Innovating innovation

For its anniversary conference, UTC chose to analyse in depth the concept of innovation. After 40 years beating new tracks, the question arises “How can we (should we) innovate innovation?” The distinguished speakers at the conference [convened in the magnificent Salons at the Sorbonne in Paris] addressed this question, proposing paths for further thoughts and actions, set as milestones for the 40 years to come.

Innovating innovation

Focussing for a moment on the recent, trendy innovation pitch, President Storck recalled the commitments UTC had already taken in this field. Witness the motto "Let us lend meaning to innovation".

"The set of measures proposed by the French Government to promote innovation point - beyond some threadbare uses - to a real level of support".President Storck also recalled that UTC was making a definitive move to higher visibility and notoriety in an environment seen as conducive to better creativity and attractiveness. "Our local innovation and creativity eco-system sees us both as a university of technology engaged in research, training and knowledge transfer, and as a local key-player in the Picardie Region, in a partnership sphere of activities between the university, the enterprises and the regional territory. Success in innovation depends largely on the interactions among the various sectors, scientific fields and, of course, the actors themselves".

UTC at the heart of an innovative network

The local eco-system mentioned above is the Picardie version of similar schemes we see being installed and developed round the world, and is busy formalising links between the University, the enterprises and the regional territory, links which can be seen as "the hall-marks of UTC's chosen determination to be at the cutting edge". Senator Philippe Marini, Mayor of Compiegne recalled the original features of UTC, "neither a university, nor an engineering school, but a unique entity serving as an educational milestone and a factor for innovation", where "pedagogy anticipated the new [Bologna] system we now see applied in European Universities" ... "UTC with its students and academic staff have become essential ingredients of our urban diversity [in Compiegne]. Together they have multiplied the links with our local economic tissue and we have readily noted the positive impulse created here. Witness the numerous innovating start-ups". What surmises Philippe Marini is the recipe for such results? "UTC is totally legitimate to encompass the innovation process globally", notes Marc-André Fliniaux, Regional Director for Research and Technology (DRRT). To this end, we must engage in debate, dialogue, confront our ideas, notably in the conference format like today!

The concept of 'Open innovation' and input from the digital revolution

Chris Anderson, via a live video-link from San Francisco, was invited to open the debate. Chris took the example of his own company 3D Robotics which resulted from on-line interactions among thousands of Internauts interested in his feasibility questions about civilian drones. "3D Robotics has new become a 21st Century high tech company [Cf. / and] It is the result of 20 years' experience in 'building' open source innovation products using the Internet; moving into a real world of electronics, transportation, mobile apps, etc.", deciphers Chris. "Open innovation enables you to innovate more rapidly whilst keeping costs down. Other companies can and do use our software, in the open source mode of course. It is a good thing provided we keep our added value thanks to building and eco-system, an open platform round these software packages and our finished products." Here we see that a totally different logic is (and must be) used by the economic players. "This is also holds", surmises Bernard Stiegler, "for academics". The philosopher Stiegler recalled the origins of UTC, the objective assigned being to integrate the innovation concept in the French Universities, as it was seen by Schumpeter when he exposed his theory of 'creative destruction'. He went on to demonstrate that today the theory in in a blind alley. "Creative destruction in many instances has become destructive destruction, in which social systems are annihilated as are even psychic frameworks". The model on which originally UTC was built has collapsed and therefore we must "identify ingredients propitious to renewing the framework in the current crises and observe how input from the digital revolution will impact the new system's framework". '

Peer-to-peer' exchanges, re-inventing innovation ?

The Internet is above all a new inter-relation model that runs counter to the relationship producer-consumer. It reactivates the concept of 'contributive' actions and peer to peer exchanges, which was specific to ancient Greek civilisations and the foundations of rational thinking. As Bernard Stiegler analyses the situation, UTC should (and can) work on the development of a new 'digitised' framework that would guarantee 'contributive' research in a peer-to-peer mode, using open innovation models. "This would alone constitute a breakthrough in the innovation system itself. Universities are at the heart of re-inventing peer-to-peer models, open innovation, 'fab-labs', etc., given that they themselves are intrinsically peer-to-peer systems." Bernard Stiegler suggests that the next step must be to take action: "The UTC student population should serve as pilot fish to design and implement a 'contributive territory' and thereby re-invent the whole innovation process".

