial complex
  • Ecology of invention: institutions invent, private sector captures the benefits
  • Steve Black: It took four wars to make the Silicon Valley
  • 3D printing- Defense and Government will play an important role but private sector is also innovating without any government help
  • Regulatory role of government will stay
  • There has to be innovation at the government level too: Government needs to have dynamic policies to deal with challenges like Uber and Airbnb
  • Governments can help create demand to incite innovation
  • There are a lot of early stage inventors but the problem is getting the inventions deployed
  • Governments are not playing the role that they once used to. Give them the incentives, give the MNCs confidence that if they invent what the government wants, then the MNCs will start making long term investments. Currently, this is not the situation and there is short-termism


  • Globalised aspect of innovation is a crucial factor
  • Multicultural teams: Everybody brings some cultural element to the mix. Collaboration is very hard. To get a methodology humming is not easy.
  • Sometimes it takes decades to see inventions come to affect the market and generate more inventions
  • Cynicism needs to be amped down in older cultures like India and China
  • Younger countries more open to innovations and trying failure
  • Travelling, literature, working or studying abroad, hanging out with local folks, really broadens our horizons
  • The world's problem are so large-scale that we need to collaborate; a single inventor can't solve the global problems
  • Our culture can make us less inventive over time
  • Picking up the context of what needs to be innovated
  • Demand for solutions in elder care issues and air quality and food quality issues
  • The IPO market is there but solving world problems is more fascinating
  • What will turbo charge innovation? It is demand!

Education system

  • Education system was invented to increase productivity, not innovativeness
  • Children: get them exposed more; kids can be exposed to more complex ideas at a younger age

Tags IT managementmobileinternetbusiness issuesAppleNetworkingservicesstoragesoftwaretelecommunicationvirtualizationhardware systemspersonnelperipheralsconsumer electronicsSamsung Electronics

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