Thursday, August 13, 2009


Over the next couple of months, I will be posting more frequently on this topic. See below for a large number of posts and resources from this blog over the last couple of years:

link here

The word itself is currently dominating debate about the future of research in Europe and this debate has a lot of implications for anyone studying and working in universities.

Some questions we want to start discussing include:

- Can we start putting some common understanding as to what this word means? For example, to what extent does the concept of innovation extend to public sector operations, in particular with respect to education and healthcare? At present, there is a danger that innovation will become synonymous with technology start-ups that make money. These are clearly one big part of what people mean by developing an "innovative" economy but lets keep the discussion broad. Also, with respect to Frankfurt's discussion of "bullshit"" lets try to delineate when using the idea of innovation is useful and when its just used as a PR concept. Also, we should probably agree that innovation does not neccesarily mean something universe-changing. Innovations may simply involve hospitals adopting better technologies that already exist, or schools changing the way they deliver a curriculum.

- With respect to the Irish case, what are the key issues with respect to innovation? We have posted before on Irish strategies to foster innovation. In particular the Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation, and the Smart Economy documents outline Irish government strategy in this area. Serious questions emerge in these strategies about the nature of the outcomes they are intended to foster. A large suite of different schemes and agencies are funded to develop research in higher level institutions and other groups. Part of the idea behind this strategy is that this will eventually lead to commercialisation of research ideas emerging from these research groups. In particular, start-up companies will emerge staffed partly by highly education graduates with advanced qualifications in areas like ICT, Engineering, Pharma, Biotech and so on. However, paradoxically we have not developed a research literature in Ireland that places a way of evaluating whether the money invested in these plans is paying off with respect to the types of outcomes envisioned. This takes place in the context of a heated debate about the nature and remit of universities with respect to teaching, research, public service, and commercialisation.

- In the Irish case, lets keep the European dimension in mind. There are a wide range of funding opportunities from EU sources for individuals and organisations.

- What is the interaction between technological innovations and wider social outcomes? We have discussed on the blog before some aspects where innovation intersects with behavioural economics. In particular, issues like well-being and adaption to technology, skill-biased technological change, technology adoption, incentives and creativity and so on are all areas that are worth exploring.


Peter Carney said...

I reckon the understanding and pursuit of innovation, especially as it relates to the public and social arena, could gain massive headway by avoiding use of the 'I' word and focusing only on what might be 'its' important constituent elements like:

WHAT needs improvement?
WHY does it need improvement?
HOW can it be improved?

The WHAT and WHY questions could be answered with well conducted empirical evidence, inc. cost-benefit evidence, and the (core) HOWs could be answered by examining and adjusting incentives/disincentives that help/hinder the desired (WHAT & WHYs) improvements.

It seems to me that if you then add some sensible metrics for gaging improvement you get applied economics or did i get lost along the way?

Liam Delaney said...

Sure - it is applied economics. Some commentators following people like Taleb have argued that applied economics can have nothing to say about innovation. The reasoning behind this is that innovations of massive scale are concentrated in the very far right of talent scales and even then involve large elements of randomness.

I can accept some of that argument up to a point. But if you think of things like innovation in medical care in the 20th century, much of this was on-the-ground process innovation that diffused gradually and ultimately led (in most industrial countries) to better health.

In terms of what needs improvement and why, there is currently a lot of poor arguments in the field. One argument is that we are in some sort of economic war with countries like India and China. Thus, we need to improve our efficiency in producing products either by cutting costs or improving output for given costs. If we don't do this, then we will all be executed or something like that.

A version of that argument is having too much of an influence in the current debate. It is associated with other arguments that the growth of India and China will neccesarily be bad for Ireland, which completely overlooks the contribution these countries will make to technology improvements and the fact that rising middle class markets may represent the best commercial hope for many Irish companies in areas like food, education, medical devices and so on.

Having said that, commercial competitiveness is a proximate goal that is sensible and should be communicated better. In that sense, the what and hows would be improvement in education, transport, energy provision, use of information technology, efficiency of government processes related to business.

Perhaps a better "why" would be human welfare. We want to live long lives relatively free from illness, in conditions of security and in conditions where we are free from major discomfort. The what and hows of this intersect with the type of things that make a country economically competitive in many ways. But keeping a proper focus on human welfare might help us avoid the type of ant colony language that has wrecked a sizeable portion of the innovation debate in Ireland.

If I had to give a stab at the types of innovations that would really improve welfare in Ireland both in terms of enabling people to earn a better living in the international market and in terms of directly improving well-being, I would list some of the following:

- Substantial innovations in the quality and targetting of early childhood care driven both by government action and innovations in social attitudes to this area

- Changes in the awareness people have of their own health and psychological well-being concomitant with the development of more mature markets in personal finance, health, and so on.

- Widespread innovations in disease management, not just developing drugs but completely changing the social and personal norms around disease prevention and management.

- Innovations in the processes whereby universities lead to business start-ups. In particular, better social institutions encouraging and faciltating people with bright ideas to directly implement them. Ultimately, this may be a key area of innovation in Ireland in the next 20 years. There is considerable scepticism as to whether the university system can be dynamic enough to be a main driver in changing the economic base of the country toward high-value indigenous start-ups. We have only started this debate though.

Peter Carney said...

I share the sentiment and largely agree with the ideas you highlighted but to advance the debate and make some headway I'm convinced that we have to stop using the 'I' word. It is useless and even worse can result in empty circular reasoning.. to highlight my point look what happens:

"If I had to give a stab at the types of [improvements*] that would really improve welfare in Ireland ..."

"Substantial [improvements*] in the quality and targetting of early childhood care driven both by government action and [improvements*] in social attitudes to this area"

"[Improvements*]in the processes whereby universities lead to business start-ups. In particular, better social institutions encouraging and faciltating people with bright ideas to directly implement them. Ultimately, this may be a key area of [improvements*] in Ireland in the next 20 years."

*Innovation: a new way of doing something; a change (incremental, radical, or revolutionary) in thinking resulting from studying and experimenting; inventing.

I firmly believe not using the word would be a worthwhile experiment and would engender the spirit we so eagerly seek to promote.

Liam Delaney said...

ok - you are right that its worth thinking about this.

Let me give one use of the word innovation in a university context. There is teaching, which involves well teaching! We then thinking of research, which can be from very basic scientific research across the spectrum to more applied research. The third plank is then thought of as "innovation". This is essentially short-hand for the use of research particularly in commercial applications. I agree that this is not a perfect phrase for it, but in general it does get across the idea that some research is specfically geared at inventing something or changing some process and that a structure should be there to facilitate this.

In the wider debate, we tend to think of innovation as the development of some invention or process for commercial (or in the wider sense I spoke about) policy application. Again, the word is often used in a way that comes close to being bullshit (in the philosophical sense!). but I wonder does it get at the core of idea using research to change things.

Peter's point is that improvements is a better and less bullshit-prone phrase than innovation. Given that one of the action points in the SMART economy document is to have a campaign to brand Ireland as the Innovation Island, this is probably less nitpicky a point than it seems.

Moving away though from the use of the word, some other issues that arise in the "innovation" debate include

- the commercialisation of research as a vehicle for economic development

- the education systems needed for Irish workers to be equipped to earn good wages in the modern technological environment

- development of PhD programmes in Ireland with respect to the aim of increasing the amount of research driven small companies

I will start structuring this discussion a little more as we go but for now please do start using the comments section if you care about this issue. If you are the type of person that reads this blog, then this is your career that is being debated in this discussion so please give opinions and thoughts about the issues involved.