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Government-enterprise-university triple helix model facilitates innovation of China’s high-speed rail

LIN XIAOYAN | 2018-01-18 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


China’s first national technology innovation center for high-speed trains was established in Qingdao, Shandong Province in September 2017. (PHOTO: SOHU.COM)


Since its first high-speed rail—the Beijing–Tianjin intercity railway—opened in 2008, China’s high-speed rail network has been growing rapidly. By the end of 2017, more than 20,000 kilometers of track had been laid, accounting for more than 60 percent of the world’s high-speed rail infrastructure. With the “four vertical lines and four horizontal lines” network structure, high-speed rail plays a significant role in China’s regional transport.

The growth of its high-speed rail network has directly improved China’s transportation-related manufacturing sector, enhancing its international status. In addition, it has promoted economic growth by attracting more talent to cities and regions along the lines.

To facilitate the sustainable development of China’s high-speed rail both at the national and international level, it is necessary to look back on its experience over the past two decades.

Multilateral cooperation
Integrating the administrative chain, production chain, and chain of science and technology, the innovation system of China’s high-speed railway has distinctive Chinese features. The administrative chain consists of governments at different levels and management agencies. The production chain is made up of a network of related enterprises while the chain of science and technology encompasses universities and institutions for scientific research. With a high level of efficiency and coordinated operation, the three overlapping chains play a decisive role in China’s high-speed rail technological innovation.

Bilateral cooperation between the government and universities has two models: one led by the government and the other dominated by universities. The Institute of Planning and Standards under the National Railway Administration represents the former. It is mainly responsible for managing high-speed rail research projects as well as research, development, promotion and internationalization of standards for high-speed rail technologies. The latter is represented by key state laboratories in higher education institutions that undertake basic and applied research, with enormous potential to facilitate theoretical innovation.

The enterprise-university network consists of two different types, depending on its dominant element. The enterprise-led type is represented by the China Academy of Railway Sciences among others. Committed to basic research and some specific research projects, they have played an important role in training talent, applying research to practice and making technological breakthroughs. National university science parks are representative of the university-led model, with great advantages in carrying out scientific research and fostering application of research results.

The government-enterprise model also has two types: government-led and enterprise-led. The China Railway Development Fund is an example of the former, expanding financing channels and providing adequate capital support for the construction and operation of high-speed railways. The bureau groups under the China Railway Corporation represent the latter, advancing application, industrialization and commercialization of new research results.

A government-enterprise-university model has been formed based on trust, norms and cooperation, with the China Railway Corporation as its archetype. Carrying forward most of the functions of the now defunct Ministry of Railways, the corporation has a great number of subordinate companies and research institutions under its direction. Integrating the functions of the production chain, administrative chain and academic chain, the corporation has the typical features of a triple helix model. The corporation has played an important role in resource coordination in the process of high-speed rail innovation. Under the corporation’s direction, a complete mechanism has been formed that includes subordinate enterprises, research institutions, non-affiliated higher education institutions, and other equipment manufacturing and construction companies.

Triple helix model at core
In the triple helix model of China’s high-speed rail innovation, there are government-university, government-enterprise, and enterprise-university bilateral models, and also the government-enterprise-university triple hybrid organization. There is hardly any obvious replacement of one model by the other, and substantial market competition has come into being on the basis of the existing division of labor and cooperation. That is, the organizational market has become the unique market element in China’s high-speed rail innovation. The China Railway Corporation has become the core of the model.

Contrary to conventional wisdom that a trilateral model usually appears after or replaces a bilateral one, the two models coexist under China’s high-speed rail innovation system, which explains why China has been able to foster a complex innovation system within a short time.

The organizational market with all these hybrid models has fostered a better match between supply and demand with relatively low resource allocation costs and institutional transaction costs. Because of the uniqueness of the triple helix model, there has been no apparent evolution from a bilateral to a triple one. It is noteworthy that although the China Railway Corporation took the place of the Ministry of Railways in 2013, the triple helix model has remained unique. At the same time, the nature of the bilateral models has undergone significant changes.

Sustainable innovation
According to evaluation of the innovative capacity of high-speed rail in China, the capacity increased quite fast between 2008 and 2011, and declined in 2012 before rising sharply again in 2013. This supports the theory of the correlation between innovation capacity and the direction of the triple helix. That is, as the triple helix model follows the trajectory of a government-led model to an enterprise–led one before turning into a university-led one, innovative capacity will continue to grow stronger. Following the period of government-led R&D and enterprise-led construction, the model needs to transform into a university-led one, which is essential to increasing China’s competitiveness on a global scale.

Now, China has established an organizational market made up of bilateral models in the high-speed train innovation system. While trying to maintain the advantages of the triple helix model with overlapping administrative chain, academic chain and production chain, we need to facilitate even more triple helix models to influence input into innovation, coordinate resources and apply research into practice.

Both theory and empirical evidence suggest that as the triple helix model transforms from one dominated by the government to one led by the enterprise, the innovation capacity of China’s high-speed rail is projected to increase. Now the role of the administrative chain is in transition. If the government shifts its role from providing guidance to support, then to governance, an increased capacity will be ensured. If the new administrative chain represented by the Ministry of Transport and National Railway Administration encourages innovation and creates an innovation-friendly environment, it will facilitate consistent innovation policy and a well-organized environment. Given that R&D and innovation in this field require the continuous input of resources, accumulation of technologies and building of talent pools, the administrative chain needs to maintain certainty and consistency in policymaking and strategy selection.

We need to ensure the motivation and impetus for the enterprises in the chain of production—that they can become real market entities. Three kinds of enterprises are included in the production chain: manufacturing, construction and service. As market entities in their field, the enterprises must ceaselessly enhance their innovation capacity, motivation and impetus, which would be essential for the production chain. Enterprises for its transport service are especially important for high-speed rail innovation, and can even be said to be the only element in the production chain that has the great potential to innovate. In light of the increasingly fierce competition in the market, those enterprises need to become a real market entity and gain more impetus through deepening reform.

Universities and other academic institutes in the model need to gradually shift their focus from teaching to scientific research and eventually transform themselves with entrepreneurship. The ability of the academic chain to transform into a leading force of innovation has direct influence on the constant improvement of innovation capacity. In the world’s most innovative communities, universities usually serve as leaders. To make this happen in high-speed rail innovation, it is necessary to increase productivity and capitalization rate of knowledge.

Lin Xiaoyan is from the School of Economics and Management at Beijing Jiaotong University.