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At Cambridge Design Partnership we follow trends in innovation, so we were excited to welcome a group of senior executives and entrepreneurs from China and Hong Kong in September.  The group were organised by The Cambridge Innovation Programme, led by Professor Alan Barrell from Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. They included members from high-profile companies who were keen to explore the topic on international innovation.

I presented CDP’s own customer centred innovation process ‘Potential Realised’ and showed them our state-of-the-art research and development facilities, which feature purpose-built laboratories, a user research facility and rapid prototyping suite.

The discussion focused on the future of innovation in China and the visitors explained that until recently the Chinese government has not supported innovation. They commented that the Chinese society and educational curriculum has often been too homogenized and controlled to encourage risk taking and entrepreneurism. However, after three decades of growth the economy is weakening and there is a clear realisation that innovation has an important part to play in the future.

The delegates told us that recently Li Meng, Vice Minister of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, announced that China plans to increase spending on R&D to 2.5% of GDP by 2020.  To drive this change there is a strong focus on the education system to develop the next generation of high calibre engineers to support this. The latest figures show there have been 30,000 PhD level graduates in science and engineering indicating that the encouragement is certainly working!

One visitor explained, “There is a now strong policy to encourage innovation and for innovative companies, if they reach a certain criteria they will qualify for government funding and tax incentives”.  The delegates also stated that the Innovation and Technology Bureau (ITB), established in 2015 in Hong Kong has injected $5 billion to support projects and help increase their ranking in global innovation from the current 18th position towards a target of 15th by 2020.

I have recently come across three examples of how China’s new focus on innovation is bearing fruit. If you read our regular newsletter you will be aware that we are sponsors of the ongoing Bloodhound 1,000mph car project and designed the car’s unique steering wheel in 2014. Last month it was announced that Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, China’s largest privately-owned automotive company, is the new lead sponsor of this British-led supersonic car project, with the aim of exploiting Bloodhound’s inspirational educational program throughout Asia. 

I was also recently reading about the demise of 3D Robotics, North America's most promising drone start-up company based close to our US office in Silicon Valley. 3D Robotics aimed to lead the emerging consumer drone market with the usual mix of Silicon Valley VC cash and tech and market nous.  It turned out they underestimated the capability of their competitor, Shenzhen-based DJI Technology, one of the new breed of Chinese, market focused, vertically integrated ODMs who could innovate and get complex new products to market at a fearsome rate and at very low retail cost.  3D’s flagship product is now on sale for less that the manufacturing cost to clear an expensive stockpile.

Finally, you might recall we won ‘Best of the Best’ Red Dot award for our innovative First Response Monitor back in August. Today we received a large book from Red Dot, showcasing the 2016 winners in the ‘Design Concepts’ category.  Looking through the list of winners, I was struck by the dominance of Chinese companies who are investing in and presenting really innovative, sophisticated design concepts right across the consumer and healthcare markets.

As we waved goodbye to our visitors, I was left with the feeling that when you link market driven innovation skills to China’s expert manufacturing capability and financial and human resources, there are surely going to be powerful consequences.

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