Asia is full of opportunity for Fourth Industrial Revolution innovators

It’s only been a few weeks into 2018 and the year is already fizzing with energy. The dominant image to date is thankfully a positive one: a cherry-red Tesla drifting improbably into space. The simultaneous booster landings were equally impressive and a likely game-changer; the moment when Mars felt just that bit closer.

You could say we are now living in Muskian times, defined by the “impossible” – the what if. We are peering into a new world of opportunity: the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This is good news for Brits who have given the world innovative leaps forward throughout the ages. We invented the telephone, toothbrush, toilet, steam engine, jet engine, sewage system, computer, television, railway, world wide web, ATM and Timmy Mallett. In other words, much of the modern world.

We do creativity and innovation very well (while other nations successfully “monetise” our efforts – after all, where would Apple be today without Sir Jonathan Ive?). Where our curiosity comes from, our universities aside, I have no idea. Maybe it’s our richly diverse nation. Maybe it’s the awkward weather – a case of more bugger-it thinking than blue-sky thinking. Maybe it’s our wildly contrasting landscape, inspiring us to dream.

Now we find ourselves rushing headlong into a new world, shaped not only by progress in individual areas like artificial intelligence, robotics and big data but moreover a blurring of these, or a connecting of the dots, that will give rise to unprecedented changes in how we live, work, play and learn – if such distinctions still apply. What would 3D-printed self-driving cars in a smart city look like, for example, as we’re ferried to our co-working spaces? And that’s assuming we’re all still working.

Furthermore, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be characterised not only by technological fusions but fusions of a different variety, in the form of cross-sector and cross-cultural collaborations.

I suppose it’s the logical next step coming years after globalisation and the internet connected the world for the first time in human history (that would be the Third Industrial Revolution). Tribes are brought together – virtual touch paper lit – resulting in the emergence of new paradigms and ideas. This is good timing, as pressing global challenges from climate change to rapidly ageing societies demand “out of the box” thinking.

Arguably, Vanilla Ice saw these days coming with his prescient 1990 words “Stop! Collaborate and listen. Ice is back with my brand new invention.” But I suspect even he doesn’t know what lies in wait for humanity.

We know what a world with smartphones looks like (glassy-eyed commuters hunched over a bright slab), but whatever comes next will probably take us all by surprise. We think we know, but really we don’t. The world moves in mysterious ways. After all, Concorde was a world-beating aircraft and look where it is today – parked forlornly on the Heathrow apron like an umbrella left forgotten on a Paddington bench.

But what is certain is that there is demand for world-class British ingenuity, in a collaborative context. It’s not just cultural exports like Shaun the Sheep proving popular, but our experience in areas such as AI, smart cities, aerospace, space, fintech, design, esports, and more.

Here’s an example: China is rapidly urbanising and people are living longer. Brits are good at design, including designing stuff for older generations; we have strong smart city credentials, making cities more inclusive and liveable; and we are doing great work in digital health. If you’re good at designing products that bring lifelong benefits to all of society, for example, there’s a natural fit right there in China.

This is all a very long way of saying that all this and more will be discussed at the GREAT Festival of Innovation in Hong Kong this week, an event that will see very influential people from Britain and Asia in government, industry and education talk about world-changing advances from satellite technology to cybersecurity and how they will impact our lives.

Disclosure: I’m providing comms support alongside brilliant colleagues, but this personally inspires me (as I’m sure it will inspire many of you) and I’m writing in a personal capacity.

Reading about some of the things that our innovators and entrepreneurs do, I’m in awe. They’re quite brilliant. Like Small Robot Company, which replaces big tractors with small robots through a ‘Farming as a Service’ model. Why didn’t I, coming from a town excelling in robotics and surrounded by farms, think of that? Is my coffee not strong enough? (It also feels highly symbolic; it was the agrarian revolution, after all, that preceded the first industrial revolution.)

Topics at the festival will include the workplaces of the future, where tomorrow’s aircraft could take us, smart cities, the future of travel, green infrastructure, storytelling, esports, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and much more. The Belt and Road Initiative will also be on the agenda.

