When you think about Vietnam, what comes to mind?
If you're over 50, probably The Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese say, "The American War." If you're under 50, you may not think about Vietnam at all, unless you check where your t-shirt or Nikes come from.
What if I said, "creativity?" Maybe not the first idea that springs to mind. But beware, the Vietnamese may be gaining on us.
I've worked in Hanoi since the early 1990s. When I first went, the vehicle mix was 85% - 10%, bicycles to motorbikes. The rest were Land Cruisers for aid projects or groaning Russian built trucks. No sedans and no traffic lights. At night, save for the odd cling from a bicycle bell or motorbike honk, streets were quiet, electric power was scarce, and hot running water was a promise.
I helped train Vietnamese faculty members in western business practices as Vietnam moved from a planned to a "market oriented economy under socialist guidance." People had no concept of management, working capital, or customer service. But they could solve practical problems that many Americans couldn't. When a motorbike or air conditioner broke down, men could wrestle it back into working order with whatever was at hand, since parts were scarce. Because they were "resource-less," they were forced to be resource-full. You could call it the poor man's creativity, but the habit of looking for solutions in new ways kept things going.
The question now is whether that habit will hold as Vietnam's economy booms.
Today, the vehicle mix is 50%-50%, motorbikes to sedans, from BMWs to KIAs and even the occasional Bentley. Traffic lights number in the hundreds, giving Hanoi traffic a begrudging orderliness, and power and running water are the norm. But as economic life moves upscale, some "fixit capacity" has declined and fewer men routinely climb on desks or under cars to fix what's broken.
But the habit may not be lost. Not long ago, the government sponsored a contest for high school students to generate new ideas to two problems: how to distribute clean water countrywide and how to reduce pollution in cities. The reward—$2500 for each "best idea." To put that in perspective, Vietnam's average annual per capita GDP at the time was about $1300, ranging from about $400 in the countryside to $2000 in the cities.
What does that contest reveal? First, Vietnam's leaders want to boost creativity among younger people, no small task when the school system typically emphasizes memorizing information. Second, and perhaps more subtle, they may fear losing the old ways and "habit" of solving problems as resources increase. But, this could be a chance to generate new habits and methods. So an explicit focus on creativity could be the spark they need for a new generation of smart, ambitious young people who will build the next version of Vietnam.