7 December 2009
We are all innovators now. Gone, surely, must be the days of free-riders, of subsidised mediocrity and creative malaise. A new world beckons. But doubts remain.
I had the privilege of moderating an excellent post-Lisbon event on innovation for ERRIN, the European Regions Research and Innovation Network. What was so exciting was to hear from different EU regions what they are doing to drive innovation forward. We learned of the creative use of foresight, to probe where technological innovation was occurring and scientific breakthroughs likely to be. We learned about how to bring a diverse mix of interests around a common table, of industry of academe and of entrepreneurs.
It was refreshingly different, and further evidence that this European behemoth might actually show itself as the global powerhouse that it has the potential to be. Perhaps the G2 of the USA and China should be G3, but that will depend on the EU speaking of course with one voice and the post-Lisbon squabbling is only just beginning.
We also heard Commission thinking on where they saw the landmines in the road to economic recovery and hints of structural reform that would be needed in the near term at least.
For innovation and research and development, if regions are the breeder sites where industry, ideas and money mix to produce economic recovery, how will the wider European project benefit?
Two things come to mind. The first is obviously that we need to celebrate and share the excellent work at the regional level, but we must be mindful that narrow national policies of individual member states may pitch regional advantage into the political mix, to trade regional advantage off against national policies. If regions are to excel and strive for at least European leadership, if not world-class stature, they must be owned but us all in Europe. This is a call perhaps for more European protection for centres of excellence.
The second is that the regions do need to become world-class, and this means that they will need to increase the originality of their innovation plans to embrace the disruptive, challenging and far-reaching. This is to ensure that regions don’t keep reinventing the wheel as similar priority setting processes and strategies risk producing similar technological priorities — Europe won’t excel if all the regions come up with similar priorities. This can be exacerbated by excessive reliance on public sector funding, in part, as this puts the regional process into one which risk narrowing the priorities chosen to ones which meet local/regional political goals, and not necessary the wider interests of Europe. While public funding can be a help, it must not restrict the ability of regions for forge strategies that may not meet the needs of their localities but serve a wider interest. (see Philip Cooke, Regional Innovation Systems, Clusters and the Knowledge Economy, Industrial and Corporate Change, 10-4(2001):945-971)
This means that we need wide coordination of innovation activities and strategies, to share priorities through a clearinghouse arrangement, and to identify emerging innovation area that have not been prioritised by a region. What, indeed, are the Grand Challenges facing Europe, and how can these stimulate regional innovation, for instance.
We also need to see much closer working between private equity and venture capital and the work of the regions. Where are the venture capitalists when regional innovators meet?