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The future of research is called into question(s)...

According to André-Yves PORTNOFF, Director of the Intelligence Revolution Observatory is a consultant in prospective studies and strategy for whom creativity and building of human relations will be absolutely necessary tomorrow for the development of any innovative actions. Interactions met him recently …

The future of research is called into question(s)...

You often remind us that an innovation is not the same thing as a discovery or an invention. So, can you tell again, what constitutes an innovation?

In short, an invention is a solution to a problem, sufficiently novel to possibly merit a patent registration, but not necessarily efficient. Innovation results from an idea that may be more or less recent but which leads to a real application. In fact the definition or qualification of an innovation must include an application, to be implemented by customers in the market place or by some segment of Society, in a larger connotation. From the point of view of an entrepreneur, we can also assign another definition; you innovate when you change in order to remain in business and competitive in a changing context.

To what extent is innovation not the linear follow-on to research?

There is a solid legend that innovation is the result of a linear process running from the most basic, sky-blue research. Many research scientists become furious if anyone dares attacks the legend. They are the sort of person who ignores the history of techniques and technologies. Let’s surmise a moment on a sad case in point: that of Kodak. The company had all the know-how and the capital assets well before 2003 to move from silver-salt roll film into digital film/cameras. The company did not make the move, given that they did not want to relinquish the fields on which their entire trade history was based. Just 9 years later, the company went bankrupt since they had refused to innovate. It was not through lack of knowledge/know-how but simply they did not have the vision, nor the will-power to shift in policy orientation. Let us not forget either the generic case of stainless steels, the non-corrosion properties of which were in fact not recognised until years had passed and were certainly not the target of the iron/steel development of that time. Research is often very useful to improve an innovation or to widen the scope of its applications. But the crucial ingredient is curiosity, a sense of observation and empathy to imagine and envision what others are ready to use, and to finance.

You also state that innovation in the future will be less technology-intensive and more managerial and that success in this area will depend largely on the trust we place in people and in long-term visions. Why is this so?

We are no longer living in the so-called ‘Glorious Thirties’ (1946 – 1975) when consumers could (and did) buy everything the market proposed. The consumers have become more demanding, for two reasons: freedom of choice is growing everywhere and Internet (and other communication forms) allows them to join forces and pressure the sellers. Moreover, the demand trend is to more and more tailor-made products, higher quality, and being all the more sensitive to the effects of the ongoing economic crisis. Hence the importance I attach to empathy. What the client buys is not just a set of technical functions, but also what these functions bring with them. We are talking about, service aspects about an immaterial vision. Our technical skills are necessary but we must be able to use them to translate expectancies - often latent or even unexpressed - into practical solutions. What people buy are the quality of our customer service and the associate expectations. An innovative enterprise must embody a manpower management practice such that it encourages them to observe, to experiment wit new ideas, to take risks. Management based on trust implies that the stockholders will accept a long term development strategy.

What roles will be assigned to engineers and to technologies in the future?

An engineer today cannot restrict his world to technicalities, given that nobody can achieve anything alone these days. He/she must therefore develop human capacities, talents … They must collaborate. An engineer must also develop his personal qualities and talents; in a sense, his job is more akin to that of the talented orchestra conductor. And this implies that he/she adopts a systemic, non-Cartesian view, inasmuch as real problems are really complex, whether we like it or not. Prof. Daniel THOMAS [UTC] and myself have demonstrated how things can go wrong in the case of biotechnologies when the vision is too linear, binary and leads on to serious technical, human and financial difficulties. Everywhere we look we can see the same need for a systemic vision. In short, engineers will defend the aims of technical matters and innovation if and only they does not restrict their job to being just an excellent technician and go on to fully accept their role as managers, displaying open minds, will-power, pedagogy and a gift to listen to others.

Can Europe, in your opinion, become the continent for innovation? If your answer is “yes”, how can this arise?

History teaches us that the most creative territories have been crossroads, spaces or places where cultural differences can meet and mutually value-add to each other: in earlier times we had Alexandria, the free communes of the Italian renaissance, England and France in the century of the “Lumières” (the enlightened”), that coincided with the Declaration of Human Rights. Being tolerant, accepting other peoples’ differences is the sine qua non of creativity in every field and hence applies to innovation too. Europe is THE continent that has made most efforts to be tolerant, to defend free speech in its layman States, each highly multicultural in its origins and ethic roots which are necessarily cosmopolitan. We live in a land-space where Chopin and Marie Curie could give wings to their genius, where the Germans and the French, after 5 centuries of war have learned to peacefully build the embryo of the United States of Europe. If we can see our way, with pride and conviction, to build on our cultural treasures, on our humanist values, we shall rapidly become the flagship continent of innovation in the word. And in doing so, it would not be to the detriment of anyone or any country but would be with all those who place their bets on Humanity.

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D.THOMAS with A-Y PORTNOFF, Rethinking biotechnologies, [Repenser les biotechnologies]. Coll. Bilingues Perspectives. Futuribles. 2007