Technological Leapfrogging: Asia’s Innovative Odyssey and Lessons for the West

By Roxane Maar, Author of "The Unicorn Chase", Denmark

November 16, 2023

Recently, a TikTok video took me into the heart of an influencer farm tucked away somewhere in Asia. I was genuinely astonished. I hadn’t imagined something like this could exist. Despite my academic studies in Singapore and a chapter of life lived in the bustling streets of China, the video served as a vivid reminder of the lightning-fast evolution of technologies. 

Here I explore some of the technological domains where Asia is leapfrogging and unravel the potential lessons that the West can learn from this dynamic landscape.

Digital Payment Dominance

In the sprawling metropolises of China, a silent revolution unfolds—the meteoric rise of mobile payments. Platforms such as Alipay and WeChat Pay have orchestrated a symphony of transactions, propelling China into a cashless era. What was once a financial novelty has become an integral part of everyday life, illustrating the potential of seamless digital transactions. This transformation, while akin to the rise of digital payments in the West—such as Denmark’s MobilePay replacing hard cash and Portugal’s MBWay gaining traction—stands out as a testament to Asia’s adeptness in orchestrating a more streamlined and integrated digital financial landscape. In Portugal, I still find myself asking people whether they have MBWay—in China, it’s a given, a simple expectation, to inquire about Alipay or WeChat Pay. The contrast in digital payment habits between these two places is a vivid reminder of how rapidly technology evolves and embeds itself in our daily lives, if we allow it to happen.

If you want to look more into this – check out: Alipay and WeChat Pay (China), Unified Payments Interface (UPI) (India), GrabPay (Singapore), KakaoPay (South Korea), Line Pay (Japan), GoPay (Indonesia).

These examples highlight how digital payment platforms in Asia transcend basic transactions, integrating into broader ecosystems that encompass various aspects of users’ lives—from messaging and social interactions to transportation and financial management. The level of integration goes beyond what is commonly observed in some Western digital payment systems, providing a glimpse into the holistic approach adopted by Asian platforms.

E-commerce and Tech Giants

In the digital marketplaces of Southeast Asia, a dynamic e-commerce landscape has emerged, dominated by platforms like Shopee and Lazada. These platforms, with their innovative solutions, such as localized distribution centers and robust delivery networks, have navigated logistical challenges, creating an ecosystem where convenience meets consumer satisfaction. 

Meanwhile, China’s tech behemoths—Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu—stand as pillars of technological influence, shaping the global landscape with their contributions to e-commerce, fintech, and artificial intelligence. Their contributions, from Alibaba’s e-commerce dominance to Tencent’s impact on social and gaming platforms, have a far-reaching impact. Following these tech giants, Asian countries have embraced the concept of “super apps,” where a single platform provides a multitude of services, from messaging and social networking to e-commerce and financial transactions. China’s WeChat and Indonesia’s Gojek are prime examples. 

While Europe has its tech giants, such as Spotify and, the landscape is not dominated by a few conglomerates to the same extent. Regulatory environments and diverse linguistic and cultural factors contribute to a more varied tech ecosystem. Furthermore, e-commerce platforms in Southeast Asia often integrate diverse payment methods to accommodate local preferences. Fintech innovations, including digital wallets and mobile payment solutions, play a crucial role in enhancing the overall user experience. Payment preferences in Europe vary on the other hand, with regions adopting different payment systems. European fintech companies, such as Adyen and Klarna, contribute to innovations in online payments but face regulatory nuances across borders. Europe could explore creating integrated platforms that offer users a seamless experience across various services, fostering convenience and efficiency.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) Integration

In Munich, I attended an AI ethics conference that delved deep into the challenges facing the field in Europe. A distinguished professor’s point struck a chord: while Europe engages in discussions, China propels forward with implementation—a remarkably accurate observation. This point was reinforced while I was attending Websummit 2023 – in Europe many are still discussing the implications of AI and ChatGPT, while across Asia, particularly in everyday society, artificial intelligence (AI) is actively and significantly implemented.