The importance of the territorial dimension

The importance of the territorial concept was also underlined by Alan Hart, an American architect-urban engineer. "Regardless of the excitement generated by the ongoing digital revolution, the vertiginous rise in connections, the supposed abolition of distances, the place where we live is more important than ever before, sharing ideas, meeting people, at those cross-roads where innovation emerges, ... these are all intrinsically part of the territorial concept." Having noted how the world is full of barriers (at work, at home and in our social lives, etc.,) Alan hart proposes a form of urbanism that removes those barriers that run counter to innovative ideals. "Three changes have fundamentally transformed our visions of land planning within the past decade; the work place has changed, with a stronger integration between design and fabrication and increased attention to be paid to the local context and characteristics; the city in this scenario become a pleasant place again to live in; and the inhabitants of suburbs will move away from their isolated, monochrome environments and start returning to the cities". These 3 phenomena also modify the role of industry in a given territory. Alan Hart used the expression Industry 1.0 to describe the logic of companies like Google, Apple or Microsoft, who set up their HQs in distant suburban settings, creating corporate campuses where land space was easy to come by. "Then we saw Industry 2.0 structures re-integrating cities in districts devoted specifically to innovative schemes, such as exist in New York, Boston, Toronto, San Francisco, Seattle, Montréal, etc., in locations where industry, urbanism and combined social and cultural offer, with educational services and research all co-exist". In Seattle, the South Lake Union project took 8 years to plan and called on a great number of exchanges with the local actors and partners in order to create spaces conducive to the inhabitants of the district, to the enterprise and shops that choose to settle there, etc. Amazon Corp., for example, has moved a centre to South Lake. "What he have now is a dynamic situation that is attractive for young talents: South Lake has generated 20 000 new jobs and is proving deterministic in terms of innovative projects", notes Alan Hart.

An eight-point statement to enhance our perception of innovation

Reflections on urban issues and planning are totally relevant, even if they seem far removed from questions about innovation. Professor Andy Pratt, chair of Media and Economics at King's College, University of London underscores the fact that the framework of perception of innovation must be enlarged even further. "Innovation", he asserts, "has been too narrowly bound by technological considerations". In order to enlarge the framework, Andy Pratt offers eight pointed statements, beginning with the nature of knowledge as his Point 1, which he sees as "neither objective nor atomised but rather inter-subjective and relational". Innovation does not stem from the simple addition of knowledge items, but comes from discussions, interactions, meetings. Point 2 - far from being a purely scientific and abstract phenomenon, innovation always occurs in a context and without this context, it simply will not take place. "There is therefore the dual notion of time and place that define the added value, the success or the failure of any ideas, in a holistic manner", notes Professor Pratt. Points 3 and 4: the digital revolution has not abolished distance nor time and there is no such thing as a purely virtual economy. Points 5 to 7 concentrate on what we can call the value or added value of innovation: innovation per se has no intrinsic value, inasmuch as it can change radically as a function of markets and sectors. We must therefore ensure that products arrive on time to meet demand, since there is no way to guarantee in advance success of failure of an idea or a product. It all depends on their attractiveness/popularity, independently from any technological superiority. The 8th and final point looks at the legitimate ways and means to protect or share an idea. "Legal constraints are every bit as important as the technical features of a given innovation. They define the relative powers of the players in the field. This final point and question delimits the possibilities of collaborative innovation and even open innovation", underscores Prof Pratt.

When engineers exit their ivory towers

The eight-pointed statement above could serve as a grammar for a new innovation. For Bruno Bachimont, UTC's Director of Research "innovation is more than an action, it is a process a new language that we still have to build and master. This language is no longer a dogmatic exposé only understand by specialists, nor is it a set of top-down orders and we must be ready to accept the terms whatever their source." Contrary to the situation that prevailed in the years 1940-1950, engineers and scientists have exited their ivory towers and now innovation has donned a fundamental social role - if only in terms of acceptability, recalls Alexei Grinbaum a research scientist with the CEA (French atomic energy research agency). The new situation had led to a new problem "Sheer complexity", stresses Yann Moulier-Boutang, professor of economics at UTC.

How are we to add economic value to intellectual capital ?

In today's technology intensive society, the challenges to find the right technical solution to a given problem are infinitely more complex than before. Innovation encompasses an inter-relational density: we must vigorously involve social scientists, who are absolutely necessary if we want to see an intelligent, intelligible, transdisciplinary dialogue" In 2009, the Morand-Manceau report clarified matters, recalls Prof. Moulier-Boutang: innovation is not necessarily technical or even material in nature and its 'intensity' does not rely only on the number of patents lodged, papers published or GDP points invested in R&D. It is one of the 'relative' challenges of the 21st century "Should expenditure in R&D be considered as money spent, or credit or as an asset? Knowledge is built up from implicit points, from a halo that relates to the capacity of people to learn. Far more than registering a patent, know-how and intellectual capital now constitute externalities that an national accounting system do not recognise as such. And yet the value is extremely important and the question can be framed: how can we (should we) assess, protect and set up the value as a new wealth generating item/process? Prof Moulier-Boutang uses a metaphor - the value of bees pollinizing flowers, fruit trees ... can be assessed as close to 790 billion $US/yr., compared with 1 billion $US for the honey alone. "Today we should be exploring the continent of human pollinating; we should analyse how the model is being inverted. As I see the future, this is the new frontier for UTC in coming years".