Europe: Knowledge and Innovation Communities

This article by Mark Dodgson of the University of Queensland describes a major new initiative of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), established by the European Parliament in 2008 “to further policies encouraging innovation in higher education and business in Europe…to compete with the U.S.” Three Knowledge and Innovation Communities, or KICs, have been created with funding of up to 100 million Euros over 15 years. Dodgson describes one of the three KICs:

The KIC researching the future information and communication society, for example, involves leading research groups in London, Berlin, Eindhoven, Helsinki, Paris and Stockholm. The London hub is based in Imperial College with University College as a partner. Its corporate partners include IBM, Hewlett Packard and British Telecom….The work of the KICs encompasses research, education and innovation. The research agenda of the future information society includes the personalisation of digital services in transport, health and cultural heritage and explores the economic and social significance of pervasive computing and virtual prototyping.

This sort of top-down approach to innovation sounds odd to U.S. ears; our own “national innovation system” is much more diffuse and bottom-up. If you look at all of the nationally-guided efforts to innovate an economy, there are not many successes.  Dodgson acknowledges that past European top-down efforts to foster innovation failed; in his opinion, not because top-down innovation is always doomed to fail, but rather due to “parochial political demands from individual nations, and a naive policy belief in collaboration for collaboration’s sake.”

In contrast, the KICs are elitist, with a competitive granting process. And they are creating “new organizational structures encouraging collaboration” and “investing heavily in creating the digital infrastructure for supporting collaborative research.” (I’d link to learn more about exactly what they are doing to foster collaboration, especially virtual collaboration.)

Dodgson then compares the new KICs to an existing Australian national initiative called Co-operative Research Centres or CRCs. He is critical, saying they have not built connections to business, they are not developing educational offerings, and nor are they creating entrepreneurship development programs. All three of these are central to the KICs.

So what makes the U.S. an innovative economy, when we don’t have anything like a national innovation center? A complex question–but ultimately it has to be a bottom-up answer. Rather than guide innovation from the top down, we have created conditions that enable innovation to emerge from the bottom-up. That involves many complex variables: intellectual property law, financial regulations that foster venture capital, tax policies in favor of small business, labor laws that make it easy for start-ups to hire and fire workers, bankruptcy laws that allow a “fresh start”, a corporation structure that creates a strict line between business finances and personal finances of the founders, strong universities to educate the next generation, smooth technology transfer between universities and corporations, government funding for basic research that has no immediate profitable application…wow, this list has gotten really long in just thirty seconds of typing.

So imagine if you’re a national government and you have two choices: (1) make all of the difficult political choices involved in changing all of the variables I just listed; (2) vote to distribute 100 million dollars among your top businesses and universities. Which one sounds political easier?

In closing, Dodgson referred to “The 2008 Cutler review of innovation in Australia” and I’m going to track this report down…stay posted!