  • Facial Recognition and Surveillance:
    • Asia: Notably in China, facial recognition technology has been extensively implemented for public surveillance, law enforcement, and social control. AI-powered systems actively track individuals in public spaces, reflecting an advanced integration of AI into societal frameworks.
    • Europe: Europe has approached facial recognition with caution due to privacy concerns, resulting in varied regulations across countries. The adoption of such AI applications in public spaces is often more restrained compared to some Asian counterparts.
  • AI in Smart Cities:
    • Asia: Certain Asian cities, including those in China and Singapore, showcase active integration of AI into urban planning. From traffic optimization to waste management, and overall city governance, AI plays a pivotal role in creating efficient and sustainable urban environments.
    • Europe: While smart city projects exist in Europe, the scale and pace of implementation vary. Regulatory frameworks and public policies contribute to a more diverse landscape of AI integration in European urban planning.
  • AI in Healthcare, E-commerce, and Financial Services:
    • Asia: The implementation of AI in healthcare, e-commerce, and financial services in Asia is notably advanced. In healthcare, AI is used for diagnostics and personalized medicine. E-commerce platforms leverage AI for personalized experiences, and financial services employ AI for fraud detection and customer service.
    • Europe: While AI is utilized in these sectors in Europe, the extent of implementation differs. European countries often navigate a balance between technological advancement and stringent regulatory considerations.
  • AI in Education
    • Asia: China and India’s transformative journey in the realm of EdTech reflects an unwavering commitment to redefine education. Some examples are Tencent Classrom, which integrates live streaming, discussion forums, and real-time feedback, creating an immersive digital classroom experience. This goes beyond traditional e-learning, fostering engagement and collaboration among students. Another is Yuanfudao, a prominent EdTech player in China, which leverages artificial intelligence for personalized tutoring. The platform uses AI algorithms to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses, tailoring lessons accordingly to enhance the learning experience. Currently East China’s Zhejiang Province, is actually integrating AI into classes of primary and middle schools in China. Certain Asian governments have rolled out comprehensive policies and initiatives to encourage the integration of AI in education. For example, China’s national AI in Education Action Plan outlines specific goals and strategies.
    • Europe: In Europe, while there are efforts to promote digitalization in education, the uniformity and scope of AI-focused policies vary. Furthermore the diversity of languages and dialects might present unique challenges for AI integration, and there is no dominant tech player within the educational field. 

This stark contrast in the active deployment of AI highlights Asia’s prowess in seamlessly integrating advanced technologies into everyday societal functions. From surveillance systems to urban planning and key economic sectors, the region demonstrates a dynamic and proactive approach to harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence.

Could more Cross-Border Collaboration be the way forward?

Navigating through the vibrant exhibitions at WebSummit, a stark reality becomes apparent. Despite the European Union’s (EU) commendable collaborative initiatives, there exists a notable divergence from the streamlined regulatory frameworks observed in Asia. This discrepancy poses a significant opportunity for Europe to draw inspiration from its Asian counterparts, particularly in terms of regulatory efficiency and fostering agile funding mechanisms for collaborative projects.

Streamlined Regulatory Frameworks

In Asia, especially notable in tech-driven hubs like Singapore and China, streamlined regulatory processes serve as catalysts for innovation. Unlike Europe, where regulatory landscapes can be intricate and vary significantly across member states, Asian nations have strategically streamlined their frameworks. For instance, Singapore’s proactive approach to regulatory clarity in emerging technologies allows for swift implementation, encouraging startups and enterprises to explore new frontiers without excessive bureaucratic hurdles.


  • Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative: A cohesive regulatory framework supporting emerging technologies, promoting innovation in areas like IoT, AI, and data analytics.
  • China’s Cybersecurity Law: Despite its stringent aspects, it provides a structured regulatory foundation for the tech industry, ensuring data security while fostering technological advancement.

Agile Funding Mechanisms

Asia’s approach to funding collaborative projects is often characterized by agility and responsiveness. Unlike Europe, where funding mechanisms may encounter bureaucratic delays, Asian counterparts display nimbleness in adapting to the dynamic nature of collaborative ventures. Governments and private entities in Asia actively participate in co-investment models, creating an environment where innovative projects can swiftly secure the necessary financial backing.


  • Japan’s Innovation Network Corporation: A public-private investment initiative promoting collaboration between government, corporations, and startups to drive innovation in key industries.
  • South Korea’s K-Startup Grand Challenge: An agile program that provides funding and support to international startups, fostering collaboration with the Korean ecosystem.

Key Considerations for European Improvement

Learning from Asia: Europe could draw inspiration from Asia’s success in creating regulatory environments that balance innovation with risk management. By streamlining regulatory processes, the EU can facilitate a more conducive atmosphere for collaborative projects, enabling quicker adaptation to technological advancements.

Public-Private Partnerships: Asia’s collaborative funding models often involve seamless partnerships between public and private entities. Europe could strengthen such partnerships to expedite funding processes, leveraging the strengths of both sectors for more efficient support of collaborative initiatives.

Agile Funding Mechanisms: Emulating the agility seen in Asia’s funding mechanisms, Europe could explore models that prioritize responsiveness and adaptability. This involves flexible funding structures that can swiftly accommodate the evolving needs of collaborative projects, ensuring timely financial support.

In essence, as Europe looks to fortify its position in the global tech landscape, reflecting on Asia’s regulatory efficiency and agile funding strategies could provide valuable insights. By aligning regulatory frameworks and funding mechanisms with the dynamic nature of collaborative innovation, Europe can create an environment where groundbreaking projects can thrive.

This article was authored by Roxane Maar