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1 Connecting Commerce Business confidence in China s digital environment A report from The Economist Intelligence Unit Written by

2 China is probably the number two startup environment in the world, after Silicon Valley. This opinion belongs to Bin Luo, the recently retired CEO in Residence of Microsoft Accelerator. If that seems like an overstatement, Mr Luo is not the only one holding this view. It is shared by some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have been spending time in the Chinese capital. 1 There is more to a digital transformation environment than start-up activity. Large, established businesses face more challenges in digitising their operations than start-ups, which are more likely Figure 1: Overall barometer readings China cities Score (out of 10) Rank (out of 45) to be native to the online environment. Firms of all sizes need external help of one sort or another to push through their digital initiatives, and the first place they will look for it is the city environment in which they operate. Executives based in clearly think they will find it there: confidence levels in the surrounding digital environment are higher than in all but four other cities in the world. Business confidence is also high elsewhere in China; it is only slightly lower in, and and also figure in the global top 20 based on their barometer readings. is probably the number two start-up environment in the world, after Silicon Valley. - Bin Luo, the recently retired CEO in Residence of Microsoft Accelerator in Mr Luo believes s principal advantages over other cities in Asia and further afield lie in three areas: government support, availability of funding, and education. You cannot find the same government endorsement of and commitment to digital innovation as exists in China, and especially in, he says. This extends to support of tech startups as well as encouragement of larger businesses (or pressure, in the case of state-owned enterprises) to digitise their operations. And companies looking to finance their digital projects can do this relatively easily in, he adds. When it comes to venture capital firms, Mr Luo says, Decisions are made faster here than almost anywhere else in the world. Also, few cities can match s wealth of universities and technical schools, continuously feeding local talent pools with skilled graduates th th th th Mr Luo s assessment of s strengths as a digital innovation hub, especially for start-ups, is supported by Startup Genome, a San Francisco-based think-tank that each year publishes its own ranking of tech start-up ecosystems. Its 2017 study ranks fourth in the world, similarly citing the large amounts of private and government funding available, its talent pools and a fast-growing support infrastructure in the form of accelerators, incubators and co-working spaces. The city boasts the second largest population of unicorns (start-ups valued at over US$1bn) in the world, the study notes. also earns a spot in the report s top tier, ranking eighth in the world 2. 1 See, for example, Cyrier Redding, After three weeks in China, it s clear is Silicon Valley s only true competitor, Recode, May 13, Startup Genome, Global Startup Ecosystem Report Telstra Connecting Commerce The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited

