Meet Challenge with Cooperation and Innovation –What do we see at the Zhongguancun Forum 2020?

I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for 35 years, I’ve taught in entrepreneurial clusters in New York, Boston, Helsinki, Santiago Chile, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Prague, and Tokyo, but the visit to the heart of the Beijing start-up world...

I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for 35 years, I’ve taught in entrepreneurial clusters in New York, Boston, Helsinki, Santiago Chile, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Prague, and Tokyo, but the visit to the heart of the Beijing start-up world Zhongguancun has truly blown me away. Each of these clusters has wondered how to become the next Silicon Valley. Beijing is already there…

Steve Blake, co-author of The Startup Owner’s Manual and Member of board of advisors, Stanford’s Technology Venture Program

Zhongguancun (ZGC), or the “Z-park” has, following a dynamic development in the past 3 decades, become one the most mature and leading ecosystems for innovation and entrepreneurship in China for, at least, two reasons: 1) its strong science-driven entrepreneurship and 2) being a “testbed” for policy innovation.The annual ZGC Forum, launched in 2007, has also become a “melting pot” , where new initiatives are launched, and new policy-thinking is explored and communicated. This year’s Forum, with the theme of “Meet Challenge with Cooperation and Innovation”, is even more special and important – as one of the first major physical events (with a limited number of participants) that could take place in Beijing in the on-going Covid-19 recovery as well as when China’s research and innovation development is, in many aspects, in a challenging time…

As a whole, ZGC Forum 2020 gathered more than 200 world-renowned experts and scholars, more than 400 leading entrepreneurs and investors and more than 150 domestic and foreign government officials and diplomats in China. Office of Science and Innovation (OSI) Beijing was very pleased to be invited to attend the opening ceremony as well as have the opportunity to participate in and follow some of the key sub-forums that are of relevance and interest for the Sweden-China bilateral cooperation. Here are a few key observations and reflections from the Forum that we would like to share with you.

ZGC Forum 2020 – A snapshot…

One of key messages from the Forum is ZGC’s high ambition for catching up with and aiming at the absolute scientific frontier. Four Nobel Laureates, in the fields of chemistry, medicine and physics were invited to give keynote speeches at the opening ceremony. With different academic backgrounds, their extraordinary devotion and their great achievement in science highlighted a common and profound belief: science is universal and borderless. We cannot meet global challenges without international collaboration in science.   

At the same time, the new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs, not least those who started their journey from ZGC, as well as large multinationals who are successful in China, are stepping up their efforts in science and innovation in a rapidly digitalised world and faced by more complex societal and induvial needs.

Finally, being the “testbed” for science and innovation policy, ZGC is, once again, making new efforts to “experiment” with new pilots and new initiatives. For instance:

  • Three-Year Action Plan for Accelerating the Development of the Fintech Innovation and Professional Services Demonstration Zone (2020-2022), launched by Beijing Municipality government.
  • Further development of the National New Generation AI Innovation Development Pilot Zones.

Global Innovation Hubs Index 2020 – New perspectives on competitiveness

While recognizing the progress made, the global benchmark and identifying both key successful factors and structural weakness are becoming increasingly important for China’s innovation ecosystems, incl. ZGC.

A new Global Innovation Hubs Index was launched at the ZGC-Forum, jointly developed by the Center for Industrial Development and Environment Governance at Tsinghua University and Nature Research.

A comparison among the 30 most successful innovation hubs, in forms of city or city cluster, in Asia, Europe and North America, incl. Beijing and Stockholm, was made, through 3 key headline indicators: science base, innovation capacity and ecosystem.     

Beyond the final ranking results, which probably are not the most interesting or essential in this context, we found the following conclusions truly important and interesting:

  • While all these three aspects are important for the success of innovation hubs, SCIENCE BASE, defined in terms of both research environment and access to top research talents is THE most important success factor.
  • When it comes to ecosystem, both OPENNESS and INCLUSIVENESS are the most essential cultural factors for developing top innovation hubs and are considered a particular strength of European innovation hubs.
  • DIGITAL ECONOMY is rapidly and fundamentally changing the competitive advantages of innovation hubs in Asia.

Interestingly, the policy development for further enhancing the innovation and business promotion capacity of China’s top-level science parks is very much in lines with these findings. Both the China National High-Tech Zone Open Innovation Development Report 2020 and the Innovation and Entrepreneurship International Cooperation Joint Action Initiative were launched at the Forum. ZGC, as one of the key participants of the Initiative, will contribute with its three major focus areas for future development:

  • Digital industrialization and industrial digitization to promote key technologies and breakthrough technologies in the digital field.
  • Integrate emerging and advanced technologies into the development of the real economy through interdisciplinary research and innovation development and implementing application scenario innovation.
  • New business and financing model development hand in hand with regulatory and governance development through exploring sandbox pilots for new business and financing models, focusing on privacy protection and tech and innovation governance.

