China is setting the bar we need to jump over

(a post written for the Connecticut Innovations Blog at www.ctinnovations.com)

Special thanks to my friend Peter Longo for giving an outsider a chance to provide commentary on the Connecticut Innovations blog. As you may know, in my role as president and CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council (CTC), a business trade association speaking for the 3,000 technology oriented firms in the state, I have been a consistent supporter and fan of CI over the past five years. For more information about our organization and position please visit our website and my regular blog at www.ct.org.

CTC has long made the recapitalization of CI’s funds a major part of our annual legislative agenda. We have also encouraged CI leaders over the past few years to focus more of their funding on seed and early-stage investments. So, it is with satisfaction and admiration that we congratulate CI for securing new money from the state and for initiating a series of programs and efforts to invest more funds in startup firms.

I write this contribution to the Connecticut Innovations blog just a few days after returning from three weeks of touring in China. While you were wilting under the bad news of declining stock markets, ballooning state deficits and a presidential campaign that seems to involve partisans shouting back and forth about the costs of new wardrobes and who sat near whom on community not-for-profit boards, I was wandering through the gleaming towers and new gated communities of Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an getting a ringside seat for the new China and its high-tech society. It is hard not to think that Connecticut, and all of America, even in tough times, should make a greater investment in technology and innovation-based growth as part of our national economic development strategies. Compare the hope we have of soon completing a dedicated bus-way from New Britain to Hartford with the Shanghai Maglev train cruising by at 275 miles per hour.

Still, while it is easy to say how great China is and how complacent the United States has become, we are still several generations ahead in most areas. One can’t ignore that 600 million people still live in poverty in China.

And yet, when one steps out of the gleaming Beijing Airport and into what seems like a strange time machine that combines the late 1950s American “sky-is-the-limit” attitude and explosion of infrastructure with the space-age images and toys of the early 21st century that surround you, it’s hard not to wish that Shanghai were Cleveland and foreigners were gawking at our skylines again. Shanghai and Beijing both look like something out of Futurama, especially when the lights go out and the Asian penchant for neon is evident on all their buildings, signs and even ships.

I think about the hope and optimism of our official China tour guide as he talked about the plans he has for educating his two-year-old daughter to be a successful, English-speaking manager of some creative process. He spoke with nuanced knowledge of the coming opportunities and challenges that his child’s generation will have as China shifts to become a leader in higher value-added and service industries and leaves low-cost manufacturing behind. Are we ready for this shift? Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of China is its governmental structures, philosophies and core belief systems. We have been brought up around the premise that democratic pluralism combined with free markets is the only “modern” way to manage a fully evolved people. Even postcommunist China must be hiding authoritarian militarism behind its consumer veneer, right? But if there, it was not evident. The Chinese look at our seeming inability to plan for our future, political food fights in the place of policy discussions and the power of special interests and wonder how we are going to keep building a society strong enough to be a confident partner and a growing market for their products. They worry about us and they are praying for a strong dollar as much as we are.

True, China does not have a democracy, and its people firmly believe that some majority tyranny is a reasonable tradeoff to keep their society moving forward. But they are fiercely proud that their leaders are among the smartest people in their society. In their eyes you should graduate number one in civil engineering from Cal Tech before you even think about running for president.

We are different from the Chinese. The closing gap of youth, culture, cars, media and architecture notwithstanding, this will not change for many decades. Still, it behooves us to look at the role we expect to play in the world and think about how to tune our economic development systems – and the roles of groups like Connecticut Innovations and Connecticut Technology Council — to make sure that America remains a worthy partner for the giant economic dragon across the Pacific.

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