2 min read

Innovate vs. Imitate

Innovate vs. Imitate

I'm an Australian born Chinese. Both my parents are immigrants and come from impoverished backgrounds. Growing up, my dad use to explain his belief on how Americans and Chinese culture differ. He said, in America they show children an example of a star, then ask them to draw their own version if it. In China, you are shown an image of star and asked to replicate it perfectly.

This example stuck with me as I grew up. I viewed the US as the global leader on virtually all major fronts from economics, military to the humanitarian. I also saw Americans as hyper competitive, vocal and strongly opinionated. They've produced the greatest number of outliers in sports, science and accumulated wealth. They're also blighted with many issues that come with high variability but crucially are able to maintain an enviously high GDP per capita.

The term imitate often has negative connotations especially in cultures that highly value leadership roles and individualism. After the cultural revolution, China was impoverished for many decades and strictly adhering to the communism model just didn't work. Under Deng Xiaoping, China opened up to international trade and a form of tightly regulated capitalism. The enterprising element created a surge in export activity because of several factors but importantly, low production costs.

When a poor nation lacks decades of stability, it's seldom to find genuine innovation and pursuit of the arts and culture. People are just too focused on putting food on the table. You look abroad at what's being demanded, produce the wares and supply it. Here's where the explosion of low quality replicas occur.

In every disadvantage there is an advantage. China was playing catch up and that put them in a position to observe trends and assess systems. One major example is timing and adoption of smartphones. The Chinese masses essentially leap-frogged computers and saved huge sums on the further building and maintenance of the landline telephone system.

Whether you find yourself behind or adopt a wait-and-see approach. Observing others attempts is like modelling. You learn from their mistakes and assess how you can avoid the same hurdles and possibly even work out a better strategy and system.

China is now a leading nation in digital currency and a challenger in other applied science fields. Now China is the innovator in select areas and will eventually cede the leader position right? Not necessarily, because China isn't primarily focused on competition. China is focused on independence which affords them measured and deliberate investments. But this requires protection and government guidance to nurture and shield the fragile R&D groups.

Innovation is not just fantastic but critical to the advancement of human civilisation. But when you compete on innovation there must be a reward for the pioneering group. Under capitalism the rewards are enterprise profits. In the competition process of innovation there are not only errors because of the speed factor but casualties. Companies die, capital is burnt and lost.

There are situations which we can lead and others where we should follow. What, who, where and when we choose to allocate our resource; time, attention, money and effort is ultimately what the human collective should prioritise. The main challenge is the how because our societal layers are slowing the flow of information and decision making.