Cultivating Chinese Social Innovation in Cambridge, Mass


Janson Cheng, Dreamland

Meet Janson Cheng. Janson is working on a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Transdisciplinary Design at Parson’s School of Design in New York. At a young age, Janson is already a gifted trainer. I witnessed his abilities myself and will say more about that below. Janson is from China.

Janson’s passion for social innovation and entrepreneurship led him to found Dreamland, a project focused on cultural preservation in rural China. Dreamland is a creative project, the kind that reminds us of the extraordinary potential in addressing community challenges through social innovation. To appreciate Dreamland, you need first to understand a little about what has been happening in China over the last several decades: social transformation on a scale unprecedented in human history.

Dramatic Change in China

In 1950, about 15% of the Chinese population lived in urban areas. Since then, China’s cities have grown steadily, a trend accelerating sharply after 1978. Today over 700 million Chinese people live in cities, surpassing 50% of China’s total population. Over 300 million people have moved into Chinese urban areas during the past 15 years.

This explosive urbanization in China has brought about extraordinary economic expansion. China’s GDP has increased tenfold since 1998 and more than doubled since 2009. This remarkable growth has lifted more than 680 million people out of poverty, reducing extreme poverty in China from 84% in 1980 to less than 10% today.

Against this backdrop of rapid urban development focusing worldwide attention on Chinese cities, Janson’s Dreamland project is looking in the other direction, to what is happening in China’s vast rural areas, still home to hundreds of millions. Janson is creatively thinking about how China’s rural villages can continue to add value to the nation’s rapidly evolving social and economic systems. Janson’s work focuses on themes of place, environment, connection and culture.

Urban Traffic in China

Chinese Social Innovators

Yeti Zhong, Bottledream

Social innovation is taking root in China, a critical trend as its economy expands to embrace consumer services directed toward its surging middle class.  Janson’s work is part of a movement of Chinese social entrepreneurs interested in preserving Chinese traditions and values amid the tides of change. Another such leader is Jing Peng, a senior at Tongji University. Jing’s social innovation work concerns the disappearance of village culture and the lack of cultural education. To reverse this trend, she created a program called “Beautiful Nostaglia,” which builds village capacity to transmit traditional cultural values to new generations in tandem with an appreciation for ecology.

The rise of social innovation in China results in part from the work of leaders like Chinese social innovator Yeti Zhong, a journalist from Sun Yat-Sen University. Yeti earned a master’s degree in Social Linguistics; she is a world traveler and the author of many successful articles for China’s bestselling Portrait magazine.  Yeti is also the founder of Bottledream, a social media project that promotes changemaker education within China by telling the inspiring stories of more than 400 young social entrepreneurs around the world. Bottledream has also produced a widely disseminated documentary on social innovation, “Be a Changemaker.” A person of diverse talents and interests—Yeti is a Buddhist and an accomplished diver—she is among many creative entrepreneurs promoting the problem-solving skills that China needs for success in the 21st century.

Camp SEED, Sponsored by Tencent

If you know a little about my background, I am sure you have a question. How does a guy from Pennsylvania happen to meet these exciting Chinese social innovators? For that we can thank Ashoka and Harvard SEED for Social Innovation. Ashoka is an organization that promotes social entrepreneurship and changemaker education around the world. Selected because of my social innovation work in higher education, I am proud to be an Ashoka Fellow in the United States. Harvard SEED stands for Social Responsibility, Empathy, Empowerment and Dedication. A student-led initiative of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, SEED provides social innovation learning camps for outstanding young Chinese social innovators. This spring, SEED convened its fifth camp in Cambridge, Massachusetts for an inspiring new group working on a diverse set of social problems and opportunities in China. I was honored to join the faculty again this year, along with Ashoka’s Amy Neugebauer.

This year SEED’s work was sponsored Tencent. Well known to Americans who follow international business, Tencent is a gigantic Chinese internet company (over $200 billion annual revenue) leading Asia in media, entertainment, internet advertising and mobile phone value-added services. Charles Chen, one of Tencent’s founders and a key leader in the company’s philanthropic initiatives, made an inspiring speech to the SEED fellows.

