APRU on China Daily: Your seat at the table depends on how innovative you are
March 27, 2021

Original post in China Daily.

Innovate or perish is the new slogan. If you don’t innovate, you don’t invent and if you don’t invent you are out of the race. Gone are the days of captive consumption in an isolated world. Today, we are talking about global economies that transcend borders and if you have nothing new on the plate, you are doomed.

A few days back, there were reports that technological innovation is going to see renewed impetus in China. The State Council has said that the government will publish a list of core scientific projects and seek help from researchers for the same on a voluntary basis. In addition, it will also look at developing policy tools to more efficiently select and allocate funding to potentially groundbreaking research projects.

In a nutshell, what this means is that the Chinese government is not only planning to seek the help of the private sector, but also allocating more resources to emerging new technologies to unlock new growth strategies, say experts.

Nidhi Gupta, a senior technology analyst at GlobalData, a UK-based data and analytics company, tells me that China’s technological advances in recent years can largely be attributed to the government’s proactive policies and strategies.

“China has been promoting the development and use of emerging technologies through a supportive policy framework, setting up large-scale funding of research, and attractive incentives for tech entrepreneurs. The country has also put multiyear strategies in place to upgrade its digital infrastructure and achieve technology independence. In addition, the government’s five-year plans for science and technology innovation and ‘Made in China 2025’ have been instrumental in driving its ascendancy on the innovation front,” says Nidhi.

Belunn Se, an industry observer based in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, tells me that technology innovation is necessary for China to vitalize its domestic economy and reinforce industry strength. It will also help the country as it moves up the value chain and bolsters its supply chains.

Several stakeholders need to be involved in a systematic manner for the success of tech innovation, he says. The primary role must be played by the government as an organizer of resources, guide and supervisor. Colleges and universities are also necessary for fundamental scientific research and development, and talent cultivation. Top academic research institutes can play a big role in China’s efforts to reduce its dependence on external sources for cutthroat technologies like semiconductor production equipment, he says. Policies should also focus on improving the funding avenues for tech firms and scaling up their commercialization by market mechanism.

“It is important to ensure that elementary education and basic sciences play a crucial role in fostering innovation,” says Se.

Christopher Tremewan, secretary general of APRU, a consortium of 56 leading universities headquartered in Hong Kong, tells me that as countries commit more resources to technological innovation, it is important to ensure that new discoveries are directed at the common challenges.

“Techno-nationalism will fall short of solving global crises. It is the universities that do much of the fundamental research that lies behind solutions. Organizations like the APRU are the neutral platforms for cooperation among major research universities across international borders, basically, as a forum that builds trust and a renewed commitment to multilateralism.”

Tremewan says that universities in Hong Kong are already playing a pivotal role in using their research expertise to foster technological innovation. In the Asia-Pacific region, universities are vital in understanding and preparing for complex problems from extreme climate events to the COVID-19 pandemic. The key, though, is to leverage the best research and ensure that the increases in public funding have maximum impact for the common good, thereby building trust and cooperation internationally, he says.

China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), which is due to be ratified by the National People’s Congress, is expected to give top priority to science, technology and innovation, and recognize them as critical to achieving technology self-reliance. The plan is based on dual circulation with the emphasis on internal circulation: domestic technology development, production, and consumption.

“With this new five-year plan, China is marking a strategic shift in priorities towards national and industrial security and is set to become increasingly self-sufficient technologically and less reliant on exporting to the West,” says Nidhi from GlobalData.

While the draft plan does not specify what technologies will gain focus over the next five years, it however makes it clear that investments in technology will continue to grow, and will focus on frontier fields like artificial intelligence, integrated circuits, aerospace technology, quantum computing, deep earth and sea exploration, adds Nidhi.

China has already done well in pioneering and upgrading innovation, like high-speed railways and some 5G-enabled technologies. But in the long term, fundamental breakthroughs are necessary as only such moves can trigger profound effects to the economy and industry, pretty much like how the invention of electricity and computers changed human life, says Se.

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