Innovation is not really the problem in Europe

Europe doesn’t invent anything anymore, at a time when the EU is injecting €80 billion into Horizon2020, Europe’s research and innovation programme. This was the deliberately controversial premise of a recent documentary* on whether Europeans have lost their mojo when it comes to innovation and technology. It is easy to fall for the American pitch on why the US is a champion. But there is more to the story,  and plenty of scope for European success, including in the aerospace sector

The Arte-made documentary, aired in the beginning of April, featured Ben Scott, former Senior Advisor to Hillary Clinton on innovation matters, and Denis Cavalucci, Professor at the French Institute for Applied Sciences (INSA) and holder of 19 patents. Their views epitomised American and European standpoints quite well.

Mr Scott relishes recounting anecdotes about Europeans who came up to him to share a sense of wonder at everything that makes innovation in the US so much more successful on the market than everywhere else on the planet:  inventors’ a strong belief that they can change the world and get rich, tolerance for failure, and an immutable focus on the market. In addition, thriving innovation ecosystems, like Silicon Valley, account for America’s brain “magnetism” (notice the diplomatic euphemism by Mr Scott). This unique blend makes up for the aura of success so envied by Europeans.

But European innovation is more creative, more robust, more structured – the defence goes. A European Bill Gates will emerge, given the creativity of European engineers, the EU’s €80 billion investment in Horizon2020, and the introduction this year of a unique Europe-wide patent system. Europe is, after all, the home of the TGV and of Airbus. One of the most innovative technologies in recent times – 3D printing – was invented by a French engineer working for Alcatel.

We, Europeans, want to believe. For instance, the aerospace sector is one of Europe’s strong asset, especially if innovation there leverages the booming innovation occurring now in IT and Internet. And there seems to be plenty of scope for that.

Speaking of Airbus. When it comes to its traditional market – aviation – some argue that “aviation is stuck in the 60’s” (aviation in general). See for instance this blog post by respected blogger Martin Varsavsky, asking what seem to be reasonable enough questions such as, how is it technically possible that while an individual can be tracked 24 hours a day, a big bird like Flight MH370 can disappear without a trace? Are planes not permanently watched over by some of the 1000-odd satellites orbiting the Earth?

Moreover, when it comes to the internet, experts such as Ha Joon Chang – a leading economist – argue that the internet innovation revolution has yet to make its economic mark, unlike the life- and economy-changing innovations that emerged in transportation, or even in home appliances, in the 1900s. Then, the introduction of the washing machine reduced the time spent on household chores by a factor of six, for instance. By comparison, even though about one billion people on the planet use Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire, the jury is still out on the real economic value of the internet.

So there seems to be a great scope for innovation in aerospace, both on conservative markets, such as aviation, and on emerging ones, such as satellite services. Increasing aviation safety, developing satellites and satellite services, are surely the kinds of challenges that European engineers excel at.

With Copernicus, Europe’s new satellite programme about to launch this year, in Europe too the integration of satellite technologies with information and communication technologies has yet to fully deliver its expected economic impact. The €80 billion invested in Horizon2020, and the significant amount of innovation already produced under Europe’s Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation so far, should help.

But then again, innovation per se is not really Europe’s problem, if by innovation we mean inventing new ways of doing things. Indeed, the number of patents filed in the US and Europe every year are the same (57,000 versus 56,700 respectively in 2013).

Before the 2020 milestone, the real challenge for Europe is to turn innovation into technologies that make it on the market and benefit society. This is really what Americans are much better at: pitching their ideas, making technologies appeal to the public by listening to market needs and making them the starting point of any innovation process.

As Prof. Cavalucci points out in the Arte documentary, it should not escape anyone that even though 3D printing was invented by a Frenchman (under the sexy name of stéréolytographie), it only emerged as a product prototype in the US.

*Link to a description of the documentary, in French, on the Arte website

Photo: ©Melvin