Around 10 years ago, the world changed in a series of pivotal events – the Financial Crisis, the birth of the iPhone, the rise of Facebook and the emergence of the millennial. We appear to find ourselves again at another juncture. Let’s make the most of it in ways that benefit us all.

Why 2018 is the year to get on WeChat

Man using phone at railway line

Happy New Year!

While back in the UK over Christmas, I was a bit befuddled at the local Co-op when seeing my pound coins rejected as I paid for a Pain au Chocolat (a pastry that I highly recommend). I was told by the cashier that there were new pound coins now.

And sure enough there were: shiny round things happily joining our fancy new banknotes. Ok, that’s not entirely true. They were shiny bumpy round things. Round, but not quite. A bit like our planet.

The Bumpy Round Pound Coins, featuring 12 sides, are such a departure from the old, somewhat heavier, version that they are described as a “big leap” by the Royal Mint’s chief engraver in a lengthy page on Wired.

But as I admired the Big Leap Bumpy Round Pound Coins shining in my palm, I couldn’t help but think of China’s cashless revolution and how mobile apps were replacing their (not so shiny) money. Our leap was “big”. Their’s? (Don’t say Great Leap.)

WeChat is the darling of China’s cashless society, coming a long way since the time it was a mere casual dating app (give your phone a shake to discover a random person nearby, and erm..well, whatever happened next, happened next). It’s China’s answer to Facebook, which ironically also started life as a dating platform of sorts.

Now with more gizmos than the average 007 Aston Martin, WeChat continues to evolve. It probably won’t be long before China’s space command centre uses the app somewhere in its planned lunar landing.

WeChat’s popularity is such that The Guardian has noticed, with a piece on owner Tencent:

As the UK pivots east towards Asia, and possibly south towards Africa and maybe even Central Asia (and now I’m really making this up), WeChat is going to figure quite prominently in the coming years.

China is planning to build roads, railroads and, ah, sea roads in their trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, meaning that WeChat will have a role in all of these infrastructure projects – not just for chitchat but for sending and receiving money. That’s a big deal.

Anyone heading east to work in places like China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia will sooner or later have to install WeChat owing to the popularity of the app. Belt and Road will increase WeChat’s exposure further, so to these countries we can add Egypt, Kazakshstan, Kenya and Uzbekistan, among others.

And even if we don’t pack our bags, will will probably have to download it anyway when communicating with our farflung colleagues and business partners in Asia: WeChat is increasingly used for voice and video calls – rather like Skype.

Lest you start thinking this is a puff piece for WeChat, consider this: partly because of its versatility, WeChat is a tad complicated. It’s not as user-friendly as WhatsApp or Facebook (and I’m not getting started on WeChat for brands), and can feel quirky at times.

Which is another reason to start now – to get a feel for it before it takes off in earnest.

300 disadvantaged young people will have the chance to work in China

Great Wall of China

It might be snowing in the UK, but bilateral relations between Britain and China look warmer than ever.

A fifth high-level People-to-People Dialogue between the UK and China has led to the signing of 10 key agreements.

The “P2P Dialogue” (honestly, who comes up with these names?), an annual event with dignitaries from China and the UK, aims to promote collaboration in areas like health, education, culture, science and innovation, tourism and sport.

One such agreement, announced by UK Heritage Minister John Glen, was for a “Wall to Wall” collaboration between Hadrian’s Wall (73 miles) and the Great Wall of China (bigger than 73 miles), to strengthen international heritage partnerships and tourism. Top marks to whoever came up with the Wall to Wall idea – or should that be W2W?

But while the walls are symbols of the past (as majestic as they are), the future belongs to the young.

Education Secretary Justine Greening announced that the Generation UK-China scheme will be expanded to give twice as many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to take up internships in China from 2018.

Launched by the British Council in 2013, Generation UK – China aims to help students from the UK boost their employability, enhance their long-term job prospects, and develop a global mindset through study and work experience opportunities in China.

It’s exciting news indeed that young people from less represented backgrounds have the opportunity to travel further than they’d imagined.