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Innovators must take over from heroes

Updated: 2013-08-02 12:24
By Paul Kirkham ( China Daily)

Innovators must take over from heroes

Innovators must take over from heroes

The 21st century will be one of constant change and a flexible, pragmatic approach is the best way forward

China's journey from isolationism to the center of the global economy is frequently described as "epic". In the strictest sense of the word, however, the epic is a concept increasingly ill suited to our age.

Epics chart the rise - and sometimes the fall - of great enterprises. They always move toward a conclusion. The heroes fight a final battle. A new order is established or an old order restored. The ending is recognizable and to a large extent predictable. The Monkey King, Sun Wukong, completes his mission and achieves Buddahood. King Arthur sails away to Avalon after Camelot falls. The cowboy rides off into the sunset. Mulan heads home.

The familiarity of the ending reflects an ancient cyclical worldview. As the beginning of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has it: "An empire long apart will come together; long united will fall apart." Western tradition was expressed by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations: "Those who come after us will see nothing new. Our ancestors saw nothing more than we do." There is only the repetition of an endless cycle - the wheel of fortune.

But since those times there has been change - technological, social and even, some would argue, moral. We have witnessed changes so vast that even Marcus Aurelius would have to admit we are seeing more than our ancestors ever did.

We call it progress, and the notion has taken on epic qualities to the degree that the end is sometimes seen as nigh. Francis Fukuyama famously surmised that we had reached "the end of history", and that was less than 25 years ago.

Lofty declarations such as this highlight the seductive power of what classical scholar J.B. Bury called "the illusion of finality". This is the belief that our knowledge is effectively complete and that we can fill the few remaining gaps with comparative ease, that we know where we are going and are nearly there.

If progress really is an epic then we should perhaps give some thought as to whether it is going up or down. Will it be a happy ending or could it be otherwise? After all, just as some thinkers have presumed that we have nothing left to learn, others have foretold the imminent downfall of the human race.

In the West the most famous prophet of doom was Malthus, but he was not the first to be worried. Chinese philosopher and statesman Han Feizi expressed exactly the same concerns way back in the third century BC. Over-population, the depletion of natural resources and the collapse of the established order have customarily featured high on the list of triggers for disaster.

But, again, these predictions have not yet come to pass. Civilization is still here, and that cannot be a matter of pure chance. There are well-documented accounts of the ruination of numerous societies throughout history, yet humanity has survived. For this we can thank intelligence, creativity and invention. Innovation - or, if you prefer, ingenuity - has brought us this far. We must conclude that it will have to take us a lot farther, too.

If we are to survive, then new ways of doing things will have to be introduced to replace the old ways, as has happened in the past. The gales of creative destruction, as Joseph Schumpeter called them in his Theory of Economic Development, are blowing loud and fast and may never subside. There is a feeling that those who yearn for the calm after the storm - the "normalcy" that we expect to follow a period of change - are doomed to wait in vain. Our future, unlike the epic, is deeply unpredictable.

So what does all this mean for China, whose extraordinary metamorphosis over the past 35 years has been the foremost economic story of our times? Where might this astonishing tale end, and, more pertinently, is it bound to end at all?

Innovation takes many forms. Innovation in business, in finance, in politics, in organizations, all have shown that carrying on in the same old way is seldom, if ever, a promising option. Innovation keeps us ahead of catastrophe, and the optimism it engenders leads us to expect things will get better rather than worse. How many of these particular boxes does China tick at present?

Of course, there is plenty of evidence that in some departments it is doing very well indeed. It is without doubt investing heavily in science and technology, as illustrated by the number of students specializing in these disciplines who graduate from Chinese universities year after year. In 2015, if all goes according to plan, 17,000 post-doctoral fellows will enroll at the country's major research institutions. It has been reported that R&D spending increased by more than a fifth every year from 2006 to 2011 and by only slightly less last year.

And yet, for all its ambition and unquestioned status, right now China remains predominantly an imitator. Much is said about record numbers of patents, but research has exposed most of these as piecemeal, incremental innovations rather than substantive new technologies. In this field China is keeping pace - it could even be setting the pace - but it is not, by and large, choosing the direction.

As we have seen, epics are defined by their ending. The task is completed, and the hero attains his or her destiny. Once the final page has been turned, once the credits roll, it's all over.

But for the rest of us there is always tomorrow, which is why the "epic" approach is no longer appropriate. Epics, by their very nature, are simply not sustainable.

If we live in an era when the only certainty is ceaseless transition, when innovation is inevitable and the gales of creative destruction never die down, then we are left with a story that is denied the traditional denouement of heroic resolution. As sociologist Robert Holton observed: "Without any clear sense of the possibility of new patterns, crisis becomes a more or less permanent condition - a chronic illness or a dream without end. In place of the epic narrative we now have the soap opera."

It might sound comparatively unappealing, but the soap opera's narrative structure now offers far greater promise. Soap operas are capable of huge change over time, as a consequence of which many are long-lived and extremely profitable. Epics are finite; soap operas are built to last. They never end. Individual heroes plough lone furrows, pursuing a single vision. Soap operas thrive on the ability of many diverse characters to fashion an altogether larger story, continually interacting with a wealth of possibilities.

To achieve this longevity China might do well to cultivate a healthy skepticism about imitating the hero model of entrepreneurship, which may have served the West well but today looks unsustainable and was probably always more myth than reality. Naturally, there is room for both epic and soap in the schedules, but we would all do well to acknowledge that it is the latter that has the staying power and is capable of greater development, even if the former maintains a loftier standing in some circles.

One contention is that in times of turmoil, with confidence low and patterns of normalcy ever harder to discern, we should limit ourselves to safe short-term bets and never lose sight of our exit strategy. The global financial crisis stands as testimony to the perils of such a view. Radical responses require flexibility, and that comes from a pragmatic approach rather than from being bound by the epic sensibilities of single minds and fixed ends.

Such a philosophy is not new. To return to Han Feizi: "The sage neither seeks to follow the ways of the ancients nor establishes any fixed standard for all times ... but examines the things of his age and then prepares to deal with them."

In other words, we progress by solving the problems life throws at us. We always have, and, hopefully, we always will. To assume a leading role in this quest, as it has in so many areas of 21st-century life, China will need a full, diverse cast of innovators rather than a few individual heroes. The key lesson that now has to be learnt is that sustainability comes from people who see innumerable opportunities and outcomes, not from people who pursue personal ambition on their own solitary quests.

The author is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity with Nottingham University Business School and co-deviser of the ingenuity problem-solving process taught to students at the Nottingham Institute for Enterprise and Innovation. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

( China Daily Africa Weekly 08/02/2013 page12)

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