Why Chinese Companies Are Looking to Design to Drive Growth

December 5, 2017, 7:20 AM UTC

With the recent slowdown of China’s economy, Chinese companies and the government are increasingly turning to design and innovation to power the country’s next stage of growth.

That’s according to Charles Hayes, partner and executive managing director of innovation consultancy firm IDEO in Asia. Hayes spoke about harnessing the power of design for business at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech International Conference in Guangzhou, China on Tuesday.

During the Industrial Revolution, the concept of design emerged as a way to create and style products that facilitated mass production and consistency when distributing to global markets. These days, particularly with the advent of digital solutions, design is no longer considered an add-on to businesses but a fundamental factor that is creating disruption and adding complexity to the way companies think about designing products, services and experiences, Hayes said.

In China, in particular, there was, “a perception of innovation as a challenge to the old order, a challenge to authority, and this might be seen to be in conflict with Chinese culture,” Hayes observed. The Chinese CEOs that IDEO consults for, however, have increasingly shown a shift in thinking of their role “not as the person at the center who has answers to everything and can predict future, but someone who is good at asking the right questions and enabling people to deliver on answering that question.”

To cater to this growing interest, IDEO is working with both the finance and art and design schools of Beijing’s Tsinghua University to develop an education program for Chinese executives that will accept its first cohort in January.

“Besides looking at a top-down strategy to recognize the power of design in organizations, the other side is to encourage a bottom-up look by promoting educational and traditional design craft, and introducing design thinking into engineering or MBA programs, where people don’t think of themselves as designers in the traditional sense of the word,” said Hayes.

There are “many Chinas” when it comes to business innovation, Hayes said, with different sectors pioneering different concepts or products. For that reason, innovation in the country shouldn’t be measured on a single spectrum.

“DJI is world-leading in their category of consumer drones,” Hayes said. “The Alibabas, Tencents and Baidus started as digital natives and have been driving innovation in spaces like e-commerce and the seamless integration of the physical and digital.”

Therefore, executive teams must be given the power and trust to create a more agile organization that can capture the pulse of the market and iterate at its speed, according to Hayes. “The challenge is when there is a senior decision maker who needs to approve every move, because the digital age doesn’t work that way,” Hayes said.