China embarks on the route of Design as driver for Innovation and Sustainable Growth

The_Five_Pavilion_bridgeLast week I was invited by the Dragon Design Foundation in Beijing, People’s Republic of China (PRC), to attend and give a speech at the 2014 World Green Design Forum Summit in Yangzhou.

I have for the last ten days had the opportunity and great pleasure to take part in and exchange thoughts, ideas and experiences about a variety of views on how we shall be able to cope with the challenges evolving from four of the mega trends and the hyper competitive global markets the world is driven by today.

The Chinese government has set out design as the key enabler to drive innovation and growth and thereby at the same time addressing the challenges of globalisation, urbanisation, demographic change and climate change. China has realised the power of a design driven economy from where creativity and innovation emanates. Therefore they are now meeting the world’s competition from the “soft factors” perspective rather than by persuasion of the traditional “hard” industrial factors, which has been the driving forces of the world economy up to now.

china-chemical-plantFrom several perspectives, development by the traditional “hard” industrial factors is not a sustainable way to develop a society forward.

  • First, it is not an innovative viable way. Sustainable economic development must derivate from a socio-economic policy where people’s creativity and ideas are stimulated and fostered in a way so that good ideas coming from the people are given nutrition and stimulation to develop and grow without being “trapped” into old or traditional structures and boundaries.
  • Second, it is not an environmentally or resource effective viable way. The world’s resources are both limited and scarce.

By working with design driven innovation and growth is the only way we can make sure that we understand the real essence of the problems or challenges at hand before we jump into conclusions and starts to take short-cuts to solve them. By a better and deeper understanding of the challenges we have in front of us, applied in a broad human socio-economic perspective, we will develop much more effective and resource lean solutions to cope with them.

I also had the pleasure of visiting the Sino-Finnish Centre at Tongji University, Shanghai, where they from an innovation perspective work with design as the key enabler, particularly addressing these types of sustainability issues.

Sino-Finish Center

The Sino-Finnish Centre is focusing on innovative interdisciplinary education, research and practice through bringing universities, industry and government together. I was astonished, and as a human being extremely pleased, to see the embryotic concepts for the “new design driven sustainable world economy” that emerges from their work. I am extra pleased to note that Nordic Design, through primarily the Aalto University (Finland) and two Swedish associated universities (Linköping University and Chalmers University of Technology), are cooperating with the Tongji University in developing the integrated areas of technology, economy, art and design. There are no doubts in my mind that this is the recipe and way forward for the world to cope with the immense challenges at hand.

From “fast and big” to profound understanding of the challenges and design based innovation

I also understood that the Chinese now has gained the insights that “fast and big” is not always the optimal strategy for sustainability and prosperity. I visited and had extensive discussions with the management of some industrial clusters and technology parks. Several of them expressed their concerns about that they felt they had reached the “end of the road” of the development of the dynamics of the parks.

Quad Helix HQConsidering the practises we are used to deal with in Sweden and Europe regarding establishment of modern innovation areas, which are based on quad helix collaboration,

it is not too difficult to see why development has ceased and a sense of stagnation has occurred. An unverified number I have received is that only 5% of the clusters in China are regarded fully functional and capable of delivering the output they are expected to do. Given that there are several thousands of clusters and innovation areas established in China this is not a desirable situation.

Generally, one shall always be careful about issuing generalisations and identifying “quick fixes” or simple solutions to any problems. But I think a general comment still is valid; it is obvious there are some fundamental links and bridges missing at many of the Chinese cluster initiatives and Innovation environments designs. Primarily, what I am missing is the deeply integrated links to the academia and also to the civil society. But also to other fundamental actors in a well-functioning cluster or innovation area.


Also, that the “short-cut” philosophy to achieve quick and big visible results, until now practised in China, tends to create severe gaps between essential links in a healthy and prospering cluster initiative or in design of a sustainable innovation area.


When the Chinese establishment changes its strategy from “fast and big” to “design based sustainability”, where it is allowed quality time to acquire a profound understanding of the essence of the challenge and no short-cuts are accepted from the originally well-defined concept designs and strategies, we will see an even more rapid and sustainable growth of the Chinese economy. And, as an extra bonus, benefit to the broader socio-economic context.

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