From R&D to innovation

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net


For the past couple of days we have been hearing about appropriate technology. This morning it was all about appropriate innovation.

Belgian economist Luc Soete (‘sweaty’ or ‘sweetie’ depending on whether your mother-tongue is French or English, he wryly informed us) discussed the idea of “innovation on the move”, and gave us a brief history of economic growth and its impacts on research and development.

The social aspects of research are often more important than the technical. Credit: Flickr/IICD

We are seeing big changes in the 21st century, Soete said, with the combination of increasingly global aspirations and the new macroeconomics – where part of a nation’s economic growth is sacrificed in favour of stability – leading to a shift in economic growth from the South to the North.

“I like to think of it as [the] world upside down,” he said.

Taking place alongside this is a move from industrial research and development, typified by its high scientific content and its extent of professional specialisation, to innovation, which consists of undetermined outcomes, and trial and error research.

“Traditional industrial R&D is strongly cumulative, it’s replicable. It has agreed-on criteria and we are able to evaluate it,” said Soete. “Innovation is marked by flexibility, it’s hard to replicate, there are trial and error elements due to continually changing environmental conditions.”

Co-creation is also a new part of the game, he said, with users of technology playing an increasingly important role in the R&D process. There is a growing recognition and scope for mutual learning – “innovation by cooperation.”

This sharing of knowledge moves away from the merely technical aspects of research and also considers the economic, social and organisational aspects – which are often more important to innovation.

Soete warned that this knowledge exchange is hindered by the over-concentration of research expenditure in the North, where most research carried out rides on existing infrastructure. “So far we have been focusing on easy research,” he said, but there are new research challenges to tackle.

He called for multidisciplinary research programmes on appropriate innovation – rather than appropriate technology – that focus on solutions that are unwired to high-quality infrastructure and, thus, tailored to resource-poor settings.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 

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