Experiments in innovation

John Kao, CEO of San Francisco-based innovation academy EdgeMakers, explains why Dubai is uniquely placed as a testing ground for cutting-edge ideas and technologies. Click to read more on Dubai Week in China

Q: What is your experience of innovation in China?

A: For the past few years I’ve been associated with a White House-Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology process to coordinate innovation policy, so I’ve had the opportunity to visit China and observe practices, and consult with domain experts in the public, private and academic sectors. Most of what we know about innovation as a discipline or as a field comes from studying companies – so ‘Apple is innovative’ or ‘another company was innovative but now is not’. But the notion of having lenses to look at societies is one thing that I think could use a boost.

Everyone has comparative advantage in general economic terms, so why not comparative innovation advantage?

John Kao, CEO, EdgeMakers

Q: How do China and Dubai compare in their approaches to innovation?

A: One thing you have to consider when it comes to countries and cities is that there is no universal playbook; each example has its own particularities. China has been at the innovation game for a little longer in a formal sense, in that there has been a well-articulated national agenda for some years. However, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai] recently launched a new strategy to make the UAE one of the world’s most innovative nations within seven years, which is very exciting.
What I find most interesting are the potential synergies between Dubai and China. Everyone has comparative advantage in general economic terms, so why not comparative innovation advantage? China has scale in terms of basic science and academic research and scale of markets that very few other countries can even equal. Dubai, on the other hand, is a portal into an extremely strategic part of the world and is an interesting laboratory for the remix – or mash-up – of state-of-the-art contemporary technology and social innovation, with a culture that has very deep and traditional roots. So looking at some of those synergies is very interesting.

Dubai is a portal into an extremely strategic part of the world and is an interesting laboratory for the remix of state-of-the-art contemporary technology and social innovation

John Kao, CEO, EdgeMakers

Q: What role can Dubai’s development of innovation play in support of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategic plan?

A: In pursuing its own path of development, China has had to work through many challenges ranging from how to preserve the urban environment, to mobility as it affects ordinary citizens. So the country now has a lot of value-added for other parts of the world that are perhaps earlier in their development cycle. Dubai is well positioned to capitalise on this because of its geographical location and other assets, which means there’s the potential for a natural strategic alliance. You can already see the exponential increase in the number of Chinese companies with a presence in Dubai, and many are moving beyond the idea of simply having a corporate entity in Dubai. Rather, they are using that outpost as an opportunity to more deeply understand cultural and social trends, to practise user-centred design, and customise offerings for specific markets of interest. I think that’s a very big deal and I find the idea of a ‘New Silk Road’ very compelling.