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Innovation Constellations of the 21st Century

Jean-Pierre Lehmann*

The future has always been uncertain. But it is more than ever now because of the speed at which we live. In the past, developments would take decades or centuries. This applied both to technology transfer – e.g., that of the printing press from China to Europe –as well as to the rise and fall of empires. But now in our lifetimes, the speed of change is approaching unfathomable rates. The last decade has witnessed some hallucinating changes in every domain – economics, geopolitics, social customs, and of course technology. Witness, for example, how quickly the Soviet Empire collapsed and, conversely, how quickly the Chinese Empire re-arose! And no technology has penetrated so many people so drastically fast as mobile telephony.

In this rapidly changing planet, it seems nevertheless possible to make a few seemingly reasonably safe assertions in respect to the future centers of innovation.

First, contrary to what some might assume, the term “center” will remain operative. In other words, some would argue that in this cyber age the very concept of a physical center is obsolete. I disagree. There are many, many things that can be done virtually. However there are two human activities that, I would argue, will always require physical contact: one is sex and the other is team-based innovation. Skype and all other forms of virtual communication will not do. Of course they have a role to play in keeping contact and perhaps in foreplay.

But everything seems to indicate that innovation comes from the intensity of the physical setting in which teams work and very often the casual and accidental exchanges that spark a light. The so-called “deep dive” approach to innovation bears this out. Centers may – and indeed should – be linked virtually via constellations of networks to other centers. In other words, there will be centers, not one single center!

Second, having said that, however, it cannot be assumed that the population of the centers will necessarily coincide with the nationals of a particular country. Innovators tend to be a rather nomadic foot-loose species. This has been true of all times. Innovators will go where the conditions for innovation are best. The essentials are robust governance and infrastructure, along with freedom. Taiwanese innovators and researchers were among the most notorious “brain-drainers” up until roughly the mid-1990s. Then the Taiwan government introduced significant reforms, granted far more individual freedom, and provided an excellent research infrastructure. Taiwanese scientists returned in droves. All repressive governments are – innovation wise – shooting themselves in the foot and hence handicapping their countries in the innovation race.

Third, centers of innovation tend to be where the greatest hetero-geneities of the human species are assembled. In the 12th century, for example, the city of Córdoba in what was known as Al-Andalus was a major and indeed magnificent center of learning and innovation with Muslims, Jews and Christians working closely together and cross-fertilizing ideas. After the inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews and Moors, Andalucía (as it became) declined and its science and innovation disappeared.

Cross-fertilization has been a major feature of Silicon Valley as well as other contemporary centers of innovation. Looking forward, it is, I believe, reasonably safe to predict that while many Indians will continue to be major actors in all global centers of innovation, as they are now notably in Silicon Valley, major centers of global innovation will also continue to develop in India. India combines a very high degree of scientific education, political freedom, a highly heterogeneous population including multiple ethnicities, religions and linguistic groups, a tradition through the Hindu religion of inquisitive thought, and a propensity to argue – as so superbly described in AmartyaSen’s book The Argumentative Indian. The English language is also a major plus.

Fourth, winning centers of global innovation in the 21stcentury will most likely not be those that fear and therefore try to prevent “braindrain” (which is pretty hopeless anyway), but those that gain from “brain circulation.” The innovative spirit who left Kerala to wander in Shanghai, Munich and San Francisco will be of infinitely greater value when she returns than will be those who never stray too far from the parish pump. Global brain circulation has been a major force behind the hi-tech successes of Korea and Taiwan.

A final word. The globe is facing perhaps the most daunting challenges since the Black Death. These include: energy, water, climate change, disease, poverty, illiteracy, gender discrimination, security and others. Science and technology alone cannot be the deus exmachina to save the planet. But clearly technology can play a fundamental role, though it is not an area that can be addressed simply by market forces. Governments also play a very important role, whether positive or negative. One must hope that in the light of the challenges, governments will respond by supporting innovators, by providing excellent conditions for centers of innovation and by facilitating, rather than impeding cross-fertilization and cross-border flows of innovations in a solid legal framework.


*Jean-Pierre Lehmann is a professor of international political economy at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland. He is the Founding Director of the Evian Group and C:F Advisory Board member.


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Dan Croitoru

Dan Croitoru

I agree with Mr. Lehmann, face to face communication will still be vital for innovation in the future. Seems that for people, proximity is still a variable when talking about efficiency. As long as there will be countries with different regulations, centers will exist in the form of resources available for innovation and development.

27th August, 2010 @ 10:51 AM CEST

Dharmesh Bhadja

Dharmesh Bhadja | Action team

i am glad to read this as an Indian. and yes at the same time, i feel more responsibilities and accountability to play the key role in leading the open innovation....

28th October, 2010 @ 7:37 PM CEST

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It is important to realize that no country alone will be able to lead innovation.Building an ecosystem of research, diverse technology, funding,venture capitalism and open dialogues are all important. We need a fair share of talent collaboration and transfer among countries and institutions.

Statement from the book by Sayanee Basu, Singapore

First of all, are we still going to talk about countries in 2030? We might, but I would assume that the most innovative place will be society, which will invest in youth. The winner of innovation will be the society that invests in knowledge instead of weapons. This will be a challenge for the future, although an easy one for those who will be part of Challenge:Future.So if I had to bet, I would bet for the country called CFMR (Challenge:Future Members Republic).

Statement from the book by Iga Vavpotič (C:F Judge), Author Of“My Very Own Book”, Co-Founder Ofypsilon Institute, Slovenia

As far as I can see how development is stepping forward, I can be sure that China is the queen of innovation in the near future.But what I hope to become true is that small and not so developed countries like Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia,Slovenia (already developed), Lithuania,Slovakia, and others will also play their part in the community of innovation countries.

Statement from the book by Krste Kostoski, Macedonia

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