Innovation Ireland

Within a few hours of the launch of the report of the Innovation Taskforce I was sharing a platform with one of its members, Chris Horn, at a small public meeting in Rathfarnham. The topic was science and education, and both of us were able to use the report in making some of our key points. It seems to me that the territory covered by the Taskforce report is one that has begun to interest the public, with at least a vague realisation dawning that we cannot return to old-style employment creation in labour-intensive industries. The game has changed, and we must adapt. What this report is really about, therefore, is how we go about doing that.

So how do we go about it? Well, in 60 different ways, if you use the list of recommendations in the report as your point of departure. Probably rather more, actually, as some of these recommendations are really clusters of related proposals. These range from the high level and visionary, via the large-scale operational, to rather more minor ones. Some are practical and easily capable of implementation, some are highly aspirational, some are fairly intangible. If you were to do what perhaps some will do, and open the report immediately  at chapter 14 with its list of recommendations, you would be able to follow these easily enough, but you could perhaps wonder what the big overarching idea is. In fact, the foundation of the report is the notion of an innovation ‘ecosystem’, and the recommendations are intended to give effect to that. Like many such concepts, it can become a tad grating when repeated too often, but let us stick with it. The term is of course borrowed from science, where it refers to the interaction between organisms and their physical environment. It’s actually quite a useful metaphor, as it allows an exploration of the interaction between what the report calls the ‘different elements’ (including entrepreneurs, education, tax, finance, public institutions, R&D, and so forth). Actually, the ecosystem could have been developed a bit more, distinguishing for example between the ‘organisms’ (entrepreneurs, educators, officials etc) and the ‘physical environment’ (taxation, finance etc).

The report then lists six principles that guide the content. As there were also six ‘elements’ in the ‘ecosystem’ I was expecting direct links between these, but that did not turn out to be the case, though there are some overlaps. Still, the principles are sensible enough, and set out the approach that will need to be adopted for Ireland to be an innovation hub: a focus on entrepreneurship, the availability of seed and venture capital (slightly irritatingly referred to as ‘smart capital’), an innovative education system, the prioritisation of government-identified flagship projects, the focusing of research projects to address national priorities. You may notice that’s only five principles: I omitted principle number 2 because, to be honest, I couldn’t make anything tangible of it (a call for a ‘coherent national effort’ to establish, attract and grow enterprises).

So what do I think of all this? Well, we need to be able to wave this report at anyone who may think of investing here in a high value setting and who wants to be convinced that we are serious about a high value knowledge economy. Many of the questions or concerns that such a person might have are addressed and/or answered here. I suspect that it will help us to raise our game as a country. If I have a quibble, it is that this is not particularly a visionary document; it focuses on achievable actions and the elimination of hygiene factors, rather than a big vision thing with one or two key headline-grabbing audacious proposals; worthy rather than exciting.

The report does two rather more specific things – one good, one (as I would argue) bad. The good one is that it recommends raising our national R&D spend to 3 per cent of GDP, over a period extending to 2020. Whether this is going to happen, or how, will be the subject of a post early next week.

The bad one is the promise of a specific number of jobs. The Irish Times had warned us that the report would hold out the prospect of creating 120,000 jobs. In fact it suggests 117,000. But the methodology used for determining the number is to my mind highly doubtful, drawing on job creation in Silicon Valley start-ups and enterprises and extrapolating from that a very notional figure that might (or as the report acknowledges, might not) apply in Ireland. And it throws around other possible metrics based on other potential conditions. But as we have discussed in a previous post, this attempt to forecast directly created jobs is not sensible, and in any case not achievable in this form.

Finally, the report dwells quite a bit on higher education, and the handling of intellectual property: again, the subject of another post over the next day or two. But so as not to keep you in suspense, what it says on higher education is not perhaps the strongest part of the report.

Still, even if this report is not perfect, it is what we have, and we must run with it. The country’s future is at stake.

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4 Comments on “Innovation Ireland”

  1. Walter Says:

    Fascinating reading. The current innovation debate (or “in-no-vation debate” as a colleague of mine likes to call it) often misses a key point. In the ecosystem analogy, most of the revolutionary changes come from the undergrowth. It’s the guy living in his step-mother’s basement, spending night after night hacking away obsessively that brings the radical developments – not the cosseted few with their IDA grants and the like.

    As you so rightly say, we need to move away from labour-intensive industries – Google and Intel are already has-beens in the world of the future. The best thing the government can do is put its hands deep in its pockets – and keep them there. Its only when the pips are squeaking that we’ll see the REAL innovators coming forward.

    • Sean Says:

      This, I agree,is the kernel of the matter and education, in my opinion, has a vital role to play. We seem fixed on the idea of getting bums on seats in our schools and colleges and rewarding them with 600 points/1st class honours degrees etc. for learning stuff off and vomiting it backup at the end of every term or semester. We should be more innovative in the way in which we reward students for their endeavours. The extreme of this is that we should promote the idea of teenagers/young adults spending more time in their bedrooms and garages tinkering away. I agree with Walter, this is where real innovation will take place. The question is, are we so stuck in the mud that we cannot see the wood from the trees? How do we go about changing the system so that we achieve the 117,000 or 120,000 jobs we target. If we gave every 15 year old free broadband and a free high spec lap top it might be a start.

  2. Vincent Says:

    If there was a change to the Law on Bankruptcy(10.7)p78 it might cause a shift from the fetish on overpriced property were it extended to the personal as well as the corporate. And in an odd way this mundane housekeeping stuff might have much more honest effect than anything spectacular.

  3. belfield Says:

    Interesting what the report says about IP – particularly given the tone and direction of recent OECD work which suggests that obsessive focus on patenting activity by universities is among the most ineffectual way of disseminating / catalysing innovative practice in an economy.


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