Flagship Challenges – Ireland’s Chance to be seen to be Smart

I gave a keynote at the Intel Research and Innovation Conference at Leixlip this morning (12th October 2010). There are about 350 people, approximately 100 from overseas, attending this 3 day conference.   I then gave it a second time,  after this post,  on November 1st at Enterprise Ireland’s Network Conference for Public Sector Technology Personnel.

I used the opportunity to explain some of the background thinking to the Flagship Challenges and Projects of the Innovation Taskforce, and how this plays to the “smart economy”.

Ireland’s economy needs to be re-built.  A part of the strategy is a focus on the so-called “smart economy”:  that is,  an emphasis on innovation in all sectors of the economy and especially those which can drive export earnings.

What stimulae can our Government adopt to foster a smart economy ?   This question was the focus of a major piece of work conducted in the second half of last year,  leading to the publication last March of the report of the Innovation Taskforce,  and of which I was one of 28 members.   Clearly there are many interventions that can in principle be made:  education policy;  infrastructure including broadband and wet laboratories;  taxation policy;  and so on.   Those interested can study the deliberations and recommendations of the Taskforce which are available online.   The implementation of very many of these recommendations have been or are now being put into effect by the Government,   and I have reported on some of these steps in my blog.

One mainstay for the smart economy is publicly supported scientific research.  Over the last decade,  Ireland has,  for its size,  invested considerable public funding into scientific research,  including academic-industry collaboration.  Total R&D spending has almost trebled over the decade to 2008,  equivalent to 1.7% of GNP.   Business expenditure on R&D rose to an estimated 1.7Beuro in 2008,  double the level at the start of the decade.  Over 163 companies each spent more than 2Meuro on research during 2007.   Academic R&D investment has quadrupled in the last decade,  for example leading to its global share of paper citations rising 32%.

Ireland has been reasonably successful in integrating much of its academic technology research with industrial R&D undertaken in Ireland,  both by indigenous companies and by multinationals operating here.   Nevertheless,  the commercial exploitation of publicly funded scientific research results in general remains a challenge,  and naturally – and rightfully – leads to concerns in some quarters that publicly funded scientific research has so far had little direct measurable benefit to the economy.    In a time of extreme fiscal rectitude,  there is an obvious debate about continued public funding of scientific research.   I understand that it is still the Government’s general intent to achieve an investment 3% of GDP by the end of this decade.  However clearly this has now become extremely challenging given the woeful damage caused to our economy by our banking disaster,  and particularly in the light of our goal to reduce our massive national deficit to just 3% in just four years time by 2014.

In addition to publicly funded scientific research,  another potential source of stimulation for the smart economy are the public sector procurement programmes.  Unfortunately,  this is a challenging strategy in the Irish context.   Public procurement in Ireland must abide by EU State Aid rules,  and using public procurement purely to favour indigenous firms and companies operating in Ireland is inappropriate.   Furthermore,  stimulation of the smart economy should require innovation:   creating new products and services which have never previously existed,   rather than importing into Ireland products and services which are well tried elsewhere.  Adoption,  or even adaption,  of pre-existing solutions from elsewhere may re-invigorate and re-energise some aspect of the Irish public service,   but is unlikely to result in a new innovation for export from Ireland to the global market.   Furthermore,  almost everyone in our public service is all too well aware of the Dail Public Accounts Committee.  Brave is the civil servant who risks procuring a novel but un-proven solution over a less ambitious but well tested and well tried solution from elsewhere.   Finally of course,  we have had very visible failures of public procurement,  including in IT systems,  which have in many cases severely dampened enthusiasm for computer supported intelligent systems.

In the USA,   the Obama Administration has posted “the grand challenges of the 21st century”,  and solicited proposals for further suggestions.   They include for example complete DNA sequencing of every cancer;  solar cells as cheap as paint; light weight security vests for police and the military; educational software as intelligent and engaging as a personal tutor;  exascale computers capable of a million trillion calculations a second;  and automatic,  highly accurate,  realtime translation between all major languages of the world.  The Obama Administration is clearly hoping that by investing (US) public funds into these challenges,  the researchers involved will discover new insights which will help strengthen the US economy through sustainable growth and high quality jobs.

