Blog: Innovation in Unlikely Places

Blog: Innovation in Unlikely Places

On landing at Shanghai Pudong airport we were told to remain in our seats as Chinese quarantine officers moved through the plane. Covered head to foot in white hazmat suites, four health workers checked passengers for signs of flu. I was told to lean forward in my seat and “please close eyes.” Using a hand held infra red heat sensor a health worker quickly took a temperature reading of my forehead; and finding my temperature normal, she moved on to the next passenger. Checking the entire plane took only a few minutes.

In the last several days I’ve seen something about China I did not expect. The Chinese are historically a conservative and traditional society, yet because they find themselves under serious pressure to find new ways of doing things, they are becoming innovative. It’s a lesson in the truth of the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

A 6,000 Year Old Culture Tries Out New Ideas

Having learned from their experience a few years ago with bird flu, they moved quickly this time to respond to swine flu. How do you screen thousands of people entering China every day without disrupting the flow of business and trade that China’s economy depends on? Using thousands of thermometers to take thousands of temperatures every day is way too slow. So they came up with the simple (and innovative) idea of using hand held heat sensors to take people’s temperatures. The rest of the world will use this technique the next time a deadly virus threatens to spread.

I met an American expatriate businessman living in Shanghai, Paul Doherty, who explained how he is showing the Shanghai city government an innovative idea they would not have considered only a few years ago. Using his software, originally intended to optimize retail store layouts and assign shelf space to appropriate products, he showed Shanghai city planners the same software with a few modifications can be used to optimize city land use planning and placement of different functions within individual buildings. Shanghai has been expanding rapidly; each year the city adds the equivalent of a new Manhattan. That’s a lot of new neighborhoods and new buildings. They have to keep up with the pace of events and traditional methods aren’t good enough so they are trying something new.

China is the fastest growing market for cars in the world. And clearly there isn’t enough oil to fuel all those cars forever; and clearly the unchecked effects of global warming will be a catastrophe for low lying cities like Shanghai as ocean levels rise. There's a rumor going around that the Chinese government is considering a decree to mandate the phase out of fossil fuels for all new cars and trucks by 2015 or so. The result is a surge of investment and innovation in the creation of electric vehicles – something must be done, so something is being done. Ask Warren Buffet why he likes a certain Chinese car company (a company called BYD) now producing electric cars.

Why isn’t a country like America that prides itself on being innovative doing this? Is it that we just don’t feel the need to move quickly because we have had it so easy for so long?

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Tags innovationChinasimplicityelectric cars

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