06 Feb 2009, Posted by Eric Karstens in European Policy, 0 Comments

European Institute of Technology: The Tapas Principle

In my article of 2 February, I discussed the genesis of the European Institute of Technology and Innovation (EIT), namely its plans to implement its purpose via the creation of Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs).

At the 23 January EIT seminar in Budapest, the general consensus seemed to be that innovation is neither taught nor generally pursued extensively enough in Europe. Speakers did, however, emphasise that innovation must not be an end in itself. Rather, it should lead to practical applications and tangible results. Or, as Nick Wainwright from Hewlett Packard put it: “A device without a service is a gadget.”

While this is a persuasive argument in the realm of technology, it runs the risk of blocking out liberal arts and humanities. If communication, one of the EIT’s themes, is not only understood as mere data processing, but rather as the process of societal self-discovery and self-interpretation, it does not fit well with a purely product-oriented approach. A solar cell, for instance, can be improved with research and development. It can become more efficient, smaller, cheaper to produce, et cetera.

The field of philosophy, on the other hand, would never see the same kind of progress. Of course, there are historic ideas which have been dismissed. But the main point of this science is – as with communication – to adapt to shifting frameworks of meaning and to spread understanding. Abstract ideas and changing perspectives can be far more innovative than any single tech discovery.

Therefore, the EIT should not only support applied research and development, but also fundamental research. It should include social and cultural disciplines. The Information and Communication Society is equally about training and education (German: Bildung) in the sense of Wilhelm von Humboldt. The EIT has recognised this by way of requiring all its projects to have a societal impact and achieve a broad public outreach.

In any case, however, the EIT approach of KICs with a lifetime of seven or more years might actually not be the most fertile ground for innovation, as EJC director Wilfried Rütten remarked on the sidelines of the conference. You basically do not think and research and develop for six and a half years straight and then arrive at a great result just in time when the funding expires. Essential innovation is often about sudden inspiration, a flash of genius that can occur at any time.

There are different ways to nurture this kind of nonlinear process of fits and starts. The EIT has chosen the aggregation approach: Put as many smart minds as possible on a task (i.e., form a KIC). Hence, the definition of that task is the truly critical moment. And by their sheer size, the planned KICs lend themselves to large-scale industrial technology or to complex, multi-track problems rather than to small, agile, and flexible grassroots developments.

The EIT money could alternatively be beneficially spent on a scattered approach, Rütten suggested. Instead of throwing 50-100 million Euros a year at one single project, use the subsidies to stage a sort of innovation beauty contest. Provide short-term seed funding for a multitude of creative projects. Then drop those that did not work out, further support the promising ones, and re-allocate some money to the next round of seemingly crazy ideas.

Combine with a requirement that all results be open source and public domain, and you will give a major boost to a widespread community of beneficiaries. This also spends the taxpayer’s money particularly well. Solitary nerds, SMEs, and blue-chip companies alike will start coming up with proposals, join forces ad hoc whenever needed. They will disseminate results informally through respective networks. Just think of the Linux operating system or of Wikipedia, to name only the most prominent examples.

Sergio Bandinelli from the European Software Institute (ESI), a native Italian now living in Spain, illustrated the middle ground between these approaches with the example of Bilbao tapas bars. The Basques apparently like bar-hopping. They will not stay in one place for the entire evening, but move to another one every hour or so. Each bar has its respective specialities. This means that one bar alone on a block would not be able to exist for long. Yet when a number of tapas joints establish themselves in close vicinity, they do not compete with each other. On the contrary: the existing variety of choices means better business for all of them, while at the same time each one can cultivate its own particular flavours or quirks.

If the EIT manages to establish a scientific tapas culture like that, it could become a success. Pulling autonomous entities together in a few selected locations and thus creating a gravitational force attracting all kinds of researchers and independent experts to work on a loosely limited range of topics might do the trick. Campus spirit combined with freedom of science and public exposure of the resulting knowledge, together with a communication culture that actually further develops the very notion of innovation instead of going for mere research PR – that would be a great achievement at European level.

Again, CERN in Geneva provides a good example. While it is designed to perform fundamental high-energy physics research – something that apparently can only be done with the help of gigantic and expensive machines requiring a joint international effort –, CERN scientists invented, inter alia, the world wide web and large-scale grid computing on the side. They even delivered inspiration for one of the most successful fiction bestsellers of the decade, Illuminati, by Dan Brown. CERN engineers actually plan on a regular basis next-generation machines with components they know will probably not even be invented five or more years from now. Yet they are confident in the assumption the missing parts will be conceived eventually, driven by technical progress and the specific demands of their research question.

The European Institute of Technology and its KICs have the potential to become even more multi-disciplinary than CERN if they use their resources right.