Despite growing into the world's second-largest economy in 2011, China is still most often dismissed as a manufacturer rather than an innovator, a borrower rather than a creator. The man most likely to guarantee that China becomes a pioneer and not merely a pirate is Kai-Fu Lee, the Taiwanese-American former head of Google China and a tech guru who manages China's most prominent venture-capital fund and whose koan-like pronouncements on everything from start-ups to sports are eagerly lapped up by his millions of online followers.
In an effort to replicate the successes of Silicon Valley, Lee has raised more than $600 million and invested in more than 50 companies since he started his firm, Innovation Works, in 2009; he also hosts educational programs and incubators for promising Chinese entrepreneurs. His companies include Zhihu, a question-and-answer-based "social knowledge network"; Wonderpod, which helps users sync their mobile and PC content; and Nevel, a cloud-based service that optimizes websites while helping to protect them from security breaches. With more than 33 million followers combined on China's two most popular microblogging platforms, Lee is also a real-world celebrity.
In an article he published on his LinkedIn page in October, Lee named China's narrowly focused school curriculum and the risk-averse nature of Chinese students, as well as the country's chaotic Internet environment, among the reasons China hasn't yet produced its own Mark Zuckerberg. That may be why he has also started a popular education website encouraging Chinese students to think more creatively. Although none of his companies has exploded yet, Lee's ultimate contribution may be more fundamental: laying both the intellectual and financial groundwork for a revolution in the world's largest online community.
Reading list: Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson; The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries; Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, by Ezra Vogel. American decline or American renewal? American renewal, because American innovation cannot be challenged yet. More Europe or less? Less Europe. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet, but people need more expressiveness than 140 characters. Chinese people tweet about five times more information in 140 Chinese characters, and the quality, usage, and impact show the difference.
When U.S. President Barack Obama issued a memorandum on his first full day in office to make government more transparent and open, it was no coincidence he tapped Beth Noveck to lead the unprecedented initiative. Noveck, an open-government pioneer who made a cause of crowdsourcing experts to help the overloaded U.S. Patent and Trademark Office review all those innovative patent applications, not only took the job, but she used it to draft open-government rules for federal agencies with input from Internet users and launch data.gov, which, to date, has published nearly 400,000 government data sets that fuel roughly 1,500 apps on everything from product recalls to national obesity trends. Her goal, she said in an interview, was sweeping: to "use new technology to hard-wire this kind of reform and accountability into the culture of government so that it can't be undone in the next administration."
Now back in academia, Noveck continues to experiment with how data and technology can revolutionize democracy. She has advised British Prime Minister David Cameron on open government ("Beth literally wrote the book, Wiki Government, on how policymaking needs to change in the Internet age," George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer, noted in announcing the hire), founded a "do tank" that has developed ideas like virtual town-hall forums, and prototyped OrgPedia, a Wikipedia-esque platform for data on corporations.
Open government isn't built in a day, or one presidential term, for that matter. But if the initiatives she has set in motion -- from the National Archives dashboard for citizen archivists to the Department of Health and Human Services website for comparing insurance options -- are any indication, Noveck has arguably done more than anyone to lay the foundations for a Washington that feels less like a cloistered village and more like an online public square.
Reading list: A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway; Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson; Honeybee Democracy, by Thomas Seeley. Best idea: The National Endowment for the Arts should become more like Kickstarter. Worst idea: That Kickstarter should replace the National Endowment for the Arts. American decline or American renewal? American reinvention. More Europe or less? More innovative European cities. Less agile and capable nation-states. To tweet or not to tweet? Early and often: @bethnoveck.