Recently I have been reading a lot of literature about America”s historical and present advantage; namely its ability to innovate and create in all disciplines: military, industry, business, art & music, process, thought, identity, etc. Popular perception at the moment is that innovation is the name of the game for competing countries and economies (a big reason why America is so concerned with young graduates and general brain drain to developing countries with hot economies).
Innovation and creation in any context first requires a culture of optimism, dreams, risk-taking, and perhaps a good amount of naivety. Even before talking about whether a society/economy has the right industry cluster, or entrepreneurial & intellectual excellence, or incubation & venture capital ecosystem, I feel the first fundamental question is whether the culture has elements of dreaming, risk-taking and naivety. Without these elements in the soil of a society, no-matter what kind of structures you build on top of it, nothing will grow out.
So how do you tell if a culture has these elements? I think there are many ways, but one way I would propose is to look at a society”s Arts culture. To me, the Arts demands the greatest amount of risk-taking, naivety, and commitment, but also represents innovation and creation in its most purest form. Look at a society”s arts culture, and see how far it integrates and influences general culture. I don”t propose that there is a direct correlation between a society”s Arts and its innovative industries. But the Arts speaks, reflects and cultivates the general society””s aptitude and tolerance for risk-taking, inspiration, dreams and courage.
Recently I was speaking to some friends who are doing in-depth research in China”s 3rd and 4th tier cities. Before they could process their analysis and key findings, I asked them what were their gut feelings from the first leg of their trip. One of the head researchers mentioned that he was impressed by the depth of realism the Chinese youth in these hinterland cities had about industry, business, and the real world. My researcher friend said he felt these young people, still in their teens and early twenties, could see just as clearly the risks and rewards in the working world as he could, he more than 10 years their senior. The discussion then moved to observing how these 3rd & 4th tier city youth would dabble in the arts (visual, music, design, theatre, and general hobbies), but never commit. They would try many things, but never embrace one thing, and allow that hobby/art-form define them or their identity process. The reason being that many can see how difficult and risky a life pursuing the Arts would be, and therefore decide it best not to invest time exploring the arts further, even when they feel the most engaged, enthralled and energized in that art-form.
It is normal that a large majority of people never enter the arts full-time, even though they are highly exposed to the arts as an adolescent. But in most innovative societies, there is still a significant culture of trial and error, a balance of dreams and realities, of success stories and successful failures. Most of us know at least a handful of childhood friends who tried their hand at being an artist of some kind. Some made it, and some didn”t. But we have that expectation, and count that the norm. As my friends and I are starting to see in China, Chinese youth stop their role in the creative process even before they start, because they are so aware of the real risks and rewards of pursuing their artistic dreams. What does this mean for China””s innovative industries, and at a macro level, China””s future competitive advantages?
If you take any course in international studies or cross-cultural communications, inevitably you”ll hear the Chinese, or China, as described as ”Pragmatic”. Its true. The Chinese pride themselves in being rational, reasonable, and seeing the situation as clearly as possible, weighing all the options, risks and rewards. But as we”re seeing in today”s Chinese youth, maybe pragmatism has entrenched itself to the point where it is inhibiting risk-taking, dreams, and healthy naivety. China has only in the past few years developed to the point where per capita disposable income, greater access to information, and life/occupation choice allowed enough room for creative industries and entrepreneurial start-ups grow. But, even with room to grow and structures being (marginally) developed to encourage creative growth, the soil of China””s society may not be ready to embrace it.