Innovation For A Better Future – by Shlomo Maital

Innovation

The question, how can innovation be fostered, magnified, expanded and enhanced is one of society’s big questions.  In a resource-scarce future, creating more value [through innovation] with fewer resources will be essential.  Shlomo Maital, Emeritus Professor at the Sameul Neaman Institute, says that our understanding of innovation systems will crucially determine our ability to shape a better future for humanity.

In research, as in life, one thing often leads to another.

My friend, colleague and co-author Prof. Amnon Frenkel is an expert on urban and regional planning. He has led, and participated in, numerous projects to build effective regional and national plans for Israel.   In his work on planning, it was vital to combine the wisdom and experience of many experts, to build regional and national master plans consensually. How could this best be done, efficiently and accurately? Frenkel devised a method, in which a group of two to three dozen experts were convened, and in a structured process built together a visual portrayal of the region under study – its infrastructure, people, industry, transportation, governance, towns and cities, and the links among them.

When the S. Neaman Institute, a think tank based at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, became a partner in an EU 7th Framework research program (“Policy incentives for the creation of knowledge”, known as PICK-ME), Frenkel and I adapted his planning methodology for a new purpose: Building visual portrayals of national innovation ecosystems, for France, Germany, Israel, Poland, and Spain. Later we expanded our PICK-ME research to include Singapore; a large Chinese science park; and the Greater Toronto health innovation system. The results are described in our forthcoming Elgar book.

We sought a way to visualize innovation ecosystems for the following reason. Every country has innovation drivers – processes and capabilities that underlie innovativeness. Some of these drivers are unique to each country. Some are common to all countries. In order to build effective pro-innovation policies, policy-makers must first reach consensus on how the country’s innovation system works. Otherwise, individual ministries and agencies will focus on narrow, partial policies that may actually be counter productive. Hence, fruitful debate on strengthening innovation in a nation should begin with consensual agreement on how its innovation system works.   Our method, we believe, helps establish such a crucial consensus.

We can summarize our main findings in just a few words.

In our study of the eight nations and regions, we found that everywhere, innovation is driven by, and hampered by, cultural factors. And national cultures differ widely, even within Europe. Hence, since every national innovation ecosystem is unique, one size (of innovation policies) never fits all. This runs counter to the EU policy of homogenizing and unifying policies of all sorts across EU member countries.

innovation

‘Mapping National Innovation Ecosystems’ by Frenkel and Maital. Edward Elgar, 2014.

Consider Israel. Israel has become known as the startup nation because of the proliferation of technology-intensive startups. Our experts, many of whom had engineering and science backgrounds, surprisingly stressed the crucial importance of cultural values in driving innovation: empowerment (the sense of efficacy, that individuals can make a difference), out-of-the-box thinking, entrepreneurial drive, and cultural diversity (Israel is a melting pot, through mass immigration, and has a wide variety of ethnic groups).

Israel began its life as a nation, in 1948, as a small poor country under external threat, and while defending itself had to absorb millions of immigrants. This created a culture of improvisation and “make-do”, solving problems with what is at hand. This, in turn, has become a part of Israel’s DNA and a key driver of entrepreneurship. Many multinational companies have established R&D centers in Israel, to leverage this Israeli skill at quick, creative solutions to difficult innovation problems.

Some Israeli pro-innovation policies can be imitated and adapted by other nations. For example, the Israeli government established a governmental venture capital firm, known as Yozma, that helped attract reluctant VC’s to Israel. Other aspects of Israel’s innovation ecosystem cannot be directly imported – e.g., its culture of improvisation and low power distance (perceived gap between the heads of an organization and its workers).

Another important finding is that in nearly every country, government policies play key roles in fostering (or hindering) innovation. In the post-2008 global economic crisis era, governments are widely seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution, as austerity programs seek to slash public spending and reduce deficits and debt.   It is easy to forget that a great deal of market-driven innovation stems from basic research, which emerges from publicly-funded universities. America’s world-class software industry began with massive government support for academic research and teaching in computer science. The Internet emerged from a defense department project. And there are many other examples.   A key aspect of all innovation ecosystems is the quality of the scientific and technological infrastructure on which it is built, infrastructure funded by the public purse.

Another key aspect is “ease of doing business”.   In some countries, e.g. Singapore or Israel, it is extremely easy to set up and run a business, and to close a business. In other countries, e.g. France, it is exceedingly difficult. Bureaucratic obstacles to entrepreneurial innovation are relatively easy to eliminate – yet many nations fail to tackle them.

Systems thinking is like moral principles – highly praised in theory, but too little implemented in practice.  We hope our book will help nations to strengthen their innovation systems, in a manner uniquely suited to their history, personality, culture and institutions.    In this age of resource scarcity, only pervasive innovation will enable us all to do more with less.

 

Shlomo jpegShlomo Maital is senior research associate at the Samuel Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science & Technology, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and professor (emeritus). He was the academic director of TIM-Technion Institute of Management, Israel’s leading executive leadership development institute and a pioneer in action-learning methods, from 1998 – 2009.  His new book Mapping National Innovation Ecosystems, published by Edward Elgar, is available to buy from 25th July.

 

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