THE CHANGING NATURE OF INNOVATION
THE CHANGING NATURE OF INNOVATION
2005-04-24 at 10:18:00 am #9083The changing nature of innovationRampant 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.
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.”
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
“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.
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
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