Greetings from China | Day 1

IEI Director Leslie Boney is spending the week in China as the guest of a group called the International Universities Innovation Alliance. He was invited through the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities to meet with universities and municipal officials interested in how universities can play a greater role in strengthening local economies and helping develop new policies. They will be meeting with universities and municipal officials in Jiading (a “suburb” of Shanghai), Xuzhou (a big city a couple of hours northwest of Shanghai) and Beijing, the Chinese capital.

Day 1:

“Build the nest and the phoenix will come.”

We spent the Monday in Jaiding, a “township” on the north side of Shanghai with 1.6 million people, hearing about the amazing plans the city has for growth. It’s already got plenty going for it: a subtropical climate, a solid industrial base, great infrastructure, a good tax base. But the city is worried about being ready for the future. They want more small  businesses and entrepreneurs. And they want them now.

The basic strategy: build some new buildings and invite entrepreneurs from across the world to set up shop there.

Key observation: when government is all powerful, making economic development plans is both much easier – and harder.

It’s easier because the government can simply declare, as Jiading’s did, that they will build a “new city,” built on former farmland and residential areas. And they are creating a beautifully planned city with straight streets, all the infrastructure in place, and new buildings just waiting for businesses or entrepreneurs to come.

It’s harder because innovation and entrepreneurship can’t just happen on demand. The Chinese central government’s pledge that the nation will become “more innovative” will take a while.

People have to learn how to think creatively a little bit at a time, by learning to question information in the classroom, by bouncing ideas off of other people with different perspectives and skills. Then they need to see other people starting things. And they need to know that if they start a new venture and grow some roots it can’t be taken away on a whim.

Jiading has built the buildings and they have the plan laid out beautifully, but will entrepreneurs come?

As the Institute for Emerging Issues worked with the five communities participating in Innovate NC over the past couple of years, it was pretty easy to find local entrepreneurs at work and to identify entrepreneurial systems that the communities could choose from as models. But creating the culture of entrepreneurship, where innovation is “in the water” – that same issue that Jiading is struggling with – remains a challenge. And it’s not just something that a government can decree or a policy can fix.

This morning one of the government leaders shared a proverb summarizing what they were trying to do: “If you build the nest, the phoenix will come.” But the other part of the lesson is that it takes ongoing commitment, over a long period of time, to build a truly attractive nest.

(Above image: The ‘new’ Jiading City, ready for business.)

Greetings from China | Day 2 –>

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