Creation of the Think Tank on Innovation – 2015

In the context of the preparation of the bi-regional EU-CELAC Summits in Brussels Summits – and namely of the Academic Summit – the Egmont Institute took the initiative to launch an informal brainstorming among academics and civil servants, dedicated to “innovation”. Two meeting were organized after a general invitation addressed to a sample of Belgian researchers and civil servants dealing with innovation and EU-CELAC relations. The first one on 13 March 2015 as a step for preparing the June 2015 Summit, and the second one on 10 November as one of the follow-up actions after the EU-CELAC Summits held in June in Brussels with Egmont participation.

The main purpose for consulting this informal group of experts was to create a closed-door-dynamic-for-free-exchange of views across universities, regions and institutions in order to contribute to the design of a Belgian strategy on innovation both with our EU partners and the EU tools as well as outside, starting with the concrete case of the coming bi-regional Summits with Latin American and Caribbean partners in Brussels in June 2015. An obvious by-product was also to create an additional channel of contacts and information across universities and policymakers in a win-win spirit for stimulating the opportunities offered by the EU cooperation with Latin American and Caribbean partners.

This first informal Egmont Think-tank on Innovation allowed for a broad and open discussion covering several issues and preoccupation from the participants leading to the following important results:

  • Everybody acknowledged that Innovation is the key of our socio-economic (thus political too) future and that some exchanges of practices would be useful
  • Indeed, regions, countries, regional and international organizations are implementing everywhere their own innovation policies. On top of the political geography, industrial sectors (ICT, pharmaceuticals etc.) have their own innovation strategy.
  • A comparison between the R&D expenditures of the US 15 major IT companies versus the EU 15 ones makes clear that the EU is not just lagging behind the US but that this gap is getting alarming dimension at increasing speed: in 2007 the big US IT firms invested 53% more than their EU competitors, since this year and up to 2014 this gap has been growing continuously reaching 265%! (see chart in Annex 1)
  • Knowing that with the development of the so-called “open-innovation” promoted by big multinational companies with their strategy of “connect & develop” for exploiting outside R&D but leading to use a growing part of their own R&D expenditures for buying strategic outsiders, and so allowing for a control of innovation and patents and a growing capture of innovation incomes (rent-seeking)

Connecting these results led the group to a double conclusion:

  • a specific EU answer and common strategy are urgently needed for facing this growing risk of global rent-seeking,
  • (ii) Belgian universities and administrations have a role to play in designing such a response which should be concerted

Nevertheless it was acknowledged that in such a complex institutional and economic environment, it is particularly difficult, if not impossible, to reach common views, priorities and strategies, without being far more specific in the analysis.

In particular, the traditional cooperation/competition dilemma has to be dealt with: case studies and statistical analysis show that competitive rivalry stimulates regions, countries and firms to invest in innovation and change; however, there is growing evidence of the benefits of networking as a mode of operation in innovation while competition could impede it and reduce the possibilities to use cooperation and economies of scale that precisely the major companies are using intensively. The sound competition inside Belgian regions and universities cannot reach all its positive results without a way to identify common interests for making room for pre-competitive cooperation in sharing experiences.

Nevertheless these important results remained still too general and too far from reaching clear operational conclusions able to contribute to the design of a Belgian strategy on innovation. The sample of academic members did not permit to know much about the needs and the intentions of Belgian universities about the EU-CELAC Summits, and how Belgian diplomats could help them to be more pro-active in the use of cooperation resources and programs the EU manages in that context.

Therefore, the idea was to use the Brussels Summits results for looking for this concrete strategy. In Brussels in June, there were four events involving bi-regional cooperation as regards Innovation issues: the Heads of State and Government Summit (10-11 June), the Academic Summit (8-9 June), the Business Summit (10 June), and the joint-seminar between academic and business participants organized by EUROCHAMBRES, the EU Commission and IRELAC (8 June afternoon). Each of these four events concluded with the issuance of Declarations or Statements, which were sent to the invited participants to this second informal meeting at Egmont, with a synthetic report (see Annex 2).

Drawing upon these materials, the purpose of the second meeting was to focus more the discussion by having an exchange of views about the common scientific and political values Belgian academic/scientific participants feel to share among themselves and for cooperating with their CELAC partners, as well as their common scientific and political threats.

  • The views expressed converged upon the interest to be more active and present in scientific cooperation and innovation efforts with the Latin American partners who present a lot of challenges and opportunities for Belgian actors from academic as well as private sectors.
  • Several participants regret an insufficient active presence of Belgian universities or researchers in this dynamic region
  • It is largely admitted that Belgian academics should and could be more present and active with Latin American partners and for mobilizing more the EU instruments and resources in the framework of the JIRI -process (Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation) and the ERANnet LAC (Network of the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean Countries on Joint Innovation and Research Activities) and its five thematic bi-regional working groups on ICT, Bio-Economy, Bio-Diversity / Climate, Energy and Health.
  • There is a need for organizing better the information among universities and administrations/ministries involved.
  • However, some consider that the information is rather well dispatched inside each linguistic community, although there is still a lack of continuity.
  • Participants expressed a clear demand for improving the communication and the exchanges of practices and experiences and for creating a common platform across universities for improving the channels with the private sector and especially for SMEs.
  • In particular, a common approach could be useful for the EU instruments and resources drawing upon the existing platforms inside FNRS and FWO for ensuring continuity and systematic information.
  • It is admitted that there is a lack of visibility and mobilization on Latin American projects and cooperation, most often the existing ones relying on personal links or casual contacts. More systematic approaches are required and demanded.
  • Federal administrations could be promotors of joint actions or programs. Some participants regret that Latin America was rather neglected in the past decades
  • One participant however thinks that in the globalized information system in which the global scientific community now operates, it is not so clear that researchers would need new additional device for getting the information they need for their own scientific targets for finding out the best partners.
  • In the debate, this view might reflect rather a peculiar aspect which related with the core-investigations which looks for the best-ones in the world, but not for tackling the important needs for applied researches for our industries in the view of the global value chains for which CELAC partners offer interesting complementarities and diversity useful for investigations.

The operational conclusions, once again, remain too vague and the issue of the common scientific and political threats was not at all dealt with, but common interests for cooperating with CELAC partners were largely expressed, as well as a general need for improving systematic information and exchanges of best practices, strengthening existing institutions for bridging the gaps between communities, universities, public and private actors.