3 Figure 2: Digital skills most needed by organisations to support their digital transformation initiatives 44% 21% 43% 63% of respondents in (the same as in ) say the city is very or generally effective at equipping students with the technical skills. 26% 20% 24% 34% 19% 43% Big data analytics skills Digital security skills Change management skills We take a closer look below at the views of business executives (representing firms of different sizes) in,, and of how supportive their respective local environments are to their digital transformation efforts. Educating the workforce Respondents in all four cities give reasonably high marks to local universities, institutes and schools for their ability to equip students with technical skills. This is particularly the case in, where nearly seven in 10 executives say local institutions are effective in this regard. In, which boasts more than 30 of China s top universities and many more technical institutes and colleges, as well as a large number of scientific research institutes, 63% of respondents (the same as in ) provide a rating of very or generally effective. This does not however mean that the schools are keeping up with demand, or are training students in the more advanced disciplines needed by local firms. In all four cities, executives say their needs are currently strongest for people with big data analytical skills, along with those having expertise in cyber security fields. Mr Luo believes that the educational institutions still focus excessively on old school technical skills (such as programming in dated coding languages) to the exclusion of more advanced areas such as analytics and how to work with software and platforms in the cloud. This may help explain why talent and skills shortages are viewed as the single toughest challenge businesses operating in each of the Chinese cities face, in pursuing their own digital transformation programmes. Innovation ecosystems The ecosystems that support digital innovation are booming in China s cities (in, for example, the number of co-working spaces reportedly doubled in 2016 to nearly 500), and businesses are making extensive use of them to advance their digital initiatives. Start-ups naturally make considerable use of accelerators and incubators to get their projects off the ground, and large organisations take advantage of these as well. Mr Luo notes that big private-sector companies, multinationals and even state-owned enterprises have established accelerators and co-working spaces of their own, with the hope of incubating innovative ideas they can use internally or identifying future unicorns. The survey shows that companies make frequent use of innovation labs and centres (especially in and ) and incubators and accelerators (particularly in and ). Manufacturing the future As befits a country where three decades of rapid economic expansion have been fuelled by a manufacturing boom, the central government is pinning high hopes on digital innovation in industry to fuel the next stages of growth. The national Made in China 2025 strategy calls for major investments in Industry 4.0 technologies, such as robotics and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Innovation from start-ups and other small research outfits is expected to make a contribution, and a support infrastructure to nurture such activity is growing in China s cities, with being a focal point. The special economic zone (SEZ) has become the world capital for hardware entrepreneurs, declared The Economist in April The most prominent of such support structures is the Hax Accelerator, established in in 2012 by two US entrepreneurs. It has spawned start-ups in fields such as robotics, 3D printing, sensor technology, bionics and medical devices. Another is Airmaker, an accelerator with strong Singapore connections focusing on innovation in IoT technologies. Co-working spaces are also sprouting across the city, attracting individual hardware innovators and makers designers of mostly consumer devices looking for help in prototyping, initial manufacture and distribution of their new products. An example is Trouble Maker, established in 2016 by another group of expats who operate similar spaces in Europe and Asia. The foreign connections of the aforementioned structures highlight a unique feature of the startup scene. The central government hopes all this entrepreneurial activity helps establish Chinese leadership in advanced manufacturing, but s ecosystem is also a magnet for foreign entrepreneurs. Start-ups founded by US, Canadian and European expats have emerged out of Hax, for example, and Trouble Maker attracts inventors from Myanmar, South Korea, other parts of Asia, the US and Europe, as well as from China itself. The combination of abundant financing available (from crowdfunding platforms as well as venture capital firms), the existence of ready-made networks of manufacturing expertise and an expat-friendly environment is proving an attractive proposition for industry innovators from far and wide. The national Made in China 2025 strategy calls for major investments in Industry 4.0 technologies, such as robotics and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). 3 Ibid. 4 is a hothouse of innovation, The Economist, April 8, Telstra Connecting Commerce The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited

4 What types of inputs do companies obtain from these? Often the benefits take the form of ideas for new products or services. Given the shortage of skilled digital specialists, it is not surprising that firms often come looking for potential recruits, or referrals to talent available elsewhere. Tips about where data can be found are another item of value that companies obtain from their local ecosystems. Figure 4: The most valuable inputs obtained from external groups 36% 34% 28% 39% 36% 55% 38% 34% 25% 26% Figure 3: The most helpful external groups in assisting firms digital transformation efforts New ideas for products or services Referrals to sources of data Referrals to potential sources of talent 38% 35% Innovation labs & centres 22% 49% Business associations & events 37% 19% 40% 45% Incubators /accelerators Referrals to data are important to businesses not only because data is the new oil the base upon which all new business models are formed. It is partly because Chinese companies have not enjoyed the extent of access to open government data that firms in North America and Europe have. Data made available by city governments (for example, about traffic patterns, weather, air quality or use of healthcare facilities) is important to organisations in all four Chinese cities, most survey respondents in each say, and many of them make periodic (or more) use of what is made available. A majority of respondents in and, and nearly half in, think their city government makes poor use of the data they collect, although their peers in are more complimentary about the local authorities efforts. Mr Luo acknowledges that municipal governments in China are behind those in the West in this regard, but he believes access to public data is improving, particularly in. No room for complacency As extensive as China s digital ecosystems have become in recent years, and as positive as business executives are about the support these provide, the same executives clearly demand improvement. Beyond better access to government data, they think their city governments can play a more constructive role in ensuring businesses have the ICT infrastructure they need to meet their digital objectives. The majority in every city also believe co-ordination should improve between national and local government programmes to support digital innovation. In any event, they are convinced that the city government s role in supporting their digital transformation is more important than that of the central government, and will grow in importance in the coming years. Should they manage to address the challenges in the environment business leaders have identified, China s digital ecosystems should be buzzing for a long time to come. 6 Telstra Connecting Commerce The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited

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