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For years, China has been perceived as a nation that relied more on imitation and copycatting than on innovation for economic growth. It appeared to many that China was getting its best ideas working with companies based elsewhere, and there continue to be frequent accusations that its manufacturers don’t respect intellectual property laws. While its high-volume, low-cost manufacturing prowess was never questioned, the line on China has been that it could not compete when it came to innovation.
Those days seem to be behind us. In the 21st century, China is emerging as a leader in many new technologies — especially those related to mobility. The Chinese government has pledged to convert the nation into an international innovation leader by 2030, but in many ways the nation has already reached that status, certainly when it comes to electric vehicles, batteries, drones, and high-speed rail.
Today, China is not only the biggest producer of electric vehicles (EVs) by far, it is also a leader in lithium-ion battery technology that powers EVs as well as smartphones and other mobile devices. Batteries are the power storage of the future as the world moves relentlessly toward the electrification of transportation, and while China controls 60% of the world’s production of lithium-ion batteries and nearly half of the world’s global lithium production, it is also hard at work trying to advance them and developing substitutes that could be cheaper and less combustible.
Silicon Valley East
On multiple fronts, Silicon Valley and other U.S. tech hubs are evenly matched — or trailing behind — the imagination and technical prowess of Chinese companies. As one example, Chinese drone producers are well ahead of competitors in the development of autonomous systems for personal mobility, according to a 2018 World Economic Forum report. A Chinese-Austrian joint venture recently debuted a pilotless air taxi in Vienna that it said it would start producing in 2020.
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China also announced its intention to build a national innovation center for high-speed rail in Qingdao and has been actively exploring trackless trams, a cross between a bus and a streetcar that runs on rubber tires. Autonomous versions of high-speed rail have also been in testing for the last two years.
According to a study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, China has closed the gap between itself and the U.S.