In my professional career I always wanted to work with the most inspiring companies in the most dynamic places. In the 1960s it were Italian companies such as Olivetti which attracted the best designers, and the 1972 “The New Italian Domestic Landscape” show at the MoMA in New York concluded this phase. My takeaway was to convert the artistic and elitist approach “for a privileged few” into a smart strategy “for many”. The success with WEGA proved that basically everybody will accept great design, when the added cultural and functional value is positive. Many German companies picked up the torch, but got stuck in a misunderstanding of “form follows function”. Having started my design business in Germany, I had to accept the incremental opportunities – my credo “form follows emotion” originally was rejected.
In fact, the 1970s became the Japanese “Golden Age of Design”, and I was fortunate to be invited by Sony for the ride. However, Japanese companies were relying too long on traditional technologies – the new, digital technologies were defined in a new place: Silicon Valley, and with this also music, movies and entertainment in general became more important. Again I was fortunate to be invited by Steve Jobs to help “putting a dent into the universe”. Naturally, these career steps didn’t happen solely by accident: in each case I had prepared and pushed to become a part of the “hot places”. As a student I wrote many letters to Sony, and since 1978, I tried to get into the personal computer business.
Now, since more than 10 years – the same time it took to win my first client in the United States – I am working tireless to become a part in China’s drive for leadership in innovation, design and sustainable economic success. Since 6 years I am educating Chinese students at my advanced class for Strategic Design and Innovation in Shanghai, and after talking with many executives in established and new companies for years, I am finding business partners who follow my credo “don’t copy – create!” I really believe, that China is the next “hot place to be”. So far, China faces the challenge of an upside-down industrial development: first came the factories with cutting-edge Western-Japanese technology, producing World Class products designed in Europe and the United States for major Brand companies such as Apple, HP as well as Sony. This inspired Chinese entrepreneurs e.g. at Xiami and Oppo – and some state-owned companies like Huawei – to follow the lead of Apple and Samsung by building near-identical products in the same ODM-factories, e.g. Foxconn, Inventec, Pegatron and Compal just to name a few. The tangible results right now are overproduction and price wars. Where Chinese companies learned fast is social media, and with their massive domestic market, companies like Alibaba and Tencent became huge successes, and social media apps like Baidu and WeChat are omnipresent. However, due to language barriers, it is very difficult to expand these convergent experiences into other countries. However, there is one caveat: China still regards Silicon Valley as the Holy Grail of innovation.
First: the Chinese government is moving the economic focus towards a service- and experience-based consumer economy, promoting innovation by huge amounts of money and asking companies to produce less with more added-value for better profits. And looking at the painful pollution problem, there are also huge incentives for the next-gen mobility, electric, fuel cell and on demand. Investment in education and science also is increased by huge margins with the objective to make China the World’s leader in AI and any new digital technology incl. self-driving mobility – plus design.
Second: the United States have a new government, which promotes and supports old “rust belt” technologies, stifles education (with a naïve-reactionary billionaire-heir as secretary), and also stymies immigration and frightens highly qualified immigrants which will choke America’s innovative companies in Silicon Valley. With a real-estate developer as president and a white-nationalist as top adviser, Silicon Valley’s days of inventive glory are coming to an end.
In addition, the new government also cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore – and the United States, which in fact would have kept China out of America’s grip on about 40 percent of the global G.D.P. and about one third of global trade. Now, China has a free hand with its “Silk Road Initiative”. Even expecting losses by American trade tariffs and less business there, China is in a better place.
China and Pacific-Asia are winning, the United States start to lose, and Europe has to come to terms with a new global power shift. The challenge for China is to take the right steps by not taking the easy steps and repeating the West’s mistakes.
1/ China needs to build a solid brain-structure by moving high schools from “remember” to “create” – which always includes elements of positive provocation. Middle management especially in state-owned companies focus on pleasing their bosses. It must become acceptable to establish own views and fight for them.
2/ In regards of innovating and designing for the future, China must take a cold view and modify or reject naïve Western process models such as wasteful Mass Marketing and “feel-good” Design Thinking, which in my view is just a smart branding for a small ideation part of the entire innovation and design process (more later on this topic).
3/ China needs to develop a result-driven business culture of creative destruction, substantial re-inventing and human-minded “Design Making”. This requires fearless optimism, professional competence and total commitment to “ways never walked before” (as President XI is requesting).
4/ Without the magic ingredient “the best talent from everywhere”, Silicon Valley’s claim as the World’s design and innovation center won’t be sustainable, even if the current government will stay in power for just 4 years, the damage will done. Therefore, China also needs to accelerate the advancement of its own “Creative Valleys” – maybe Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai – and also provide better access for talents from all over the World. Remember: their number still is finite.
5/ Aside of being fond of the people and its culture, the points listed are the reason I believe in China as the hottest place to be as a designer and educator. As usual, I was a bit too early, but that is better than too late. With decades of experience with frog as well as in teaching, I want to apply my experience to help China to design for a better future – which includes other regions as well due to global interactions. I also try to balance a thought by Lao Tzu “Experience is a candle burning behind you, throwing a shadow onto the future” with Odo Marquard’s “Zukunft braucht Herkunft” (Future needs Origin). Looking back 50 years – many technologies and former market leaders obsolete or gone – should enable us to imagine what could and should be about 10 years ahead. “Designing 10 years ahead” actually is an accusation I am used to. Designing for the future actually is an adventure, often even beating Science Fiction – e.g. no SciFi writer foresaw the smart phone – and yes, we have to walk ways never walked before, which require that we actually outrun the candle behind us.
Technology flows – culture grows.