At the Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation we have long been debating the links between innovation and politics. Last year the Foundation successfully lobbied for a change to the Statute of the Region of Lombardy in Italy so that local government would work to promote responsible innovation, in the belief that innovation excellence is by definition responsible innovation.
Our argument departs from the starting point that innovation is politics, to innovate is a political act in that it changes people’s lives, and moves to the position of politics as innovation, or more simply innovation as the goal of politics.
These two points of view are of course intertwined, innovation is often carried out in the name of improvement for society, but recently this in-house debate has taken a turn.
The turn relates to the relationship between politics, knowledge and power, with innovation tied to all three principal actors. I could summarize our debate in the following lines: What we are addressing is the problem of politics and knowledge, with knowledge no longer being within the realm of power and politics. Roles have been reversed, power resides in knowledge and therefore in innovation. Power does not create knowledge but knowledge creates power, and therefore innovation creates power.
To quote President Piero bassetti “if a man wants to control history he must control innovation. Innovation is politics”.
This thinking seems to be reflected in political action and a look at the proposed US budget for research into innovation demonstrates its importance as a theme. As a recent article in Science News demonstrates, President Obama is urging companies and research institutions to spend ever more money on Research and Design, with state spending racked up to 140 billion dollars. Within this fund the non-defense portion is growing fast, but it is also worth pointing out that a huge amount of the bio defense budget is spent in non military operations such as the construction and maintenance of bio tech and innovation centers. Their work benefits local educational institutions, surrounding laboratories, equipment suppliers, related industries and the job markets as a whole. The budget also includes 2.2 billion directly for manufacturing investment.
The idea is not new to the Obama administration of course. Back in 2000 President Clinton addresses the California Institute Technology proposing investment in nanotechnology, an act that led to the creation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The goals of this initiative were to coordinate federal agency investment in nano-research and investment, and their work really set the pace for developments over the next 10 years.
The field of nanotechnology is vast and currently pervades various types of industry and our daily life, and I would argue that a lot of this is down to agency investment that flows into society through the release of new innovative applications. A look at the figures is also instructive. In 2005 US agencies invested 34.8 million dollars into nanotechnology research, President Obama is currently asking for 123.5 million, an increment that demonstrates the importance of the sector for the economy in general.
Local initiatives in the form of state subsidies also play an important role. States or countries that offer tax incentives for clean energy production or car replacement (see the European schemes over recent years offering money for scrapping older cars), and rules that they enact to charge less road tax for cleaner vehicles all push (and help) companies to innovate and develop new systems. Improved sales does no harm either, freeing funds to use in researching the specific fields that lead to achieving government quality standards and the implied good publicity and subsidies.
So we might argue that if you are in the innovation game then it would pay to have national and local politicians who appreciate your goals and understand how to help. Recently I was fortunate enough to interview Congressman Michael Capuano, representative for Cambridge and large parts of Boston in Massachusetts. As the slogan goes round here, “Innovation is what we do in Massachusetts” and a look around Greater Boston demonstrates the truth in the line. This small area is home to many of the world’s greatest innovation companies. During my interview Congressman Capuano went into some detail about his position on innovation and I would like to quote a couple of lines:
“I am interested in high wage jobs to maintain the quality of life that we have here. You have seen the house prices in Cambridge. Now that is good and bad, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t want those houses to lose their value. They will lose their value if people can’t afford them or if people no longer want to come here, and they can continue to afford them if we pay them better. The only way we can pay them better is to provide jobs that no-one else in the world can do”.
The way Cambridge can do that is through maintaining its position at the cutting edge of innovation, and that requires political will and intervention. This is not a risk free line to follow though, as a look at recent events surrounding the creation and construction of the new Boston Biodefense Complex shows. Congressman Capuano was involved in bidding for the creation of the complex (for all the reasons above) and it was built on his territory in Boston. After spending somewhere in the region of 140 million dollars on its construction and several years of wrangling the centre is still unopened. Local members of the community have succeeded in their battle to postpone its opening (for the time being) through legal action. The building lies empty, and to quote Mr. Capuano again “that is good for no-one”.
But this problem aside Congressman Capuano seems to be the type of congressman you want if you are looking towards innovation, although I leave the reader to ponder the advantages and possible pitfalls of an innovation at all costs approach.
All of the above however does not take into account the Steve jobs approach. Mr Jobs as we all know was extremely successful as an innovator, and succeeded not only in building an empire but also in changing the way we live, a fine example of innovator as politician. He however was extremely unwilling to pursue government favor and in fact reports state that it was president Obama who asked for their meeting in 2010 so that he could talk to Jobs about the economy, innovation, technology and education. It appears that Mr Jobs just wanted to do it his own way and on his own terms.
Recently the continent of Africa has been toted as a hotbed of innovation, as much of the continent has been hooked up to fiber optic cables that arrive via the sea bed. The news in February was not good, as one of these cables was damaged by a ship dropping anchor in a restricted area slowing down much of the continents internet download speed, but this problem can be fixed and this technology is very new to Africa.
The first fiber optic connections came in 2010, and politics was once more a player. The cable was laid along with much of the internal infrastructure currently in use to service the needs of the hoards of journalists sent to the continent to cover the FIFA football (soccer) World Cup Finals. The staging of the World cup finals is like many other global events hotly disputed. Bids require government support, personalities at the helm and most of all money.
Events such as these require masses of infrastructure, and the results are not always popular, but the growth of internet use and the innovation possibilities it creates can be seen as a direct result of the first fiber optic cable and its effect on society and business that was central to South Africa’s bid for one of the largest sporting events on Earth.
Interested readers might like to read this 2007 article by Ralph Hermansson entitled The Interaction Between Politics and Innovation. The author was an Innovation Journalist Fellow at the time and in four pages it offers a nice summary of many related arguments.
Jonny Hankins works for the Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation in Milan, researching and writing articles for the Foundation website. Trained as a sociologist at the Victoria University of Manchester UK, his interests range from innovation within the renewable energy sector, bio and medical ethics and the role of politics within innovation, to questions of ethical and moral responsibility. He is currently living in Boston Massachusetts where he is working as a research assistant. He is also a professional musician, actor and street performer.