This morning I had the pleasure of giving a brief talk at Engineers Ireland on the occasion of their second annual Innovation Awards, for the most innovative engineer and the most innovative company of 2007. A couple of people asked for a copy of what I said, so for better or worse, here goes…
172 years ago, on the 6th August 1835, the first president of our Institution, Colonel Burgoyne, at our inaugural meeting, said:
“We are engaged in the service of Ireland, and it is our duty, as well as our interest, to promote its prosperity to the fullest”.
In my view, ladies and gentlemen, we – the Engineers of Ireland – could be doing considerably more to promote the prosperity of Ireland to its fullest.
Let me explain. In 2000, our Government had the foresight and commitment to initiate Science Foundation Ireland so as to develop a world class research capability in biotechnology, and information and communications technology, as an essential foundation to our nation’s growth. The discovery of new things, by research, is a commendable activity and may indeed be a foundation for our nation’s growth. It may attract foreign investment, and it may encourage the invention of new appliances, and machines based on insights from the natural world. We celebrate our most successful scientists via SFI, the Royal Irish Academy, the British Telecom Young Scientists Exhibition, and indeed via others.
We also celebrate our entrepreneurs. Ernst and Young, and Ulster Bank, recently hosted a televised evening at CityWest in which our entrepreneurs of 2007 were celebrated. Entrepreneurs organize and manage a business, sometimes taking considerable risk to do so. This year’s winner, Liam Casey of PCH, is a well deserved winner. Having known Liam for some time, I was delighted to sincerely and warmly congratulate him in person on the evening for his business in sourcing manufacturing services from China. But I did reflect at the time on the extent to which entrepreneurship in general, as so ostentatiously celebrated at CityWest and as reflected by the portfolio of finalists chosen by the judges, really benefits our economy. It is wonderful to see the growth of family businesses, and the implementation within Ireland of business models imported from overseas, but it is unclear to me at least whether these examples necessarily lead to a sustainable prosperity for Ireland. We can have successful hospitality businesses, successful reseller and distributorships in Ireland, and successful implementation here of models already proven elsewhere. While all these entrepreneurial activities create employment, it is unclear in general whether they lead to sustainable national prosperity. “Me-too” businesses here in Ireland may enrich some individuals, but in my view at least will not overcome our faltering national competitiveness.
Science is the discovery of what already exists. Entrepreneurship organizes a business. Invention yields new ideas which did not previously exist. But innovation puts new ideas into practice, bringing to life new insights. Joseph Schumpeter, in his Theory of Economic Development (1912/1934), noted that innovation brings new goods, new methods of production, new markets, new sources of raw materials, and new organizational structures into practice.
I believe if we, in Ireland, can innovate and thus put new ideas into practice, then we will benefit from a sustainable national prosperity. If we can bring new products, new processes, new markets, new sources, and new business structures into practice, then we will not only change Ireland but also change the world.
Today we rightly celebrate our innovators, and our innovative companies. They should be the true foundation for promoting our national prosperity to the fullest.