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Don’t fear China, embrace it – problems are the biggest drivers for innovation Laurence Van Elegem - May 16, 2018

China Photo By Natalia Y On Unsplash Min

“We are being colonized by China”. Steven Van Belleghem said this at the China Edition of our nexxworks café yesterday, where he – as well as Pascal Coppens, Filip Caeldries and Yannick Renier from our kind host Aertssen – gave inspiring keynotes about the impact of Chinese innovation on Europe and the rest of the world. Steven’s presentation was appropriately called “Fear and Excitement”, because that’s what people feel and think about technology in general, and about Chinese innovation in particular: is it a problem, or is it an opportunity?

To fear, or not to fear, that is the question. 

Acceptance or control?

As Pascal Coppens told us, “The Chinese have a very different attitude towards technology than we do.” It’s true: they see opportunities where we see problems. For them data is a commodity. It belongs to the community. It’s the fuel of their future. We still believe that we “own” our personal data. That we need to protect it. We make rules and regulations and think that we will be able to control the future if we control our data.

Obviously, China is not a democracy. And their use of data cannot always be called ethical. I’m really not too fond about their social credit system, for instance. And let’s not forget the recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica fiasco: where people were manipulated into voting a certain way. Data can and will be misused. But that is not the heart of the discussion for me.

The real discussion is about control. 

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I think it’s naïve to believe that we will be able to control privacy, misuse and manipulation with rules and regulations. Technology moves faster than laws, especially in Europe. So each time a new technology surfaces, it flows through the loopholes of the regulatory system at first. GDPR is not the answer. The biggest question is: where do you draw the line? What is ok and what is not? Where does convenient suggestion end and manipulation begin?

"Technology will always move faster than laws & it’s almost impossible the draw a line between “good” and “bad” use of data."

Just ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I comfortable with buying a 10€ book because Amazon knows that this is the type of book and title that I really like?
  • Am I comfortable with buying a 100€ dress that I don’t need because Zalando knows that its colour, fabric and length will make me feel young, slim and pretty again?
  • Am I comfortable with buying this 1000€ speaker because one of the people I look up to and respect has said that these where the best speakers they ever owned?
  • Am I comfortable with the fact that I did not leave my house today because Netflix has created a series that is meant to be binge-watched by people just like me?
  • Am I comfortable with voting for Party X, because the news that Facebook is filtering for me is playing with my biggest fears - which are conveniently the very same that Party X promises to solve?

Is it the technology? Is it you? Who ‘decides’? Who’s in control? And until what point is it ok that you are not 100% in control: when you buy a dress, when you’re ‘addicted’ to a series or when you vote?

Whatever the answer, fear and regulations will not solve this problem because technology will always move faster than laws and it’s almost impossible the draw a line between “good” and “bad” use of data. Tech has always exceeded at erasing ‘borders’: between online and offline, between local and global, between individual and community. So re-drawing lines and limitations is not the solution here.

And like Steven Van Belleghem said yesterday: “there is always a very big difference between what people say and do. You’ll see, that in the majority of the cases, we will always choose convenience and affordability over privacy. Europeans love to talk about privacy, but if a service is cheaper and easier, I know what they will choose in the end.”

Like I said, the Chinese have a very different attitude towards this and – especially in AI – this gives them an advantage that we might soon no longer be able to bridge. Why? Because, as Filip Caeldries so eloquently put it “size means everything”. Chinese have the type of scale we can only dream of. And in two ways. First, there’s the scale of data: there are a lot of Chinese, so there is obviously a lot of data. On top of that – and unlike in Europe with the GDPR – there is little limitation about the use of this data. Just take the cameras with facial recognition: there is no way that Europe or even the US can compete with the scale of data making these systems smarter every day: the intelligence of Chinese AI grows exponentially with its amount of data. But there is also the scale of the diversity of data: the type of data that for instance Tencent can use to become smarter and develop further is a lot richer and diverse than those of Facebook. Tencent knows a lot more than Facebook about its users, and is become smarter by the minute. That is the reason why Chinese AI will surpass US and European AI soon.

So what, then? Let’s say goodbye to privacy, maybe even democracy? And let’s just wait until the Chinese AI companies colonize Europe, take all of our jobs and ‘influence’ us with their AI?

Not exactly.

A huge problem is just innovation is disguise

Problems are great. We should embrace them. Both Pascal Coppens and Filip Caeldries told us at the nexxworks café that the reason why China is re-inventing itself so fast from “factory of the world” to “creators of the world” is because it HAS to. China is struggling with huge problems in terms of environment, demographics, healthcare, energy.

There is no better driver for radical innovation than need. Remember Google X’s formula for moonshot thinking: finding a radical solution for a huge problem with breakthrough technology?

Google X

It’s something we heard again and again yesterday: problems are opportunities. The fact that retail is moving so fast in China is because it was so weak to begin with, as Pascal Coppens explained. E-commerce boomed a lot faster than over here because shops were not fulfilling the demand of the consumer. And then the e-commerce giants decided to take over the physical shops as well, in a way that was a lot more innovative than over here: we swoon over the Amazon Go shops, but there are a lot more of these automated shopping locations in China, owned by a lot more different players.

"Europe is lagging behind in (technology) innovation because our standard of living has lulled us into believing that we’re fine."

Yannick Renier of Aertssen – the company which was so kind as to host our café – told us the exact same thing: “we turned our problems into opportunities”. There was too much building rubble, so Aertssen decided to recycle it. The company was losing a lot of money because of traffic congestion, so they turned their attention to the waterways. They transformed an obsolete brownfield into a solar panel parc.

“People always try to convince me that the innovation stories that nexxworks inspires people with are only relevant for B2C”, Steven Van Belleghem commented on the Aertssen way of innovating. “I will certainly use this as one of the cases to prove them wrong. It’s beautiful to see this type of ambition in a B2B sector, and one that even has to the reputation to be one of the slowest”. “If we move fast in an industry that evolves this slowly - construction - we know we’ll always at the top”, is how Yannick Renier put it.

Problems are merely opportunities to innovate. Yesterday I remember telling someone that the reason why Europe is lagging behind in (technology) innovation is, among other things, because our standard of living has lulled us into believing that we’re fine. We don’t’ need to innovate, so we don’t.

But I have thought about it since then, and that’s not exactly true. We do have problems over here. We’re under pressure of becoming irrelevant as a continent. We have a rapidly ageing population. Data manipulation is an issue. Terrorism is an issue. Climate change is an issue. Immigration is an issue. But we should take lessons from the Chinese and not fear these problems. Fear is a very bad driver for behaviour.

I’m with Steven: we should be excited. Because we have the technology, the talent and the means to create solutions for our challenges. Privacy and data manipulation, for instance, are an excellent opportunity to innovate: rather than trying to define boundaries and limit them with laws, we should be looking at positive solutions to protect us from manipulation. Like blockchain, for instance, that makes sure that our data cannot be tampered with. Or instead of trying to compete with the Chinese, we could be looking for collaborations and partnerships with them as Alexander De Bièvre of Mobit explained me a while ago (stay tuned because his interview will be published here soon).

So, let's not make it about fear.

let's make it about excitement. 

Find out all about the Chinese way of innovating at our Day After Tomorrow Tour China!

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem

Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and...

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