What makes a country innovative?

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big-company-innovationEach year INSEAD team up with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and Cornell University to produce an innovation league table for the countries of the world.  It’s designed to rank the infrastructure and support environment for innovation around the world.

The 2016 rankings have just been published, and given the desire of the EU to support ‘open science, open data and open to the world‘, it is perhaps no surprise to see European nations in the top 5 spots, and 7 in the top 10.

The top 10 most innovative nations

Switzerland top the league table for the 4th year in a row, with Sweden and the United Kingdom rounding out the ‘podium’.

So what makes a country innovative?  The first, and most important thing is attitude.  Whilst it should be clear that innovation is crucial to the economic wellbeing of a country, few take the right approach to it.  For instance, despite much of modern science and innovation being both collaborative and across national borders, to many nations still treat each other as rivals rather than collaborators.

There is something of a PR job to be done here, as the win-win nature of global collaboration is often not communicated effectively, not least during the recent Brexit referendum where the research community was largely marginalized in the debate.

The report also highlights the importance of investing in innovation, even during challenging economic times.  Just as a slump is the right time for companies to innovate, the same logic applies to nations, with the report highlighting that a sustained investment is far better than stop/start splurges.

State support for innovation

Whilst it can seem somewhat anachronistic to believe the state can play much of a role in innovation, the report highlights some of the crucial things they can do.  For instance, they can play a critical role in developing an environment that supports RD or in facilitating international collaboration.

The report also makes the argument for an integrated framework between nations to support innovation in areas such as the mobility of researchers, the funding streams for that research and the intellectual property that underpins it all.

It’s tempting, given the Brexit vote and the rise of people like Donald Trump, to think that countries can go it alone, but the report reminds us that the best innovators are those that are integrated into the global marketplace and active collaborators with their peers around the world.  Whilst Switzerland isn’t a member of the EU, for instance, they work extensively with EU nations on projects such as the Human Brain Project.

Building for quality

Of course, whilst the report highlights a number of factors that they believe underpin strong innovation, it should not be taken as a recipe that policy makers can follow to make their country innovative.  Equally, it can be tempting to fall into a numbers mindset, and pour all energy into increasing the number of graduates or some other easily measurable output in the belief that quantity equals quality.

The report attempts to overcome this by shedding light on the quality of the innovations produced rather than just the quantity.  For instance, citations are used to gauge the quality of a paper rather than simply the number of published papers.

It can be a tricky balancing act between providing the kind of infrastructure support for innovation that is beneficial, and having an active industrial policy that picks winners.

“Proving enough space for entrepreneurship and innovation; the right incentives and encouragement to bottom-up forces such as individuals, students, small firms, and others; and a certain ‘freedom to operate’ that often challenges the status quo is part of the equation,” the authors say.

Such a balancing act has never been harder, but it has also never been more important as innovation takes a central role in both the economic and social wellbeing of a nation.

If nothing else, the report provides a crucial reminder that innovation goes way beyond just technological creation and runs the gambit from education to commercialization.  Hopefully the paper will go some way towards providing just such a fertile environment.