I was speaking to a group of Merrill Lynch's highest net-worth clients recently when a question shot from the audience: "What's the most innovative country in the world?" Another panelist onstage with me, CEO Geoff Vuleta of strategy firm Fahrenheit 212, quickly made his case for India. The editor of Wired, Chris Anderson, argued that no single country mattered as much as the growing impact of cross-border collaborations.
My answer is a little complicated. On the one hand, I can't so quickly dismiss the U.S. from the equation. The flood of new ideas that we see, from Silicon Valley to South Beach, continues to amaze me (propelled, often, by creative talent that's immigrated to this country). But I'm also fascinated by China. The pace of change there has been extraordinarily brisk. And while just a slim portion of the population may be engaged in innovative activity, the scale is so enormous that the impact is awesome.
Which brings us to the Year of the Rabbit (2/3/11 to 1/22/12). During this year, we will bring you regular coverage of the wave of innovation inside China. In this issue, Beijing-based April Rabkin, who wrote our profile of Chinese media queen Yang Lan last fall ("A Star in the East," September), takes us inside China's booming social networks, Renren and Kaixin001 — not just the businesses but also the students and young professionals who use the sites and dominate China's emerging innovation culture. And Jeremy Goldkorn handicaps other Chinese Internet sites, from YouTube knockoff Youku to Amazon-like Dangdang.
Our strategic approach to China coverage is considered: We know that most Chinese businesses have no interest in cooperating with Western journalists, in part because of cultural differences and in part because publicity holds little advantage to them (with products geared to a domestic, rather than international, market). That's why a small group of the same Chinese business leaders appear over and over in the Western press: They are the few who make themselves available.
Our goal is to deliver a more intimate peek at the on-the-ground reality of working and innovating in China. Of course, any effort to sum up an entire country — particularly one the size of China — will be limited. After all, we present multiple articles each issue on U.S. innovation yet would never claim to be comprehensive. In a place with the scope of China, our efforts are even more an approximation. Still, we hope to give readers a new window into a part of the world that — no matter how much we read about it, or visit in person — presents constant new discoveries.
The real question we should be asking is not, Which country is the most innovative? but rather, Wherever innovators are, what can we learn from them?
A version of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.