Ireland,  on its own,  is unlikely to be able to address grand scientific challenges.  Some Irish investigators may be able to work alongside other European researchers,  and indeed US and Asian teams.  However for the Irish Government to itself sponsor such grand challenges,  even partially,  is a difficult strategy.

An alternative is to devise competitions.   The X-prize foundation in the US is focussing on radical breakthroughs for humanity.   In October 2004,  the 10MUS$ Ansari X prize was awarded to SpaceShipOne built by Burt Rutan for the first non government organisation to launch a manned space vehicle twice within two weeks.   The Google Lunar X-Prize is a 30MUS$ competition to land a robot on the moon,  including travelling at least 500m.

Irish participation,  or especially leadership,  in the X-prize series would clearly position Irish technologists on the world stage.  However it is unlikely that an Irish alternative X-prize style competition directly funded by the Irish State would be necessarily be attractive.   Furthermore,  it would be difficult to justify to the Irish public the use of Irish taxpayer funds for esoteric projects with little obvious direct impact on the Irish economy.

However,  this line of thinking – grand challenges,  and X-prize like competitions – does lead to an interesting suggestion.   Is there a challenge,  or indeed challenges,  which in fact would have an obvious direct benefit to the Irish economy,  and indeed to Irish society at large ?   If they are to stimulate innovation,   then such challenges should not already have a solution.   That is,  they would be different from normal Irish procurement projects in that R&D would be needed to build a solution.

But further,  one of the main goals of an Irish smart economy is that it should be export driven.  Thus any of these new category of challenges should have an export potential.  Thus,  they should be such that not only is R&D needed to derive a solution in the Irish context,   but that that solution should have export potential and ideally represent a global opportunity.

Finally,  a key strategy for the Irish smart economy is collaboration:  between academia and industry,  within industry itself including in particular the interplay between indigenous and multinational companies,   and across industry sectors by converging technologies.    Thus any of these new categories of challenges should also create an opportunity for clusters of companies to collaborate together,  with academic involvement as appropriate.

The Innovation Taskforce named these new category of challenges as Flagships.   Flagship challenges have some of the characteristics of certain of the Obama adminstration’s grand challenges,  but differ in having a number of restrictions. The Taskforce recommended that each Flagship should have a clearly identifiable direct societal impact in Ireland;   should not have an existing solution anywhere on the planet;   should have global export potential since many other jurisdictions as well as Ireland may have very similar challenges;  should enable an open collaborative cluster to form,  in which different companies can all add value to a common technology platform so as to build a solution;  and would be funded in part by the Irish State to provide a demonstrable use-case and verifiable proof of concept.

The recent Your Country Your Call initiative considered proposals for projects which could potentially re-invigorate the economy.  The competition differed from the Flagships recommendation of the Taskforce in having a very broad focus,  potentially less cross-industry collaboration and export remit,    and controlled the intellectual property of the winning submissions.

The Taskforce consciously did not identify specific Flagship challenges,  for which calls for submissions could be made.  Several examples were of course discussed – such as RFID tagging of all health service supplies through the entire health sector so as to improve productivity and reduce supply chains and stock levels;  energy efficient street lighting which also embeds appropriate wifi technology for community broadband and realtime security monitoring;  novel fuel cell technologies from agrifood waste products;  and so on.  However,  the Taskforce believed it clearly beyond its own remit to select and recommend specific Flagship challenges for the Irish Government to partially fund.   Rather,  the Taskforce focussed on the essential characteristics required of any specific Flagship challenge,  including the rules of engagement and the relationship to normal procurement.

Ireland now has even less fiscal capability and flexibility than we thought a year ago,  when the Taskforce was established.   We in Ireland must therefore be even more innovative and smart over how best to use our extremely limited public funds.   The smart economy really is key to our future.   Initiatives such as the Flagship Challenges enable us to not only directly benefit Irish society but also provide us with an opportunity for Ireland to indeed be visibly seen to be smart.


About chrisjhorn

This entry was posted in Enterpreneurship, innovation, Ireland, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Flagship Challenges – Ireland’s Chance to be seen to be Smart

  1. Pingback: The “Smart Economy” – what can it really deliver ? « Chrisjhorn's Blog

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