from Asia Unbound

Calculus in the Snow

January 07, 2011

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Technology and Innovation

Chinese Doctors Walking in Snow
Military doctors make their way across snow to see patients trapped by heavy snowfall on the outskirts of Altay Prefecture, Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region, January 27, 2010. (China Daily/Courtesy Reuters)

What almost always goes hand in hand with worry about the United States is a tendency to overstate how great things are going in China or India.  So not only does the postponement of the Eagles game after a blizzard reflect the "wussification of America," in Governor Edward Rendell’s memorable phrase, but this could never happen in Beijing or Shanghai.  The Chinese would march to the stadium "doing calculus on the way down" (the winter storms of 2008 that stranded thousands of travelers in central and southern China and resulted in the death of over 100 people must have slipped the governor’s mind).

I have been guilty of this myself.  Soon after I published "Is America Losing Its Edge?" in Foreign Affairs, I went to India expecting to hear a great deal about America’s decline.  While there was huge and justifiable excitement and confidence about the rise of India’s software industry, there was also significant worry about how sustainable it was and how innovative India truly was.  And almost every Indian CEO, scientist, and entrepreneur I spoke with cautioned me not to underestimate the resilience of the United States.  As C.N.R Rao, Chair of the Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Council, put it at a 2008 conference: “America—whether you like it or not, however much you complain, howl and cry—continues to be the centre of science and innovation.”

There is a very good reason for seeing China and India as ten feet tall and the United States as the incredible shrinking man.  Over the last decade there has been a tremendous build-up in Asia of what I call in my new book the hardware of innovation.  Hardware refers to the things that are easy to see and measure—spending on R&D, graduates in science and engineering, new patents filed.  All of this is going up in Asia.  Chinese spending on R&D, for example, has reportedly surpassed Japan’s and China will pass Japan and the United States in new patent applications in 2011.  What is harder to measure, but critical, is the software of innovation: the abstract web of institutions, relationships, and understandings that move ideas from lab to market. Chinese and Indian policymakers and entrepreneurs know that these are underdeveloped and they are working to fill in the blanks.  These, as I’ll show in my next posts are hard to address, often because they require political or cultural change. Harder, in fact, than doing calculus in the snow.