The city of Ningbo.

The Ningbo challenge

Sitting at the midpoint of the Chinese coastline, towards the south of the Yangtze Delta, Ningbo is a major port and industrial hub in China. The accessible region has been prosperous historically, but became the leader of important industries in China when the government doubled-down on industrialization and trade in the 1970s. Among these industries is home appliances. Ningbo is now home to top brands such as Fotile, the most renowned kitchen appliance manufacturer in China, and Bull, whose power sockets account for over 60 percent of the domestic market. Yet, compared to megacities like Beijing and Shanghai, Ningbo does not have the political and economic leverage to attract talent. As a result, the once vigorous and dynamic home to the appliance industry is watching younger tech companies playing in their court, and sometimes winning.

With the vision of combining industry, education, and research to rejuvenate traditional industries, Dr. Li Zexiang, a former professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and pioneer in hardware innovation, founded TechX Institute in four locations in China, including Ningbo. Dr Li approached IDEO to design an innovation curriculum to cultivate young, homegrown entrepreneurs. The team piloted the curriculum at Ningbo Innovation Camp, the first of a series of entrepreneurship programs targeting local youth.

Dr. Li Zexiang giving a talk at the opening ceremony of Ningbo Innovation Camp.

Through extensive research, the IDEO team discovered that the predicament Ningbo faced—coined “the Ningbo Challenge—was two-fold. First, the business mindset of home appliance companies in Ningbo was more about scaling a proven success than innovating from the ground up. In other words, Ningbo home appliance companies were skilled at going from 1 to 100, but too cautious to take the first step from zero to one. In addition, local universities, many technical, were adept at traditional engineering training with a focus on problem solving, but struggled to provide students with tools and knowledge to identify problems, an indispensable process in innovation.

Interdisciplinary, cross-sector collaboration

The Ningbo Innovation Camp offered the perfect opportunity to explore and address this two-fold issue. To unleash participants’ creativity, IDEO drew on the interdisciplinary nature of innovation and designed a six-week program which attracted over 50 attendees - a mix of young engineers and designers from the region. IDEO played a key role in leveraging expertise from all parties to shape a well-rounded experience. In terms of the content, the curriculum contained multiple touchpoints for participants to understand each other’s craft and find teammates with complementary skill sets. On a project level, the Institute and IDEO joined forces to enlist support from local government, companies, and academia. As a result of this diverse mix of skills, backgrounds, and experience, participants were able to quickly access existing solutions, form the technical foundation of their projects, and assimilate input from external experts to challenge the status quo.

From engineering thinking to design thinking

When designing the camp’s curriculum, IDEO chose to focus on the “home” in “smart home products.” Anchored in human needs within the home environment, the camp began with multiple user research sessions and problem definition exercises.

Asking the participants, most of them engineers, to refrain from building prototypes before clearly articulating what problem they were solving was a real challenge. With guidance from IDEO mentors, the participants gradually became comfortable and confident using design thinking tools to uncover hidden insights, turning them into solutions addressing precise user pain points. Many participants who came from corporate innovation centers told the IDEO team that they were used to innovating by starting with new technologies and finding applications for these technologies. This process often led to improvements of existing products, or micro-innovations, whereas starting from consumer needs resulted in unexpected and more fertile innovation opportunities.

Participants conducting user research to tackle challenges posed by an aging population.

From zero to one

While tech savvy corporate engineers used their expertise to ensure fast iterations of design, college students offered fresh perspectives on young consumers. Together, they created new product concepts from scratch, transforming their ideas from Post-it sketches to paper models, and eventually to functional prototypes with clear value propositions. Product development from concept to prototype would normally take months, even years in a corporate setting, in which employees rarely engage in or complete the entire process. This camp allowed participants to see and experience a more holistic product development process in six weeks.

A team showcasing one of their early prototypes.

Impact: From startups to alternative corporate innovation mechanisms

Now equipped with an entrepreneur’s ambition and skill sets, some participants aspired to turn their projects into startups. For corporate sponsors, the camp gave them direct access to high potential young talent, facilitating a more proactive approach to hiring. More importantly, this engagement served as a platform for corporate leaders to explore various mechanisms for innovation, whether to invest in the startups, incorporate them into internal incubation programs, or experiment with new ways of product innovation.

Demo Day setup.

Beyond Ningbo

The success of the Ningbo Innovation Camp was only a start. TechX has since launched the curriculum in three other cities. There are hundreds of cities like Ningbo in China, each with its own characteristics, strengths, and challenges. With the ambition of helping cities all over China create their own innovation hubs, TechX will integrate this curriculum into future entrepreneurship programs as an essential tool to inspire consumer-facing innovations. IDEO hopes to sow the seeds of innovation for future generations by empowering young talent to elevate traditional industries.

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