Innovation futures in Europe: Visions, scenarios and implications

For policy makers, the future is a subject of enduring fascination - impossible to predict, yet necessary to anticipate. Using the powers of empirical observation and sophisticated modelling techniques, we have become pretty good at calculating how societies will develop within a limited set of measurable parameters. Some desirable human activities, however, remain notoriously difficult to measure and anticipate accurately. Among the most important of these is innovation, which in recent years has achieved the status of a holy grail in economic policy making circles. No one, of course, expects to get definitive answers on how innovation will proceed in the future, but the research consortium INFU has been working hard to provide us with some credible scenarios.

Described as "a foresight exercise on emerging patterns of innovation", INFU (Innovation Futures in Europe) has been scouring the European landscape, documenting innovative phenomena in all walks of life.

Presenting their preliminary findings, the researchers identify various kinds of novel innovation, through the development of 19 innovation perspectives, and offer illustrative examples from different geographical and sociological contexts. They also suggest what implications these innovation patterns could have for European society. Utilising ‘what if?’ scenarios, the project elaborates a series of examples based on observed patterns of innovative activity and extrapolates from there.

For example, on the subject of ‘web-extracted innovation’ we are invited to consider the question: "what if we scan the internet for ideas and automatically pick the ones that best answer to current customer needs?" The scenario then considers the potential impact of that development on the economy and society, noting the utility of ‘crowd-sourcing’ where individuals with similar interests contribute to idea generation. This approach could have a huge impact on market research, making forms reliant on small numbers of ‘users’ obsolete. However, these strategies are not without risks, such as an increased exposure to data hackers. This scenario provides a warning signal for anyone dealing with data protection issues.

Another relevant topic touched on by the project is ‘social innovation’, which is gaining increasing attention as part of the Europe 2020 strategy and Innovation Union communication. Highlighting the relevance of a 2009 OECD report on the subject, the INFU project notes that while there is currently no consensus on what social innovation actually means, one strand of discussion sees it as a "different mode of innovation characterised by a hybrid profit/non-profit structure". In this context, social innovation involves a blurring of boundaries between the public and private sectors, with business practices being applied in the public sector and social orientation emerging as an important factor in business. The discussion provides helpful context for understanding the vogue of corporate social responsibility.

Waste-based innovation holds promise for those concerned with resource consumption. If a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach is widely adopted, the economy would become more environmentally-friendly. Greater awareness of material costs could open the door to improvements in recycling technologies and production. Waste trading would emerge as a profitable business with consequent environmental benefits.

INFU identified threats to the European economy from issues, such as the relocation of innovation to emerging markets and a focus of business innovation impact on the 90 per cent of the world’s population currently living in poverty. Both scenarios are likely to make it harder for European businesses to complete in the global economy.

Exploring both ends of the innovation spectrum, INFU also anticipates the possibility of innovation experiencing a backlash in society. In a scenario described as ‘no-Innovation’, the researchers ask: "what if innovation fatigue takes over?" This scenario explores the possibility that unchanging quality may become more important for market success than a constant stream of new offers. Should this trend take hold, the economic focus would then be on process innovation to assure high quality and efficiency, driving demand from business for greater productivity. The researchers suggest that the ecological focus would be on "longer consumption cycles and therefore less waste".

Much of the data consist of what the researchers describe as "weak signals" expressing "a hint of a potential for change with a possible disruptive impact which is already apparent and visible, but has not yet entered the mainstream". No fewer than 63 signals have been identified by the INFU project. The methodology used was based on various foresight methods (identification of "Nodes of Change", online surveys, interviews of experts and the organisation of mini-panels).

Under the coordination of the Austrian Institute of Technology, INFU is scheduled to complete its work in January 2011. The project's preliminary findings, including a number of case studies, some fascinating innovation scenarios and a video are available on INFU's website.

INFU - Innovation Futures in Europe: A foresight exercise on emerging patterns of innovation. Visions, scenarios and implications for policy and practice (duration: 1/6/2009 31/1/2011) is a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Foresight activities.

See: http://www.innovation-futures.org/

Contact: Karl Heinz Leitner, karl-heinz.leitner@ait.ac.at