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Science, Maths & Technology

Innovative innovation

Updated Wednesday 20th April 2005

Lord Broers' suggestions offer a new way of managing inspiration, says Nick Braithwaite in response to the third Reith Lecture.

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On innovation and management:

We all think we know what innovation means until we have to define it. It’s not necessarily quite the same as inventing; it’s sometimes about new ways to do old things and at other times it’s about using old ways to do new things.

And it’s not only hard to define – it’s also hard to manage. Unlike an order for standard components, innovation cannot be selected from a catalogue or swapped between suppliers. Neither can it be recruited or dismissed.

Concept design for a bus interior [Image: Juan ValldeRuten. under CC-BY-ND licence] Creative commons image Icon JuanValldeRuten. via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Concept design for a bus interior [Image: Juan ValldeRuten. under CC-BY-ND licence]

The more I think about it the more abstract it appears…innovation precedes a solution or a product like salesmanship precedes a sale. So, how should it be managed?

Broers suggests he has the measure of it for 21st century technology and he sketched a vision for innovation ‘from boffin to bank’.

First gather the seeds of the basic research in universities. That will ensure a current and international perspective. Then transplant ideas to the spin-outs, but be sure to deflect the academics back to their universities when their job is done as good scientists don’t do good business.

After that it’s the turn of the mighty multinationals to grow on the products and reap the harvest, driven by the market experts. I wish that Broers had traced specific examples. His model needs to manage the conflicts of mission and of timescales between universities and industry.

It also needs to close the loop of wealth creation to sustain the seed bank. Can this be left to market forces or is there a role for government-sponsored infrastructure?

In fact, Broers is proposing a ‘new way’ to do the ‘old thing’ of advancing technology, which amounts to being innovative about innovation itself. It’s a worthwhile topic for debate.

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