EUROPE: Leading the world in innovation

European research and innovation policy has always promoted collaboration between and within university and business sectors, but recent developments point to improved outcomes. This is indicated by the recent announcement of three Knowledge and Innovation Communities or KICs - in climate change, sustainable energy and the information society - with the espoused objective to become world leaders in their fields.

As each of these multinational consortiums could receive funding of up to EUR100 million (US$138 million) a year for 15 years, they represent a significant investment in a new model of research from which Australian policy might learn.

The KICs are an initiative of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. The EIT was set up by the European parliament in 2008 to further policies encouraging innovation in higher education and business in Europe and to help provide the scale and focus in research to compete with the US.

The effectiveness of past European collaborative research programmes was severely limited by parochial political demands from individual nations, and a naive policy belief in collaboration for collaboration's sake. These pressures no doubt are still being exerted but the KICs show good policy outcomes can emerge despite their continuing presence.

In contrast to many European policies of the past, which allocated funding broadly and inclusively, the KICs are elitist. The competitive tendering process identified the preference for working with the most advanced research universities and firms.

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. Corporate partners need to demonstrate substantial commitment as they are expected to make significant contributions to the EUR3 demanded of the KICs for every euro provided by the EIT.

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.

New masters degree programmes will be developed that blend technical content with strategic management and innovation studies. Innovation is to be encouraged by the creation of a laboratory to model new innovation and technology transfer processes and encourage entrepreneurship.

The leader of the London hub, David Gann, captures the ambition of the KIC when he says it will help "define our future digital economy".

As well as developing new organisational structures encouraging collaboration, Europe is investing heavily in creating the digital infrastructure for supporting collaborative research.
Its GEANT network, for example, connects an estimated 40 million research and education users in 40 countries across the continent, and connects Europe with international networks.

As well as providing the secure backbone services for large projects such as the Large Hadron Collider, it aids connectivity between researchers in fields as diverse as climate change, heart disease, vulcanology and the resurrection of ancient musical instruments.

There is considerable policy effort to ensure integration between the various providers of this multi-layered electronic infrastructure.

What can we learn in Australia from these European developments? We cannot replicate the scale of these investments but we can attempt to connect with them and learn from their experiences.

The new collaborative research models make our Co-operative Research Centres look impoverished in comparison. Fortunate to receive a relatively benign review of their performance by Mary O'Kane in 2008, few CRCs have built the connections with business necessary for effective collaborative research and innovation.

There has been little attempt to develop the sort of educational offerings and entrepreneurship development programmes seen to be a necessary complement to research in the KICs.

The models of innovation CRCs adopt are dated and need significant refreshment in this regard and in areas such as encouraging user engagement and using the opportunities provided by electronic infrastructure in virtual collaborative and design laboratories.

Our digital infrastructure for research is well supported by Aarnet but there needs to be much greater clarity about its potential relationship with the national broadband network and the research and business opportunities this could provide. Similarly, there has been little consideration of the innovation potential in business should we be successful with our bid to host the Square Kilometre Array telescope.

This implies the need for improved policy capacity in Australia as opportunities may have been missed. The 2008 Cutler review of innovation in Australia observed that innovation is a continually changing process constantly requiring new policy approaches. We have to learn from policy experiences overseas and develop detailed knowledge of new policy experiments in order to engage with them effectively.

Europe can still be accused of largesse and inefficiencies but in some areas it is delivering the scale and focus in policies required to encourage innovation that is internationally competitive. Drawing on overseas experiences of collaborative research will be essential if we are to innovate sufficiently to deliver the productivity improvements recently demanded by the Prime Minister.

*Mark Dodgson is director of the technology and innovation management centre at the University of Queensland's business school. This article first appeared in The Australian Higher Education Section and is republished with permission.