Charles Chen and the Meaning of Education in China:
Teaching Plus Cultivation

Mr. Chen spoke with engaging humor and powerful insights about the impact of the Internet in China. Mr. Chen sees the Internet as a force for positive community engagement and education. Tencent’s Internet Plus initiative, a movement to integrate Internet technologies within core business and community channels, has opened new pathways for social collaboration, crowdfunding and online learning within China. Reminding the group that the Chinese word for education combines the concepts of teaching and cultivation, Mr. Chen predicted that the Internet would pave the way for disruptive innovations transforming education. Mr. Chen believes that new information technologies capable of reducing the cost of scaling high-quality curriculum and instruction will democratize education, promoting the development of new educational services that are “open, inclusive, dynamic and vast.” He also spoke eloquently about the importance of embracing ethical values as part of the concept of human development within higher education.

Listening to Mr. Chen’s insights as a leading Chinese entrepreneur and social innovator, I sensed a strong shared vision between China and the United States, expressed also in the SEED fellows’ sincere interest in our work at I-LEAD with Harcum College developed as a social enterprise to open higher education access to low-income neighborhoods across Southeastern Pennsylvania. As in China, the future of economic development, wealth creation and human advancement in the United States requires us to open new pathways to extend the transformative power of higher education to marginalized communities. Education—higher education specifically—is the ultimate community game changer, opening new possibilities for service, creative engagement and entrepreneurship that expand human potential. Like the enlightened technology innovators in America, Tencent is exploring how to leverage information technology to enhance community quality of life for all levels of society, not only for the elite.

This year’s SEED participants included an impressive cluster of Tencent professionals who are also engaged as leading social innovators. These included Ling Gong (Tencent CDC User Experience Research and Design Department) focused on design thinking; Tobin Guan (Tencent Advertising Department) focused on advertising and public service; Jinke Leng (Tencent Visual Design) focused one-to-one mentorship for rural children from mountain areas; and Lei Wang (Tencent Software Development Engineer) focused on the problem of colorblindness for Internet users.  

There were many more terrific SEED fellows, too many to list here, focused on healthcare, education, ecology and environmental protection. SEED’s leaders (special thanks to Board President Yutao Wang, Xueshan Zhang, and Jiabin Lang) are doing amazing work encouraging and opening new pathways for Chinese leaders to make a difference.

Charles Chen, Tencent Co-Founder

Wisdom Spanning Cultures: The Power of Questions Over Answers

As promised in my opening, I want to end with a return to Janson’s work at the SEED Camp. At the conclusion of a long day, he led a design workshop challenging the SEED fellows to reflect on their innovations and projects, and to consider this prompt:

“Is the experience of the user the most important value in social innovation?”

Thanks to an effective  translator, I was able to listen to the small groups process this question. There was a strong diversity of opinion within the clusters. An excellent dialogue unfolded in which the fellows grappled with many meta-questions: What is the difference between the user and beneficiary in a social innovation? What is the difference between the interests of sponsors and beneficiaries? Does the concept of a user include more extended constituencies and stakeholders? How do the needs of users, beneficiaries, sponsors and stakeholders evolve in response to social change within the community? Should a social entrepreneur or innovator shape what these audiences want? What is the balance between individual, community and societal concerns and values?

The rich and respectful dialogue yielded new learning and insights. During the closing conversation, one of the innovators summarized: “There is no right or wrong answer; the value is in the question and the dialogue to yield deeper understanding; the value is in the process.” Amen. Great work, Janson.

I asked one of the translators, a Harvard student at the Graduate School of Education from China, if this kind of workshop featuring reflective, interactive dialogue was the norm in Chinese higher education? “No,” she answered, explaining that lectures are the norm in China and that learning to have such interactive, multilateral dialogue was part of the benefit of her studies at Harvard. I responded that, while we are making great strides to do more of this kind of learning in the United States, there is so much work still to be done.

In both China and America, when we learn to value questions more than the answers, when we learn to think long and hard about how to make positive change in the world, about how to collaborate and how to live in peace and harmony, we connect with a deep yearning for wisdom in the human spirit that cuts across cultures, geographies and time zones. In this yearning, we can see the profound connection among Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, the Buddha and Jesus, among many other sages across the ages. The yearning for wisdom reflected in the profundity of good questions is the fertile ground in which SEED is sowing a powerful future for China and for the world.

Skip to toolbar