Health, Health and Health – the key driver for future research, innovation and investment  

One of the most striking and clear messages from ZGC-Forum this year is the role of health as the key driver for research, innovation and investments.

The leading scientist in the fight against Covid 19, Prof. ZHONG Nanshan and one of the leading scientists behind the vaccine development Prof. CHEN Wei shared their experience from the battle against Covid 19 and their view on the future development of public health in China at the Forum.

At the sub-forum on “China Science and Innovation Investment Summit”, the health- related topics became a key focus and healthcare was considered as one of China’s most promising sectors for 2020 and beyond, given both the strong policy support as well as market interest.

From a research and innovation perspective, the integration of big data, digital technologies and life science have become a key development focus in China and has also attracted attention internationally.  At the sub-forum “Global Medicine and Health Big Data Forum”, the leading Chinese researchers in these fields provided a comprehensive overview of the on-going transformation in both personal healthcare and in the healthcare system, together with the ethics issues and concerns that need to be handled in such a transformation.      

Not only Smart, but also Sustainable – the Nordic Forum on Smart Cities and Eco-Governance

Alongside with health, digitalisation-empowered urbanisation will continue to be research and innovation hotspots, not least in a post-Covid-19 world. As the Vice Minister of Science and Technology, LI Meng shared and highlighted at the Forum, the following application scenarios could be particularly important for the future research and innovation development:

  • Develop National New Generation AI Innovation Development Pilot Zones as application scenario for challenge-driven research and innovation in an urban development context, for instance, related to transport and mobility, healthcare, education and other key fields of city development and governance.
  • Cultivate and develop emerging industries hand-in-hand with the development of AI-enabled cities as one of the key elements of high-quality development of the economy and the improvement of society and people’s life quality.
  • Explore new ways of urban governance and create an ecosystem for a responsible and healthy digitisation-empowered urbanisation.

When it comes to the last point on “new ways of urban governance”, the “Sino-Nordic Sustainable Development & Innovation Forum” was indeed spot-on! My colleagues from the embassies of Finland, Denmark and Norway shared Nordic policy experience in the fields of smart and sustainable cities. Research institutes and universities from both the Nordic and the Chinese sides presented how both basic and applied research are playing an instrumental role in urban transformation. Also, Nordic companies, such as Nokia, Valmet, NIVA and Danfoss, not only shared their success in home markets, but also their experience and insights in the Chinese market as well as from the perspective of Sino-Nordic cooperation.     

Invited by the organizer of the Forum, Hangxing Science Park, OSI-Beijing took part in and moderated the panel discussion on “Smart Cities with Digitalization and Eco-Governance” with an excellent panel of representatives from IVL, Scania and Disperator as well as the Embassy of Norway and the Environment Development Center on the Chinese side. “Eco-governance” is a concept developed by Swedish experts who have been engaged in sustainable urbanization in international markets, with a specific focus on both breaking down the “silos” in governance and cooperation as well as on encouraging citizens’ engagement in the sustainable urban transformation.  With rich experience in policy processes as well as system-oriented experience in the fields of wastewater treatment, food waste reduction and transport and mobility, both in Nordic countries and in China, the panel discussion really tried to shed lights on how “eco-governance” can be further concretized in a Sino-Nordic cooperation context and how the interaction between system- oriented and digitalization-empowered “eco-governance” and business model development can be achieved. 

A few thoughts from the Forum that we bring into our future monitoring of China’s STI policy…

The research and innovation landscape is a fast-changing one, driven by new knowledge, new needs, competition – and changes around us and in various global contexts. It is not a secret that today’s global research and innovation landscape and today’s ZGC are quite different, compared to what the start-up guru Steve Blank saw when he was here in 2016.

In reacting to the emerging trends, both encouraging and challenging ones as well as truly and deeply motivated by the need for structural reforms and upgrading, China’s policy development as well as market dynamics for research and innovation development will be different. This what we saw and felt from the ZGC-Forum this year. Both the overarching framing as well as specific measures and details will be clarified in the forthcoming process of the 14th Five Year Plan as well as the 2nd Medium – and Long-Term Development Plan for Science and Technology. We can, nevertheless, already now see that the following deepening and balance could play a key and defining role in China’s future science and innovation development:

  • High-quality growth needs to be supported by high-quality openness, i.e. deepening international cooperation will be the key direction. But the more pressing questions is how – from a long-term and mutual benefit perspective.
  • Deepening the integration of basic research and innovation as one key measure for promoting high-quality and high-impact diffusion and scale-up. We see a clear interest from both the academia and the business sector.
  • Balance between the speed of innovation development and the capacity of governance and regulations to safeguard the public and the citizens’ interests and rights.
  • Balance between cooperation and competition and, in this context, a convincing narrative on “independence” and openness will be instrumental for defining China’s future innovation system and its interactions with the global innovation community.

A lot more to watch and a lot more to reflect on…

Nannan Lundin, Linnea Yang and Jessica Zhang