Innovation is Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and the customer
This puts the emphasis of innovation on value delivery.
If you look at the definition of innovation used in the Global Innovation Index, it is based on the Oslo Manual developed by the European Communities and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and is as follows:
An Innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), a new process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation, or external relations.
Firstly, my issue with the underlying definition is that it is much too fixated on “newness”. According to it, anything new would be classified as an innovation, regardless of whether it adds value and is accepted by the market.
But the underlying issue with the concept is further elaborated on in the same section, where the authors admit:
Measuring innovation outputs and impacts remains difficult, hence great emphasis is placed on measuring the climate and infrastructure for innovation and on assessing related outcomes.
Here is the crux of the issue with the report: getting data on innovation outputs is hard, so the report is based predominantly on non-innovation metrics for which data is available. These are mainly macroeconomic data and socio-political data sets.
Having looked through them, some of these data sets do indeed have a clear correlation with innovation as a value-based paradigm, which I am fine with.
For example, some Innovation Inputs such as (not exhaustive list):
- 1.3.1 – Ease of starting a business
- 2.1.1 – Expenditure on education, % of GDP
- 2.2.2 – Graduates in science & engineering, %
- 2.3.2 – Gross expenditure on R&D, % GDP
- 3.1.2 – ICT Use
- 4.1.1 – Ease of Getting Credit
- 4.2.1 – Ease of protecting minority investors
- 5.1.1 – Knowledge-intensive employment, %
- 5.3.1 – Intellectual property payments, % total trade
However, the issue is that for all of the good indices which have a direct correlation to innovation, there are also a number of other indices which in my view are much more focused on general economic health and strength. The authors make the argument that this underlying climate and infrastructure is vital for innovation, and to a degree I agree with them. However, I don’t fully support the idea that the following (not exhaustive) list of other Innovation inputs actually relate much to innovation specifically:
- 1.1.1 – Political Stability and safety
- 3.1.3 – Government’s online service
- 3.2.1 – Electricity output, kWh/cap
- 3.3.2 – Environmental performance
- 4.2.3 – Total value of stocks traded, % GDP
- 4.3.3 – Domestic market scale, bn PPP$
Yes, the values above can be used to make an assessment of the strength of the economy. But as the authors have admitted, it is not specifically related to a country or individual’s ability to innovate. In fact, in many cases innovation is actually spurred on by challenges existing in a local market which need a novel solution, such as SMS-based mobile payments in African countries with neither strong financial institutions or widespread and affordable ICT access. A number of the indices simply muddy the waters by adding in ranking factors which are less (or not at all) related to things which will increase or decrease a person’s ability to come up with and execute on value-adding ideas. The ranking would be more accurate if these factors were removed, leaving a smaller but more focused dataset.
The challenge in measuring innovation outputs
Even more issues arise when we look at the index data used to assess innovation output, which the authors also admitted was hard to get hold of.
This section is split into two as well, comparing sub-indicators for “Knowledge & Technology Outputs” and “Creative Outputs”.
“Knowledge & Technology Outputs” are predominantly made of very good innovation-related indicators, including information on:
- 6.1.1 – Patents by origin/ bn PPP$ GDP
- 6.1.4 – Scientific & Technical articles/bn PPP$ GDP
- 6.2.2 – New Businesses/th pop 15-64 (an especially good one in my view)
- 6.2.5 – High- & Medium-high-tech manufacturers, %
- 6.3.2 – High-tech exports less re-exports, % total trade
On the whole, this section gives a good indicator of how much a country is contributing to research and new product development. With the data available, this is probably as good as it is possible to get.
However, the Creative Outputs section is another story. Here we find indicators such as:
- 7.2.2 – National Feature films/ mm pop 15-69
- 7.2.4 – Printing & publishing manufacturers, %
- 7.3.3 – Wikipedia monthly edits/mm pop 15-69
- 7.3.4 – Video uploads on Youtube/pop 15-69
This is where the lack of coherent, comparable data becomes the most clear. Many of these indicators are culturally biased, based on language and local tastes. These cultural output indexes also relate only remotely to the concept of innovation, and in the case of printing and publishing are actually measuring an index for an industry which is in decline thanks to innovation in digital.
The authors have had to rely on data sources available, and acknowledge its fundamental limitations when they admit:
Attempts made to strengthen this sub-pillar with indicators in areas such as Internet and machine learning, blog posting, online gaming, and the development of applications have so far proved unsuccessful.
So the good news is that the authors are aware of the limitations inherent in the report. I wish them good luck in continually finding new ways to improve their data. However, at the moment the rankings and the data they are based on must be taken with a grain of salt.
Is it measuring innovation or business efficiency?
My final point relates to the question which comes up when analysing the results of the GII itself.
Now, please don’t think I’m giving grief to Switzerland, but they are not a country you associate with high technology and world-changing design innovations. They are much more a country you think of when it comes to good governance and efficiency of doing business, which so many of the macro-economic indicators in this list relate to. Which makes me ask the question of how much the rankings in this list are the result of innovations from the country itself, and how much it is based on large international businesses being set up with Headquarters in Switzerland for tax purposes.
Let me give you an example. I previously worked for many years at Deloitte, one of the world’s largest professional services firms doing audit, consulting and advisory for almost every major global company and employing more than 200,000 people. Yet the company was restructured to be a Swiss Verein, so that taxes would be as low as possible. The vast, vast majority of work is being done inside each individual country at a local level, yet Switzerland ends up with a larger number of headquarters with people not doing much of the progressive, high-tech work there. And this will certainly also be true of things like patents filed on the companies’ behalf. Many other large companies employ similar tactics.
This doesn’t mean that Switzerland isn’t an innovative place. It certainly is, having a large number of impressive universities and research hubs. However, when you look at where new, innovative companies are actually developing new technology on the ground, you are more likely to find it in cities like Berlin, London, San Fransisco, Tel Aviv, Nairobi and Singapore, rather than Zurich. This just highlights to me the limitations in using the macroeconomic data which the GII relies upon so heavily.
You should still have a look at the report
Now, don’t think that I don’t like or respect the GII. I think it’s fantastic, and am continuously finding out more golden nuggets of information from it.
If you are interested in Innovation, it’s a vital read, and I strongly suggest you download it.
However, I would not recommend you use it as the sole resource for making any important innovation-based decisions, like where to invest in a new R&D facility or go after a new market. The data is not geared towards that.
I hope that after reading this, you’ll be able to get the value from the report and still understand its inherent limitations.