Forecasting the future of innovation in Asia

Forecasting the future of innovation in Asia

Two weeks ago, I invested time and money in my own professional development. Prof. Dr. Sohail Inayatullah, one of the world’s leading futurists, was invited by the Change Initiative to run a Futures Foresight workshop in Bangkok. Apart from many other useful foresight tools, Dr. Sohail introduced a set of simple questions to create alternative and preferred futures. What are these powerful forecasting questions? And how do they play out if a group of innovation experts applies them to forecast the future of innovation in Asia in 2035?

1. What is the history of the issue? Counterintuitively, our first question investigates the future by looking back into the past. By examining where we’re coming from and how we got to where we are now, we establish a solid foundation to look ahead.

Case Application: While the history of innovation in Asia started centuries ago, our group focused on the past 50 years only. Among others, we identified three historic innovation themes:

  • While Western corporations largely dominated product-related innovations in the past 50 years, Japan led process-driven innovations that powered the rise of many Japanese companies in the 1970s to the late 1990s.
  • Since the turn of the millennium, South Korea has evolved into a globally influential new technology and entertainment hub.
  • In the last decade, new R&D facilities and innovation centers have mushroomed across Asia, set-up by Multinational and Asian corporations as well as Asian state agencies.


2. What do you think the future will be like? What are you afraid of? This question probes for our predictions as to where the issue is likely to head to in future. It allows us to offload our personal forecasts and fears related to the issue.

Case Application: “What do you think the future of innovation in Asia is going to be like in 2035?” Our group predicts the following:

  1. Led by large corporations, more capital-intensive, technology-driven innovation initiatives will predominantly take place in East Asia and India.
  2. Southeast Asian countries will excel in innovation focusing on health, wellness and lifestyle, food and beverages and fast-moving consumer goods.
  3. Asia will see a sharp rise in entrepreneurial and SME-driven innovations in future.

Possible fears are that systems-driven open innovation initiatives will dominate, particularly in China and India.


3. What are some of your assumptions about the projected or feared future? Future forecasts are always based on assumptions. It is important to get these critical assumptions out in the open.

Case Application: We listed these assumptions related to innovation in Asia 2035:

  • Asia will emerge as one of the world’s innovation hub alongside others.
  • Disruptive modern technologies (such as further digitalization or 3D-printing) will lead Asian business to shift from a managerial to an entrepreneurial society.
  • In 2035, innovation will still be people-driven and human-centered but technology-supported.
  • Open innovation will be one of many channels to source and develop ideas and solutions, particularly in systems-focused countries such as in China), but won’t be the Holy Grail of innovation.


4. What are the alternatives, the different scenarios? Next, we use these assumptions to envision alternative scenarios, including at least one that makes us feel uncomfortable.

Case Application: What alternative scenarios related to the future of innovation in Asia did we come up with?

  • “Corporate Asian Innovation 2035” is a continuation of current developments. In this scenario, Asian innovation will be largely driven by multinational or large Asian corporations using in-house innovation centres or  outside innovation expertise from specialized innovation companies.
  • “Entrepreneurial Asian Innovation 2035” will involve new entrepreneurial ventures and SMEs (set-up by tech-savvy millennials and meaning-searching Gen Y business drop-outs) to drive innovation in Asia. Such entrepreneurial innovation initiatives will often take place in self-organizing temporary networks that are project-driven, technology-empowered and method-based.
  • “Outsourced Asian Innovation 2035” describes a scenario in which cultural conflicts with traditional Asian values drive large Asian corporations to outsource all their innovation initiatives to specialized innovation companies and design agencies that can produce superior solutions to innovation challenges.
  • “Open Innovation Asia 2035” is our least favored (or “disowned”) scenario. Here, technology-driven open innovation systems are centrally managed by inhouse innovation managers or an external open innovation brokers, who coordinate innovation initiatives and crowd-source ideas.


5. What do you want the future to be like? Which future do you want? After listing assumptions and developing alternatives, question five allows us to envision our preferred future.

Case Application: Our forecasting group wants to see an Asian innovation renaissance in 2035, where large corporations and the new wave of Asian entrepreneurs and SMEs contribute equally. The innovation initiatives focus on human wants and needs, met by human innovation teams, not by anonymous open innovation systems. These diverse teams unite members from different disciplines, nations, and generations and use highly effective innovation methods and latest technology such as virtual reality to create meaningful innovations for specific innovation challenges that focus on increasing the quality of people’s lives and making the world a better place.


6. How did you get to the preferred future? Here, we “backcast” the way to our preferred future by listing the strategic actions that need to happen in five year time intervals to propel us towards our preferred future.

Case Application: What needs to happen to realize a corporate-driven and SME-driven Asian innovation renaissance? Among others, we need:

  • more flexible Asian immigration policies to attract top global talents;
  • a wide range of support mechanisms to promote new ventures and SME;
  • a shift of business education from an MBA to an MCI (master in creativity and innovation) or MCE (master in creative entrepreneurship); and
  • more academic institutes and government agencies that focus on on supporting creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.


Conclusion: What insights did I get out of the forecasting exercise? Among others, I realized that in the next 20 years entrepreneurial ventures are likely to become one important pillar to drive innovation in Asian economies. For my innovation company Thinkergy, this means creating solutions and programs to support the growing number of entrepreneurs, new ventures and Asian SMEs while continuing to serve the innovation needs of multinational and large Asian corporations.

But why is Asia likely to see a shift from a managerial society driven by “Asia Business Inc” to an entrepreneurial society driven by millions of new entrepreneurial ventures that we may call “Asia Business Me”? We will discuss this question in two weeks from now.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2015. This article is published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 17 September 2015.