In 2003 I decided to spend the rest of the day visiting the Forbidden City after making a presentation in Beijing. Beijing then was in the midst of a building boom with impressive architecture rising all around the city. Touring the grounds of the Forbidden City, I could not help noticing the brand of American Express everywhere. As a sponsor of the palace museum, its logo was on every sign that provided an exhibit explanation. I turned a corner to a Starbucks cafe. Leaving the museum to go towards Tiananmen Square, I witnessed a young couple in love and kissing passionately like Italians. It was a strange experience, like I was in the US even though I was at the heart of Chinese civilisation.

Made possible by the American Express Company. Photo: jamesjustin.com

Over the years, this thought continue to haunt me at every turn. Does the rise of Asia mean increased westernisation and decreased confidence in Asia’s own ideas? Every subsequent forum I attended, with topics spanning innovation, marketing or business, tends to be about learning tactics from the West and applying them in Asia to achieve success quickly. It seems like an unstoppable train of implementing ideas without purpose. Our cities and businesses are growing at a tremendous pace without realising their impact on our development as a region.

As the globe shifts towards a new world order, what kind of Asia will emerge? An Asia rich in resources but poor in ideas or an Asia ready with ideas for sustainable development? For the latter to happen, we need more innovative Asian companies. Past trends showed that the economic rise of a nation does not necessarily result in the rise of more innovative companies. China’s economy may have risen in leaps and bounds but compared to South Korea, it still lacks leading innovative companies.

Today companies such as Apple and Nestle are more powerful than nations and religions because they directly influence and affect how we interact and use resources. According to Bloomberg, 8 of the top 10 largest companies in the world by market value are based in the US and four are there because of technology or innovation. The sole Asian company in the list is in commodities, PetroChina. This is a clear indication that in a knowledge-based economy, the western companies, many of them American, are in a strong position to shape the direction of the new economy. As the combination of software, design and engineering continue to disrupt industries, more Asian companies need to go into this space.

Though many Asian companies excel at managing and delivery, they still lack the ability and openness to apply innovation in their proceses. The Singapore government understands this limitation among Singaporean companies and the latest programme that helps Singapore companies to reduce reliance on foreign workers is focused on productivity and not about inventing products and ideas for the future. Most of Singapore’s wealth comes in the form of providing services and support to the global economy. In comparison, a small state like Switzerland have more companies in innovation and design. Innovation is the only way to ensure economic security as we will be at the top end of the value chain, providing higher-paying jobs and attracting better talents.

Unfortunately, not many business leaders recognise that we will be out-innovated by the West. Innovation is not something that you can buy; it needs to be created and sustained by a culture which supports it. If we continue out-sourcing innovation to the West and remain as reliable contractors, the future is an Asia that is manufactured in the East but powered by Western software. Much like the iPhone.

That was why we decided to initiate the Shape the World conferences; to point out this emerging disparity in terms of innovation and offer solutions to help the next generation of Asian firms think deeper about their purpose and innovate.

The following are tracks where we hope to provoke action:

Thinking Track 1: What impact will it have on the world if Asian companies remain as reliable contractors while Western companies continue to invent the future?

Thinking Track 2: How can we nurture ambitious minds to build companies rather than aim to sell out to the highest bidder?

Thinking Track 3: What is the impact on the global economy if Asian state-owned enterprises continue to dominate the economic scene and minimise the growth of the private sector?

Thinking Track 4: How can we nurture a creative and inventive culture to encourage more innovation in Asian organisations?

This year’s conference theme is “What is Asia’s brand of leadership?” It is chosen to help Asian leaders think about the kind of Asia they hope to shape in the years to come. The following statements provides an overview on the rationale behind the theme:

Asia is home to the world’s fastest growing economies, yet Asian thinking does not shape our markets.
The West still dominates global institutions from financial institutions such as IMF to universities such as Harvard. Rising nationalism and regional conflict will impair the ability of Asia to act as a collective force to shape the future. In the private sector, Asian companies are not positioned to shape key building blocks of the new economy in terms of data and design. How can we get ourselves into positions to shape the future?

Will the world be better with the rise of Asia?
The rise of Asian economies have not necessarily contributed to the betterment of the world. While we have lifted people from poverty, we are increasing the strain on natural resources. As more wealth shifts to the East, we need to learn how to avoid the mistakes of the West and build better nations, infrastructure and companies.

How can our organisations emerge as leaders in this changing business landscape?
Google shapes search, Hollywood shapes movies, Facebook shapes online identities and  Oracle shapes how we use data. Many Asian companies are still contractors and service providers. The increased wealth of the East did not result in the rise of our influence. How can we change the situation to move up the value chain and take the lead?

To date we have gathered almost 3000 business leaders, politicians, social activists and professionals to think deeper about their role in shaping a better Asia. There are plenary sessions, panel discussions and workshops to help companies apply what they have learnt. We also hope that meaningful partnerships will emerge to create a difference. At the end of the day, we wish to build a new culture where every business leader, politician, social activist and professional understand that they have a role in building a better Asia.

Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus. He will be speaking at our upcoming Shape the World Conference on 22 October 2012. Read the full agenda or register online for our conference.