Asia, the Emerging Clean Tech Innovation Hub?

Europeans have been patting themselves on the back for years for the strides they have made in renewable energy technology and other innovations. The United States, well . . . we say we can hold our own, and the evidence suggests that Silicon Valley could well be the key driver for a new technology revolution. After all, the area south of San Francisco that went from growing apricots to growing Apple has seen a surge in new innovations, from smart grid to disruptive technologies in solar. Many entrepreneurs are attracted to Santa Clara County, with its access to smart engineers and venture capital money—not to mention the great weather, quality of life, and can-do spirit that renews itself just when everyone presumes that area as dead.

Asia in many ways has been seen as a laggard. It had been a region that was adept at taking technologies and products from other lands, fine-tuning them, and then turning around and improving them while selling them at a lower cost. Japan and its concept of kaizen embodied this spirit. A 90-minute flight away, Korea was once the land that held title as the world’s number one producer of second-rate goods. China was the world’s factory, India was a place to engage in some business process outsourcing, and Singapore was a great place to build a factory with minimal government interference. Silicon Valley, meanwhile, reigned supreme as innovation central. But all assumptions, however, eventually come to an end, and of course, what is assumed is not necessarily true.

As Scott Anthony has explained, Asia is transforming itself into the new hub of innovation. Japan has had its stupor for the past generation, but still churns out new technologies, whether its mobile broadband, new photovoltaic inverters, or LED bulbs. Korea is electronics king, broadband central, shows potential in biotech innovations like polylactic acid (PLA), and its government is committing 2% of its GDP to clean energy research. China claims it will invest $US 1 trillion in clean technology over the next decade. Singapore is providing seed capital for small firms.

As Anthony explains, Asia has not realized its full innovation potential, but it is fairly close to leading the race—and this also applies to the (broadly defined) clean technology sector—if the region makes a few tweaks. First, its companies need to focus less on finding ways to snag market share from its Western competitors, and more on methods to tap into markets where consumers traditionally have been shut out because of cost or because products are just too complicated. Some entrepreneurs I featured last Friday, for example, are developing goods that could become widely scalable, and at a reasonable price, while mitigating our effects on the planet. Next, funding opportunities besides friends and family on one end, and large venture capitalists on another extreme, must exist. Anthony explains it is an all or nothing approach—a small company needs funding options like angel investors or incubators like that in Singapore or in far-off Sweden. Korea, for example, has seen its innovation stifled because of the power weilded by its conglomerates, or chae-bol. Finally, government needs to behave as a partner, not as an obstacle—and education needs more emphasis on innovation and creativity instead of rote memorization to pass an exam.

The change is already underway. Many entrepreneurs choose to stay home in Asia instead of attending business school in the USA or Europe because the higher education options are improving. And the Internet makes for the sharing of ideas easier.

It is easy to point a finger at China and India and shout that those countries are the cause or the biggest threat to the planet because of their large populations, or to state the dangers resulting from their potential for consumption as its population overall becomes more affluent. But do not be surprised if in a decade if these two nations lead instead of being lectured at. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention: and when resources are scarce, many of us are pushed to come up with technologies and processes that will allow for their effective use.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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