If you read this headline as somebody from the west, you might think that this is unlikely. You might be under the illusion that a system like China’s with limited freedom would not be a forerunner in creative thinking or creative leadership. But let me prove you wrong right now with one simple historic fact. Between 500 to 1500AD, China was more advanced than the rest of the world in nearly every aspect, especially in technology and science. Where does the myth come from that China cannot achieve what it proved possible many years ago? I’ll tell you – it is the ignorant western belief in being “at the top” fooling us that we are always getting the best results. And this will be proved wrong when another creative force takes the lead.
Now, I don’t want to scare you but I would love to open your mind to different possibilities in the next few minutes. Like the German chancellor Angela Merkel said in her recent and highly respected Harvard speech: “Tear down walls of ignorance and narrowmindedness, then nothing has to stay like it is.”
The Fine Line Between ‘Innovation’ and ‘Creativity’
When I arrived in China early 2014, I had the same bias then that most people still have today – that “China lacks creativity.” This was potentially true at that time and perhaps still is today in certain aspects of education, art and science.
However, in the following four years, I was witness to the ways in which digitalization has radically transformed China into a super user-centric and innovative society; one which is now giving birth to a new kind of creativity that is, in parts, quite different from the western understanding.
In my day to day work in the Beijing office of Jung von Matt, one of Europe’s most creative advertising agencies, I was fighting the never-ending battle to make our creative product match our high company benchmark. Like most westerners, I failed many times on this issue and, especially as a German, I was very frustrated that even my most logical arguments very rarely helped to change anything. To tackle the problem, I started a series of training sessions explaining western understanding of creativity to my local colleagues. For this, I worked with many examples and benchmark cases which worked pretty well but with a different outcome than I expected.
Seeing that those examples were very innovative, my colleagues started to show them as cases to clients, many of whom ended up wanting the same idea for their own product. In general, this was not bad – it happens quite often in the west too. But here, we ended up in a cycle of trying to adapt the practice of creating multiple conceptual ideas (at least 10-20) for the same problem and then killing all the ideas that were not really new. It never really worked. And for a long time, I was left in the dark as to why not.
At first, I came to the conclusion that this was probably because of the cultural differences and especially the lack of creative teaching methodology in Chinese education, which is still today heavily based on memorizing and one-dimensional learning. But further down the line, I noticed a pattern in the way that my colleagues referred to “innovative ideas”. I was curious. Was there a double meaning in the Chinese language; a hidden chasm between “creativity” and “innovation” which I didn't get? And, surprise, surprise – there was quite an interesting one:
创造力 (creativity) means “to create something new from the beginning”.
革新 (innovation) means “to make an improvement of an existing thing”.
Furthermore, 力 in creativity means “power or strength”.
Now, if you take into consideration that at this time, all the new technologies and products were being imported from outside of China, it seems like sound logic that my colleagues thought that for these products an “innovative” approach would be enough. This meant: ‘copy, paste and localize’. Leaving us with the unfortunately common bias that when it comes to Chinese innovation, they simply copy everything.
Concerning this Helen Lee, a well-known fashion designer and Founder of HelenLee states that “innovation is putting creative ideas into action and making them successful”.
But with the beginning of China’s hot internet phase, around 2014, and the government’s aim to adapt the Silicon Valley mentality for China, things shifted from supporting value over originality to fusing economic value with originality.
The New Shanzhai: Hack, combine and share
From my very first day in China, WeChat (or Weixin) was my constant companion; at first, linking me to all my Chinese colleagues and friends, and later as the super app of today, managing my whole life in China from eating, paying, and ordering, to discussing projects, taxis, sharing moments and more. Everything I usually did through many apps was now in one place. It seemed like there was a new feature optimizing my digital life every week. The speed of new releases, services and features was crazy.
There is a saying among Chinese startups that “there are only the quick and the dead” and it was this brutal speed of optimization and localization which helped this new take on creativity to emerge. Before, ‘shanzhai’ was the word for the old industrial copy-and-optimize approach in China. But together with the fierce speed and extreme localization, a new ‘shanzhai’ was formed, where copying is just a basic first step and the real creative magic happens in superfast sprints of ‘hack, combine and share’.
Now, with this ‘hack, combine and share’ approach, Chinese startups turned out to be faster and more flexible than startups anywhere else in the world. It means that any new feature can be copied within a week, leaving you no other choice than to be constantly faster than your competition. As a result, the new creativity in China is totally social: all about co-creating, collaborating, sharing - and the fertilizer is the new global shared economy alongside the endless influx of new tech, pouring in from all over the world.
Collaborative Creativity as a Uniting Force of Our World
It is pretty ironic that we in the west talk so much about the value of creativity. When you check our leaders’ mentality, for example in this study from 2014, it seems that Asian leaders knew much earlier that this would be one of the most powerful resources of the future.
Now, when we look back to China the new shanzhai-based leadership style will be the preferred entrepreneurial spirit of all the young Millennials because tech and social media are simply part of their everyday life. They will drive creativity and innovation in our new digital landscape all over the world while China and the Pacific region become the primary growth engines of the 21st century.
The question is whether we – especially in Europe – can accept this new creative confidence from China, taking the social aspect of its core into consideration, and join forces for a collaborative creative spirit to co-create a more sustainable and better world.