Can Asia emulate Silicon Valley?

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Tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs talk with Google employees at a convention booth.
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Flickr/Kevin Lim

The city of Cupertino, California, is only about 15km from Stanford University, where I teach and live. It is home to the headquarters of Apple, a global leader in the computer and smartphone industries. It is also home to many Indian and Chinese engineers who are essential to Silicon Valley's technological innovation. One can easily find a variety of Asian restaurants and shops along the palm tree-lined streets -- an interesting Californian scene with a distinctly Asian flavor.

Many Asians -- businesspeople, officials and experts -- visit Silicon Valley hoping to unlock its secrets, to learn why it is such a hotbed of innovation. One known "secret" here, often overlooked by Asian visitors, is the importance of cultural diversity. More than half of the area's startups, including Intel, Yahoo, eBay and Google, were established by immigrants, and these companies owe much of their success to the contributions of Chinese and Indian engineers. Cultural diversity can be found throughout the schools, stores and streets, as well as the enterprises, there.

In Israel, too

The circumstances are quite similar in Israel, another economy known for technological innovation. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Israel admitted about 850,000 immigrants. More than 40 percent of the new arrivals were college professors, scientists and engineers, many of whom had abundant experience in research and development. These people played a critical role in promoting economic development and scientific and technological innovation in Israel. Many languages besides Hebrew can be heard on the streets of Tel Aviv, one of the country's largest cities.

It is no accident that Silicon Valley and Israel have become global high-tech centers. They opened their doors to a wide range of talented immigrants. Above all, an atypical sociocultural ecosystem -- a culture that respects and promotes the value of diversity -- is alive in both places.

In the United States, diversity is a key criterion in college admissions and faculty recruitment. Although "affirmative action" has disappeared in many parts of the country, diversity has come to play a key role in American university policies. Most American colleges, including Stanford, have a "diversity office" to promote diversity among students, faculty and staff. At Stanford, white students constitute less than 40 percent of the student body, and almost a quarter of the faculty come from minority groups. Similarly, only five of the 16 staff members at our Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center are Caucasian, with the rest from ethnic and national minorities.

 The same can be said of leading American corporations, many of which have institutionalized "diversity management" to capitalize on the range of individual differences and talents to increase organizational effectiveness. Of course, basic knowledge and skills are prerequisites. But Americans seem to firmly believe that having a variety of backgrounds and experiences can help hatch new ideas and innovative technologies. Perhaps this is why they say that culture accounts for 90 percent of the innovation in products from Silicon Valley, with technology claiming only 10 percent.

The power of diversity

Scott E. Page, professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan, shows in his book "The Difference" how "the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies." In his view, collections of people with diverse perspectives and heuristics outperform collections of people who rely on homogeneous ones, and the key to optimizing efficiency in a group is diversity. In this work, Page pays particular attention to the importance of "identity diversity," that is, differences in race, ethnicity, gender, social status and the like.

To be sure, Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea are different from settler societies such as the U.S. With the influx of foreigners, however, even such ethnically homogeneous Asian societies are becoming multiethnic. In addition to unskilled labor and foreign brides, the number of overseas students and professors is rising at Japanese and South Korean universities, while Japanese and South Korean companies are actively hiring foreign professionals. Both countries are opening their doors to foreigners, though in limited numbers, and have made multiculturalism a key policy objective.

Still, they fall far short of recognizing the value of diversity. While Japanese and South Korean institutes of higher learning have been trying to attract more foreign students, they have been doing so mainly to make up for the declining student population at home and because university ranking agencies use the ratio of foreign students and professors as a key yardstick for measuring internationalization. The approaches of these two countries to multiculturalism are also largely focused on assimilating foreigners into their own cultures and systems. People from abroad are seldom accepted as "permanent" members of their societies or regarded as valuable assets. Japan and South Korea may have become multiethnic, but they are not multicultural.

One of the biggest challenges facing foreign residents in Japan and South Korea is the lack of understanding of their religious and cultural beliefs. Indian engineers working in South Korea complain of the poor acceptance of Indians by the local population, and of an especially poor understanding of their religion and culture. Foreign professors teaching at Japanese universities tell me they live as "foreigners," never accepted into the "inner" circles. It is unlikely that these talented people would like to work long term for universities and enterprises that are unable to embrace differences in skin color and culture. Under these circumstances, even if some foreign professionals happen to be hired, they may not be able to realize the full potential of their abilities, let alone bring about innovation.

All these people with different ethnic and national backgrounds should no longer be regarded simply as "temporary" residents to fill particular needs. Rather, by promoting the cultural diversity of Japanese and South Korean society, they should be viewed as important assets and potential sources of innovation. It is an urgent but difficult task to institutionalize the value of diversity in societies long accustomed to the notion of a single-race nation.

Born on campuses

A country's global competitiveness can hardly be improved if its society is reluctant to respect differences and understand other groups. Universities, in particular, should help their students experience diversity through the regular curriculum and extracurricular activities. Foreign students can serve as excellent resources for promoting diversity. Universities are ideal settings for various groups of students to meet, generate new ideas and interact with one another. It is no accident that many of the innovative ideas associated with Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook were all born on American university campuses, where diversity is embraced.

Empirical research should be carried out to examine how cultural diversity can bring about technological innovation in Japanese and South Korean society. Based on such studies, governments and private enterprises should take into account diversity in personnel hiring, training, management and evaluation. These same institutions should also systematically work to create and support an organizational culture that values diversity.

Could those Indian and Chinese engineers working in Silicon Valley have brought about the same kind of technological innovation if they had remained in their own countries? Could they accomplish the same feat in Japan and South Korea? How can Asian countries create the kind of ecosystem necessary for promoting a flexible culture of accommodating a broad spectrum of talents? We first need to reflect deeply on these questions before trying to emulate the success of Silicon Valley.

 

Shin recently coauthored the paper, "Embracing Diversity in Higher Education: Comparing Discourses in the U.S., Europe, and Asia" with Yonsei University Professor Rennie J. Moon. It is one outcome of their research project, Diversity and Tolerance in Korea and Asia. This Nikkei Asian Review article was originally carried on Nov. 20 and reposted with permission.