The Risk-Monger

I recently had the good fortune of hosting seven experts in the public understanding of science and technology from the Taiwan National Science Council during a visit to Brussels. Over three days of visits in the European Commission, with my university and with science and society experts, we managed to have a concrete exchange of ideas on the role of science within diverse societies, how innovation is considered across cultures and what influence policy-making can have on research and technology.

Notwithstanding western European prejudices influenced by past trade models, Taiwan is a leader today in innovative technologies and I hoped that my Brussels network could have a chance to benefit from this meeting of minds. Unlike conferences where we all speak, this was an opportunity for those of us who make our trade on innovation strategies to stop talking and start listening.

The best image I had from those three days of meetings was a past British attempt to build a new high-speed train network on existing rail tracks. The train had looked impressive until it had to slow down to turn a corner. When Japan created their bullet-train network, they knew they had to change the entire system (fast tracks for fast trains) – in Europe too often it seems that promoting innovation is like trying to build fast trains on slow tracks. Like Irish banks, we are not prepared to break things up and start afresh.

Innovation in Europe seems to be more about tinkering around the middle – it is often handicapped by existing structures, networks and cultures. I don’t see evidence of a readiness for radical changes – a change toward an innovation culture. We look at science and research as a process of problem solving rather than invention and discovery (more Larry Laudan than Thomas Kuhn). For example, one of my Taiwanese contacts admitted that he was confused after listening to a presentation about EU efforts to improve gender balance in EU research. “You seem to be looking at problems as an evolutionary solution process…” he commented “… rather than trying to be inventive”. I believe he is right – trying to push more women into male-oriented mindset professions could only lead to limited success. We talk about equality rather than equity, quotas rather than novel opportunities – we are indeed trying to put fast trains on slow tracks. To get more women in sciences, we need a change of mindset and reach out at an early age.

The EU is trying to change the mindset and effectively is investing in new rail infrastructure, laying the foundations for fast tracks across Europe. But these shiny tracks will rust if each Member State continues to make trains with a different wheel-base. There needs to be more coordination with the sources of most of the research infrastructure funding. At least the RTD Framework Programmes are bringing diverse research centres together – but it is left to the head researchers to then go to their national authorities to beg for coordination support. They don’t have time for that, nor often the expertise.

Managing innovation (which is sometimes what I think Europe 20/20 is about) is like scheduling time to be spontaneous. Many great innovations were arrived at accidentally (often with scientists that had free time in a lab). With funding constraints and well-defined research programmes, we rarely have time anymore for free-thinking, let alone creative experimentation. I keep looking at tools offered by the EU to create space for people to be inventive (the Googleplex seems to be a rare example in the west I can find). Allowing mechanisms for cross-fertilisation is good, but not if the programmes are structured and laden with so much bureaucracy. Cross-fertilisation needs time, space and freedom to allow ideas to fertilise.

Can Europeans someday be as innovative as the Taiwanese have become in only one generation? Taiwan has adopted an innovation culture (they built fast tracks) and let the trains open up. The sciences are the elite fields in Taiwanese schools (over-represented compared to other subjects) with parents pushing their kids to do well in sciences and attend after-school extra-curricular science and engineering classes. By contrast, the Belgian education system is having problems finding dynamic teachers to interest students in the sciences. If Europe wants to excel at innovation, they can either take the American approach and import talent from other countries or radically overhaul their education systems (build new tracks for their dreamed of high-speed trains). The mindset needs to change towards an innovation culture.

What makes matters worse is that the tracks on our rail network are creaking and collapsing under the weight of the precautionary principle. Precaution closes bridges to new frontiers while Europe 2020 gurus talk up these new vistas (promoting the wonders of steam engines, just without the coal!). Chinese and Taiwanese cultures are eager to grasp the benefits of science and technology – even after the tragedy of the melamine scandal in China, high environmental costs of development, there is no equivalent concern about the problems of scientific research or the need to discuss these matters openly in citizen forums or other participatory exercises which we in the west are told will make us more accepting to science. My Taiwanese colleagues were bemused by citizen forums (we in Europe have too much time to talk). The precautionary preoccupation is making Europeans afraid of science, hesitant towards new technologies and suspicious towards changes. How will you convince such a population on the needs to build new rail networks when all they want to talk about is the hazard of train travel?

We also need to have a better idea of what we are talking about. Innovation seems to have a different cultural significance in Spain, Germany, France or Sweden (think of how each culture looks at research around chemicals, pesticides or food additives). Not only did the Barcelona targets fail to articulate what innovation was, the value of innovation was left to political interpretation. I enjoy attracting blank stares, so I never miss the opportunity of asking policymakers how they measure innovation. What tools are used? How does one go about increasing it? In a corporate situation, where every investment needs to be measured, we used to gage our return on investment by the turnover from new, innovative products (15% was acceptable, 25% ideal). The EU is trying to subsidise innovation (old tracks). The Asian model of innovation is investment return led – whether it is a parent investing in a child’s education or Asus investing in new technologies.

When I spoke with my Taiwanese contacts and poked around for indications that everything is not so perfect with their model, I did get a sense of hesitation. I was told that there is a concern that as certain professions like law begin to pay better salaries, the next generation may be tempted to move away from the emphasis on the sciences. They are trying to address that now. I was then asked which professions pay the most and attracted the most students here. It used to be banking and finance, I smiled, but maybe now we have an opportunity to build some new tracks.

As I plan a trip to Amsterdam, I notice that the decade old high-speed Thalys train will get me there from Brussels seven minutes faster than the old Inter-City trains (using mostly the same tracks). I am wondering how much more productive and inventive I can be with all of this extra time.

Postscript: In January I have been scheduled for a speaking tour in different Taiwanese science and technology centres – I will look forward to sharing some observations on innovation out of the box.

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  1. Hi Risk Monger,

    It’s ironic is your promotion of innovation over evolution is based itself on the fallacy that fast train on fast track would be innovation while it’s not. Fast trains are for travellers hence are pertinent only when the travel time is about half a working day and when it’s within borders. When it crosses countries, there is a de facto language barrier and the traffic becomes so minuscule that the project becomes a gigantic financial sink.

    Eurotunnel is the perfect illustration of the inconsistency of an European fast trains network pipe dream : it links Paris to London, two of the most densely populated urban area of Europe, with a short travel time so it must be a viable project. Yet it’s not, a whole generation of investors has lost huge sums of money on this financial disaster and any future fast trains project will be the same, except that costs will be hidden, spun into “investment for future generation” and stealthly dug from the state coffers. Anyone current fast train project is based on totally surrealist traffic projections so it can be rammed through the throat of taxpayers (for example Lyon-Turin, which is not even endorsed by a French parliamentary commission because of its failed cost assessment, but proceeded anyway for purely political and corporatist reasons).

    Want to innovate in a cheap, fast, flexible and small environment “footprint” transportation system for Europe ? Forget the dream of Bonn-Barcelone in bullet trains, build more airports and add more planes. Travellers want it and have understood what’s best for them way before bureaucrats. Not really out-of-the-box thinking but it’s much more innovative than fast tracks.

  2. Of course the train image is a metaphor but there is a lot to be said about the value of state funded innovation v market driven approaches. If EU 20/20 wants to keep up with Amercian investment levels, that is where the focus should be (but that is for another blog).

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