Máire Geoghegan Quinn, the Commissioner for Research & Innovation in Europe, set a goal for Europe to become an innovation economy. By removing innovation bottlenecks, focusing on societal challenges and introducing a new form of Partnerships (European Innovation Partnerships) where (pan) European stakeholders can work together, Europe will create 3,7 million new jobs and position itself as a world player if not leader in innovation.

The Innovation Union is one of the seven pillars of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, which will deliver high levels of employment, productivity and social cohesion. It is a strategy that combines formidable goals with formidable challenges, a combination that might seem a recipe for failure. Or am I being too sceptical?

The Innovation Union

The Innovation Union plan describes a number of bottlenecks in European innovation that need to be addressed, including access to finance and reducing bureaucratic and administrative burdens. Innovation will be focussed on societal challenges.

The new European Innovation Partnerships (EIP) are pan-European schemes. Achieving a healthy and active life is the first EIP pilot aimed at giving Europe’s citizens two extra years of healthy life by 2020, based on the fact that caring for an ageing population is a real and costly problem. This is an ambitious goal.

The required increase in R&D expenditure is another potential stumbling block. The Netherlands was criticized by the EC DG Research when it proposed cutting down spending on education and research. This trend, reducing expenditure, I believe will be the same throughout Europe.

Attracting and retaining research talent in Europe and improving gender balance are also on the European wish list as is removing duplication of research, more focus and improved coordination within the next 8th Framework Programme (the programmatic research agenda after 2013).

Blood, toil, sweat and tears

Eurosceptics are likely to be dismissive of the plan as being ‘too big’, ‘too daring’ or just ‘too European’, and another one of those plans ‘destined to fail’, like the Lisbon Agreement or the 2009 European Year of Innovation and Creativity. The latter was big on goals, but low on budget.

It is certainly true that the EU’s size and patchwork landscape of countries, differing levels of (business) maturity and, more importantly, national / local interests add a level of management complexity.

I believe that the combination of maturity and national interest will be the biggest challenges. The current discussion over the language of the European patent is a very good example. Some member states feel that the requirement to file European patents in one of the three European Patent Office official languages (French, German, English) and not in their own language gives them an unfair disadvantage because of their country’s lack of proficiency in the three agreed languages (defacto in English).

The Commissioner in her speech refers to an ‘innovation emergency’ rather than an innovation challenge.

Countries need to see beyond their (vested) national interests and see the bigger European picture. However this may be difficult to defend to their populations. It feels like member states are on ‘get as much out of it for our country’ mission, resulting in amendments and watering down that what is really needed, a single European Patent without costly translations and procedures .

This of course is just one example of where something that should benefit Europe is proving difficult to impose. The objections may be understandable, but make the goal of an Innovation Union fraught with difficulties – involving blood, toil, sweat and tears. Is there another way?

It is an emergency

The Commissioner in her speech refers to an ‘innovation emergency’ rather than an innovation challenge. Emergencies in everyday life involve police and fire-fighters, flashing lights and sirens. It must be assumed that her phrase was carefully chosen.

There are actually several reasons. On the one hand there are some challenges that no country can resolve on its own (e.g. climate change). On the other hand, Europe, unlike the US , is not famed for its innovative effort. We do not have innovation DNA in our European veins like the US has and, lastly, of course China and India as emerging innovation giants (and perhaps the modern day innovation bogeyman).

Europe wants to strengthen its position in the international market and to create jobs, achieve sustainable growth and better lives for its population. Innovation is the key to these goals.

The US is better off

US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke in early 2010 said that the US has an innovation deficit. From a semantic point of view at least, the US seems better off. A deficit, of course, is less urgent than an emergency.

Nevertheless, President Obama took the initiative “Educate to Innovate ” as part of the Race To The Top . The US is making efforts to strengthen its innovative capacity by making Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) more attractive areas for students. The country we look up to also feels it needs to improve. Are we all pointing at each other?

If you are in a race you need to run

Especially in a global race no one wants to be intentionally left behind. The proposal for an Innovation Union is ambitious and complex which is inevitable since the European Union is made up of 27 countries each with its own interests, laws, language, and so on. A colleague compared it to collecting frogs in a wheelbarrow: every time you think you have got them all in, they start jumping out.

But what is the alternative?

Few would say we should do nothing and return to times when everything seemed easier and clearer. The Innovation Union is actually a programme that should make innovation easier, get more parties to innovate and focus on solving social problems. a stronger Europe, with more jobs, better standards of living and sustainable society.

The Innovation Union plan includes many challenges, some bigger than others. It is not a magic formula, but perhaps a working one. The needs are clear and the result must be based on common sense, good compromise (keeping the bigger picture in mind) and tremendous effort. The first results from the pilot “healthy and active life” are the first proof of the pudding. I’m curious how it will taste.

By Rob Blaaboer, contributing editor, the Netherlands

About the author

Rob has more than 13 years of innovation experience and he is currently the Innovation Practice Manager at Logica, responsible for, among others, participation in research projects (like FP7 and national programmes). Furthermore, he manages Logica’s contribution to the Norm for Innovation Management (TC 389) and is part of Logica’s Global Innovation Council. In the past, Rob has worked as Interim Innovation Manager, Global Funnel Manager, Innovation Thought Leader and a number of other innovation positions both internally as well as for clients. He also has extensive experience in Financial Services. Apart from the contribution to this website, he also blogs frequently (in Dutch) on on innovation, trends and gadgets.