Our Perspectives

The future is made in China


data visualizationFuturescaper combines human insight and analytics together with data visualization.

In this blog series, UNDP experts and practitioners share their experiences and views on innovation in development practice.

China is a complex, diverse, and dynamic country. Home to internet companies worth billions of dollars, it has more web users than the population of the United States.

Many are familiar with the “Made in China” label. But a label not frequently applied to China? “The Future is made in China.”

At a UNDP Innovation Summit, Noah Raford showed how we might predict the future in this fast-changing world by using crowdsourcing tools like Futurescaper (a crowd-source strategy company that specializes in participatory scenario planning and foresight) to leverage the “wisdom of crowds”.

The potential benefits of predicting future innovations can be felt across diverse fields from healthcare to banking. Discovering and mapping new ideas and innovations can yield effective solutions as the world prepares to adopt a new set of development challenges.

Impressed by the concept, we quickly saw how difficult it would be to make something like this work in China.  

On one hand, China’s rapid internet development has revolutionized people’s lives and unlocked a series of innovative business bonanzas by pooling everything from taxi services to restaurants to masseurs. On the other hand, these innovations are taking place in a slightly more low-key manner than their foreign equivalents, partly because of the Great Firewall (the government’s comprehensive internet surveillance and content control system). As Noah put it: “there is a boiling sea of activity going on beneath the surface. The challenge is finding them.”

But who doesn’t love a challenge?

Using Futurescaper, UNDP launched an online public survey to gather information on innovation trends in China. This exercise examined the climate for innovation, as reported by Chinese citizens and other experts residing in China or abroad. Combining human insight and analytics together with a data visualization tool, Futurescaper helps organizations uncover and map out the drivers and dynamics of a specific topic – in this case innovation.

Participants were asked questions on the most popular emerging trends in Chinese innovation, the social benefits coming out of innovation, the factors driving and hindering innovation, and the key actors in Chinese innovation. The surveys were created in English and Chinese to reach the maximum number of participants.

Five emerging innovation trends in China emerged:

  • Internet of Things (38% of respondents)
  • E-commerce and mobile payments/internet banking (21%)
  • 3D printing (19%)
  • Mobile applications (15%)
  • Drones (7%).

By tracking the respondents’ answers, the exercise also gathered a list of innovation leaders.

Drawing on this analysis, UNDP has published The Future is Made in China: An Analysis of Emerging Innovation Trends in China, a report arguing that innovation can go hand-in-hand with finding solutions for development challenges in China and across the world. Globally and locally, UNDP is already working to see where innovation can be used.

In China, UNDP used mobile applications to engage the public with efforts to tackle pollutants (POPs Hunter smartphone game) and improve e-waste recycling (Baidu Recycle app for e-waste disposal). Based on these identified innovation trends and leaders, UNDP can find possible areas and partners for further development cooperation.

China has a thriving innovation field, and can offer the world more than just a place to manufacture its products. Let’s make sure that the “Made in China” label can be “The Future is made in China.”

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