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Innovation – Great expectations or bleak house?

Readers of the nineteenth century English author Charles Dickens would recognise the titles above.  Given the changing world in which he wrote the books, driven by the innovations accompanying industrialisation, the titles are apt in our current stage seen as a global process, empowered by a range of new technologies but driven often by multinational interests which are not necessarily connected to national or regional loyalties.

What does this mean for individual policymakers in Europe?

Currently the way forward to escape economic turmoil is seen as investment in science, engineering and technology in policy documents.  The argument is that by investing in scientific innovation, knowledge will be created to take economies out of their downturn, to generate wealth and create new jobs.  In policy documents it is seen as a linear process.  Money goes in at one end, jobs and money fall out of the other.

And what could be wrong with this?  It sounds sensible that being first to market with new scientific innovations will give companies competitive advantage and allow regions to differentiate themselves.  Is this how it works?  We have great expectations of science but can we expect scientific discovery to result in new jobs and new wealth in the way policy documents claim?

Well, perhaps part of this is to look at the type of innovation. Scientists are fascinated by issues often unrelated to the market.  When they do establish a truly radical idea, a disruptive innovation which is game-changing in revolutionising how specific industries will work for instance, surely that is a great thing for the city or country where the scientists are located?

Graphene story

Well it may sound like this would naturally follow but the answer might be maybe or even – no.  An example is the discovery of graphene preparation for which two British-Russian scientists at the University of Manchester were awarded a Nobel prize, in 2010.  This represent a radical innovation for these in mobile and other electronics fields give the properties of graphene. This internationally prestigious award should surely therefore represent huge impacts for Manchester in jobs and wealth creation?

Sadly not.  Of the 7,500+ graphene-related patents listed by April this year, less than 1 per cent were in the UK.  Development of applications of new technologies around graphene is happening elsewhere.  Where public investment is concerned, the same is true.  Although the UK government has invested funds in a new graphene centre, far larger new European funds for a graphene centre have been awarded to Sweden rather than Manchester.  Clearly professors from Manchester University must be involved somewhere in this but how many jobs and how much money will Manchester see as a result of this discovery?

It’s looking doubtful than this will deliver regional impacts or generate large numbers of new jobs – and neither should we expect it to.

Part of the reason for this is the industry context for graphene – electronics, mobile technologies etc, and the location of the many of the major global players in these fields. Of course the Far East has submitted many graphene patents, this is where many of the large players are located.

Hidden value of incremental innovation

Less popular with policymakers is incremental innovation.  You are unlikely to be given a Nobel Prize for this, but it may have huge market consequences. Incremental innovation represents one or many small improvements to an existing product which supports or increases the product’s competitive position over time. Incremental innovation calls for proactive routes to developing new solutions with customers, new services and products to meet perceived and predicted needs.

Looking on the web will bring you an array of innovations identified as incremental, with high technology products like iPads and Google, and less obvious examples like multi-blade razors and bicycles. all have evolve using different techniques and materials to meet customer needs. And of course, working closely with customers should mean you are developing ideas close to markets and therefore can sell what is developed more easily.

So business and management and design also come into this process of customer led innovation, rather than it be simply scientific and technological discovery.  Am I arguing against scientific invention?  Clearly not.  It needs to be balanced against context though, and how to focus on what can be achieved for economic growth at the same time.

Well then, where does this leave countries like Czech Republic as they embark on implementation plans and  programmes for innovation through new structural funds?  A focus on identifying what is already a strength, an emphasis on incremental rather than disruptive innovations and a strategy for bringing key large firms on board to work with those working to develop scientific and technological solutions might all be useful first steps.  Building on these practical steps is surely likely to bring return on investment locally.  After all, wouldn’t it be better to adjust those great expectations rather than end up with bleak house?

 For those new to Dickens let me recommend an incremental innovation familiar to most people – Wikipedia.  Great Expectations,

And Bleak House

Author: Lynn Martin, Manchester Metropolitan University