Have you ever had a brilliant idea but you feared it might be stolen? But have you ever thought, ‘What kind out society do we live in where immaterial things like ideas can be owned in the first place?’ Not all societies are like this however. The city of Shenzen in China has showed us that there is another way to approach innovation. This is through SHARING ideas. I’d like to show you the benefits of this approach to encourage you to pursue your ideas.
The city of Shenzen started off as rice paddies in 1980. The government had a vision for it to become a technology hub, so they declared it a Special Economic Zone. They brought developers, entrepreneurs, manufacturers and IT experts to work next to each other to stimulate innovation. They were encouraged to share inventions, rather than keep them secret. Now this miracle city is one of the leading innovation centres in the world, where you can walk in the streets and find any gizmo you’d like, or watch 10 year olds programming robots.
The Chinese philosophy to innovation is to collaborate, rather than work in secret. They share their ideas and inventions – they give instructions on how to create their invention, often called ‘open sourcing’. I think we could benefit from a similar model to innovation.
You might be wondering, how then, one would make a business out of an invention? Well what the Chinese do, is keep innovating, so that they are always ahead of the crowd. The pioneering company will create a brand, which creates customer loyalty for their next products. Focusing on a line of products, instead of one product, ensures that the company stays relevant in today’s rapidly changing times.
If people do choose to replicate your technology, then they’re just silly to compete against an established brand. In China, ‘innovation’ is popular culture so copying is not attractive anyway. Also, China innovates so quickly that by the time they copy your technology, it will have become outdated.
If we’re replacing technology so rapidly, what do we do with the old technology? Well we give it to those who have none of course. Give the slightly older technology to the poor, where they will find it extremely useful and set them on a path to integrate into technology jobs if they choose.
In South Africa we have many young people with ideas on how to solve their local issues, but they don’t have technology to develop their ideas. The country would obtain so much value if we could enable young people to solve their communities’ problems by themselves. Let’s give our old inventions to them. Let them strip and rebuild machines to find new ways to use old technology. Give them any technology and watch them thrive.
Part of the success of Shenzen is that access to spare parts is easy. You can 3D print your prototypes within the same day– probably by someone in a different part of your building. Or you can walk in the street markets and buy the capacitors you need. In South Africa, one has to wait weeks or months for parts to arrive which is a hamper to innovation. We want to be able to create a prototype, make modifications to the design, and test the new prototype, within the same week. This can only happen if technology communities have a sharing value system.
At the moment, we don’t have a sharing value system. We spend so much time and money trying to protect our knowledge. But does knowledge really belong to the first person who registered it? Will the idea not eventually be discovered by someone else? If it will, then we are just engaging in races to control knowledge.
Although patents did stimulate innovation in the 18 and 19 hundreds, patent battles have gone on since the advent of patenting, which indicate that the system is flawed. We’re seeing endless battles between smartphone companies about who copied whose design. The law suits are for billions of dollars, which intimidate up and coming inventors. The western world calls it stealing, but their philosophy about owning ideas is outdated. Information is being generated at an astonishing rate, where any attempts to own knowledge are just arrogant. I see patents as speed bumps in a road to innovation. At least they’ve given us an example not to follow.
Imagine how rapid innovation would be if we didn’t spend months trying to protect our ideas. People wouldn’t see inventing as a mountain to climb – but rather a creative, collaborative process. One wouldn’t need legal capital and know-how to protect their inventions.
You may have concerns that, if I give away my knowledge, then I will have nothing unique. But if I teach people, then I become the market leader. People will look to me to see what’s next. If I am the one sharing a new idea – I am seen as the expert in that idea. Would you go to the second best scientist for advice? By being the best, I will be invited to technology conventions, where I will also get to see what the industry is doing, and align myself accordingly.
China has shown us a better way to do innovation, through sharing ideas. The idea of sharing ideas will be a difficult shift in mind-set, since we’re so used to the western system. But we live in exciting times where change is part of our world. Let’s use these lessons to chase that idea that we’ve been holding onto for so long.