“Social” means something completely different in Chinese business – here’s why Laurence Van Elegem - May 28, 2018

China Ubtech

Day After Tomorrow Tour China - Day 1

“Europe and the US have no clue as to what 'social' actually means”: that thought crossed my mind several times today during the very first content day of our Innovation Tour in China. Let me explain.

“The Chinese are all about relations and network”, Pascal Coppens told us in his introduction this morning. “For them personal and business are the same.” Whereas over here in the west, we’ve always learnt to never mix business with pleasure, Chinese entrepreneurs almost only do business with friends. I believe that’s possibly a big reason why they integrate a social aspect into everything they do, and in an exponential manner.

Health is social

Take our visit to iCarbonX for instance, the company founded by Chinese genomicist Jun Wang: it combines genomics with other health factors such as metabolites, bacteria and lifestyle choices to create a digitalized form of life. When we think about health and healthcare, we think about our bodies, right: our blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen level, stool samples, etc. And, yes, iCarbonX wants to measure all these things to create a "model for human health" and get rid of disease. These data will help them fulfill their goal of "becoming the analytical engine behind every health(care) player in the world (from hospitals and doctors to popular health monitoring apps)", as Yingrui Li, their Chief Scientist, put it.

But he also explained to us that measuring social behaviour data – which they will get access to through their partnership with Tencent - is just as important to get a full view of our health as our bodily functions. Health is just as social to them as it it physical.

Don't worry! We're going on a new Day After Tomorrow Tour to China in September!

Commerce is social

Tencent - and more specifically WeChat - has perfectly understood that buying is not an individual activity but a social one: it has integrated the mechanisms of shopping with friends into its“swiss army knife” tool, as WeChat specialist Mathew Brennan called it. Chinese commerce starts from socials, not from transactions. The Chinese are looking for identity, not just buying a product. 

For them, it’s not just about sharing pictures of your life, but about tagging where you bought the clothes you are wearing, so your friends can click on them and maybe buy them too. Buying is not something you do alone, in China, you want your friends' opinions and advice before you purchase. That’s why, in the offline world, retail is a real experience and shopping malls are entertainment parcs, where you can join your friends on a shopping journey. Buying is social in China, and that has been completely integrated into its "operating system", as Wechat is sometimes referred to.

Robots are social

When we visited robotics company UBTECH in the afternoon, it became clear that this was not your usual robotics company. For one, they have really BIG ambitions: mirroring Bill Gates’ "A computer on every desk and in every home" from 1980, Chief Strategy Officer Jian Ren told us they want to put “a robot in every home”.

But I was even more impressed by their strategy to get there: for the moment, they sell quite straightforward robot toys. No big deal, right? But this is just a clear step closer to their bigger dream of building far more advanced robots that can play a useful role in our homes: they sell their 'dumb' toys so they can make the revenue necessary to invest in R & D to develop smarter and more advanced robots. But, even more clever: by familiarizing our children with robots - having them play with them, and learning to code them - they are preparing them for the next age of robotics: when robots will enter our homes, recognize us, help us, listen to us and talk to us. Robots that will become social.

Remember the difference between online and offline and the digital natives of yonder? Well, the next gap to be closed, will be the one between robots and humans and UBTECH is preparing the way as we speak. Do not make the mistake of dismissing what UBTECH does as silly ‘kids’ stuff: they are prepping the market of tomorrow - our children – to be ready for a product that is still an ambition rather than reality. They are now creating the “robotic natives”, who will regard their interaction with robots as just as valuable as their conversations with humans. For them, the communication with a stranger on a bus will be just as 'real' as an exchange with their home robot, ... who’ll know them a lot better than that stranger by the way. But that’s an entirely different discussion.

That's it for now. Stick around in the coming days for more China innovation news, though. We have 4 more to go!

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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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