According to Reuters News Service, published on the ABC News channel China is now set to become the leader of world innovation by 2020…according to a public opinion poll of 6,000 people in six countries done by drug maker AstraZeneca.

Public perceptions of course are always impressionistic. But the sentiments expressed in the survey are very revealing.

It is still the case today, for example, that the USA remains the world’s most innovative nation followed by Japan. China, which is now third, has reached this place very rapidly and looks set to go further. While there are indications of a significant shift China has some way to go to overtake the USA. For example, the ABC article mentions the study last month from Thomson Reuters which revealed that China was now the second-largest producer of scientific papers, after the United States. But the same study showed that R&D spending by Asian nations as a group in 2008 was $387 billion, compared with $384 billion in the United States and $280 billion in Europe. But this does not equate to being more innovative.

However, the significance of this survey lies in the subjective insight it reveals about perceptions in the West and the East.

R&D spending does not equal innovation – but belief ensures it

As we have discussed in previous posts, the amount spent on R&D is never, in itself, a guarantee of innovation. It is the culture that informs that spending, the context within which that innovation emerges that remains critical. The survey which was taken across Britain, the United States, Sweden, Japan, India and China, found

‘…a strong sense of optimism amongst people living in China and India, in contrast to relative pessimism in the developed Western economies’.

People in the East believe China will become the world’s leading innovator by 2020. But so too do people in the West. The same perception is informed by starkly different moods: optimism and pessimism.

Subjectivity does greatly influence the culture of innovation. Pessimism, will influence an innovation culture that places emphasis upon incremental changes. It will foster a conservative and cautious approach which can only lower expectations about the goals and objectives of innovation and its outcomes. Optimism, on the other hand, underpins an innovation culture that is more at ease with uncertainty and thus encourages a willingness to experiment and to take risks. This raises expectations about what innovation can achieve. It was not pessimism that drove America to put a man on the moon.

As a co-author of Big Potatoes, you can guess where I’d put my money.


  1. “The growth of the world population is at an all-time high in absolute numbers, with current increments approaching 90 million persons annually … “While it had taken 123 years for world population to increase from 1 billion to 2 billion, succeeding increments of 1 billion took 33 years, 14 years and 13 years. The transition from the fifth to the sixth billion, currently under way, is expected to take only 11 years and to be completed by 1998.

    With 19% of the Global population concentrated in China in 2020 the odds are in their favor. Of course, add to this that they already are third behind US and Japan (Globally) in World Innovation and the trends no longer look like impressionistic public perceptions.

    Here’s more data on the World Population & Growth


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