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 user 2005-04-24 at 10:20:00 am Views: 48
  • #9084
    The changing nature of innovation
    Rampant competition on a global scale means big changes for the
    way that companies carry out research and produce new products.

    So says Lord Broers in the third of this year’s Reith lectures.

    Companies can no longer rely on dominating their field and dictating the pace
    of development, he warns.

    Firms must also keep close control of their intellectual property and make
    sure it is resistant to challenges from rivals.

    Old school

    In his five lectures – broadcast on Radio Four throughout April – Lord
    Broers, who is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, explores the idea
    that technology holds the key to the future of the human race.

    It is immensely exhilarating to be player but there
    are no places reserved for amateurs

    This third lecture tackles ideas and how they get to the market
    place. Looking back over his long career Lord Broers surveys the changing nature
    of the research and development that goes into new products and the way they are
    brought to market.

    In 1965, when Lord Broers was a newly awarded PhD, it seemed obvious where he
    would look for work.

    “There was no doubt in anybody’s mind at that time that the ideal model for
    technology development was the large, well funded, industrial research
    laboratory staffed with talented PhD graduates from the world’s leading

    It was only in such places as AT&T Bell labs, Xerox Parc and HP’s
    research labs that “really important practical advances were made”.

    Until the 1980s, says Lord Broers, the big industrial labs “acted as the
    reservoirs from which most successful new products were drawn”.

    Very high ideals underpinned the operation of these research establishments,
    says Lord Broers.

    “In retrospect it becomes obvious that this support of fundamental science
    was in effect a philanthropic activity and could be afforded because the
    companies that practiced it on a significant scale were in fact monopolies.”

    Global reality

    But rampant competition means that no companies dominate the markets they
    trade in any more, says Lord Broers.

    “The world of technology and science has also expanded so much
    that it is no longer possible, even for the largest companies, to sustain a
    research effort that can cover all the disciplines used in their products.”

    Now fundamental research has passed to the universities and corporate
    research has become a very different animal.

    Now it is much more about bringing together good ideas rather than
    originating them.

    “To be successful the innovators will almost certainly need an intimate
    knowledge of the science that underlies the technology, but their aim will not
    be to further the science.”

    Instead research teams have to work on finding out what is getting in the way
    of a product getting off the lab bench and on to the shop shelf.

    “They will use their knowledge to break down the barriers that stand in the
    way of practical application,” says Lord Broers.

    Close collaborators

    This is also necessary because the components in almost any modern product
    are made by such a wide variety of firms.

    Lord Broers cites the mobile phone, Airbus A380 and modern cars
    are all good examples of this bringing together of lots of parts for a common

    “The innovation is distributed and international and perhaps the most
    powerful minds of all are those at the centre who have to decide which
    technologies to select and how they will be brought together,” he says.

    Key to all this is collaboration, says Lord Broers. It is especially
    important for smaller companies who do not have the market muscle to take on
    larger firms.

    And, he says, no matter who is developing a product they must keep close
    control over intellectual property.

    Finally, says Lord Broers, any innovator needs to be aware that competition
    is global. “To be only nationally competitive is to be not competitive.”

    The pace of change has accelerated and is likely to do so again as nations
    such as China and India develop.

    “Companies ceased to make entire products themselves and became assemblers of
    the world’s best, and to do this they had to know the world – both its
    technologies and its peoples.”

    “It is immensely exhilarating to be player but there are no places reserved
    for amateurs.”