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Copycat China is urban folklore

Published: 
Sunday, November 5, 2017

Along the old silk roads, caravans of snow-white porcelain vases, red sea pearls, lapis lazuli, myrrh, coriander, rugs, tapestries, precious stones, religious codes, perfumery, paper, dyes, slaves, literature, fashion, ornaments, ledgers, engineering, legal systems and medicines journeyed and shrank the known world before the eyes of the imperial courts in Chang’an.

To guarantee the protected passage of ideas and artefacts, the Chinese built a string of barracks connected with stone walls. Once they were Naipaulian Mimic Men but today, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are at the heart of a mature hardware ecosystem erected for gadget inventors, entrepreneurs, top-flight factories, kitchen table designers, mentoring from angels, venture capital pools, software accelerators,electronics markets and hacker spaces that accept fees like western gym memberships giving access to prototyping tools. Here they configure designs that plug into China’s first-class manufacturing system that satisfies the liquid capitalist lust for luxury in the West.

In hacker spaces, tinkerers fashion cutting-edge sensors and when the cost plummets to a few cents they scatter them across every known device. They know that the imagination is not fragile. It feeds on flaws, failures and frustrations. They want to fail fast and fail often in order to take a sensational product to market swiftly. Here, university spin-offs play a pivotal role in building capability. Copycat China is urban folklore. These cities are global foreign-talent attractors and Chinese inventors have attended Ivy League institutions everywhere.

In China, education failure points to evidence of learning. Failure is not an indicator of inability. Insulating learners from failure removes the coal of creativity. Ideas appear serendipitously; but to bring them to market requires patient work on latent weaknesses across tiny failures with slight steps. The creative power of failure has not escaped their classrooms. If failure sparks creativity, then the moment of insight emerges from the attempt to bridge the problem with previously disconnected ideas.

Epiphanies arise sometimes incognito, that is, when the problem is abandoned. However, post-epiphany tasks require disciplined focus taking incremental steps in a particular direction, with testing and retesting after each step, failing and returning to the prototype to make changes based on feedback from tests. Most of the time is spent in failing, modifying and testing.

Netflix designed, modified and tested until they made a product based on (1) a closed-loop system, (2) personalisation, (3) an asset-sharing model like Airbnb, (4) a usage-based pricing model, (5) innovations along the supply chain, and (6) a flat model of decision making that makes the company agile. Eventually, Blockbuster was literally ‘out of the picture’. No accumulation of small, disciplined steps to reach the optimum point, with testing after each step, could save Blockbuster. Blockbuster was climbing to a summit that had been abandoned by its customer base. Netflix had reimagined the market.

A pedagogy that nurtures the imagination must allow for the emergence of the unforeseen and embrace failure as we work to make a world which we continue to imagine into being. After all, the future of work is awaiting a connecting agent with the grit to forage off flaws and failures.

Such a pedagogy allows the learner to see the gestalt as well as the fine details in the margins. We learn by being correct, as well as by being wrong. Teaching wide awake is to become conscious of our evolving experiences and to be aware of the ways in which we encounter the world and our landscape. It is through education that we provoke the learner to reach beyond themselves and to become mindful, not mindless.

If the everyday world is bracketed out along with the realm of imaginative possibility, then children may never relate the outstretched branches of a Samaan tree to the freedom of imagination Gaudi released to design his tree-like columns of his mournful basilica, La Sagrada Família, with arches that melt foam and drip into foliage. Or perhaps our children may never wonder how butterflies produce the array of structural colours using translucent scales or where dragonflies sleep at night.