Make Innovation Great Again: Creative construction and destruction of energy innovation

In 1841, ‘The National System of Political Economy’ was put forward by Friedrich List attempting to explain how Germany could overtake England in industrial development.[1] National competition and attempts to understand this competition have a long history. Today, one of the many ways this is expressed is in statistical analysis and case study research. The latest example is the Global Innovation Index 2018 which focuses this year on energy innovation. The report provides a robust account of how nations innovate and in one sense, how nations beat other nations at the innovation game.[2]

What I like about the report is that innovation in the energy sector is viewed as a driving force that must save the world from climate change. This is why the topic of innovation holds such power over the energy sector: Just maybe we hold the keys to prevent our own demise. To improve our ability to prevent the destruction of the Earth and of the human race, we must innovate. An innate desire to improve our living by harnessing ideas and technologies. Nations innovate and compete. Those that do not stagnate and decline. Those that erode the means and complex interactions speed their demise.

The Global Innovation Index (GII) project was launched by Professor Dutta at INSEAD in 2007 with the simple goal of determining how to find metrics and approaches that better capture the richness of innovation in society and go beyond such traditional measures of innovation as the number of research articles and the level of research and development (R&D) expenditures (pg 55).

In one sense innovation got us into this environmental mess. The inventions that produced steam power, harnessed coal and facilitated mass transportation created more and more CO2. We must now redevelop our global energy system to prevent further environmental destruction. What makes the topic of innovation so exciting is it brings together issues of economy, society, politics and the environment. We must find new ways accelerate and foster innovation to deploy new technologies and reduce the use of natural resources.

The Global Innovation Index 2018 attempts to highlight the winning areas and combination of factors that facilitate energy innovation. The report provides both a global snapshot of technology trends and detailed case studies of how countries and companies drive and use innovation to transform the energy sector.

The GII 2018 provides an effective snapshot of the structure that surrounds the energy sector (see below). There are two primary categories, ‘Innovation Input’ and ‘Innovation Output’. The first includes, institutions, human capital and research, infrastructure, market sophistication and business sophistication. The second, of outputs, is focused on knowledge and technology outputs in the creative process. These factors are measured and mapped to produce a scoreboard of success (and failure). The report emphasizes successful examples, but it’s important to also take the inverse view of see those that don’t or choose not to succeed.

Figure 1 Inputs and Outputs for Global Innovation Index (source: Global Innovation Index 2018)


On the successful side, the ultimate goal of all this coordination and cooperation is to build successful clusters of industries where, as Freeman[3] finds references to 1890 when observations of “the secrets of industry were in the air”. Likewise, the GII 2018, has a special section on clusters identified by patent filings and journal publications, these outputs represent the agglomeration of other innovative factors that lead to the outputs (see above). These inputs and outputs based around academic and industry cooperation are important for a country’s standing in the global innovation index.

Making countries worse

On the unsuccessful side – in an inverse example, if a country wanted to become less competitive and less innovative than other countries in its category or neighboring countries, it would seek to shut down and kick out institutions and people that file patents and publish scientific articles. By contrast, if a country wanted to increase its ranking as an attractive and innovative place with a cluster of innovation – where “the secrets of industry were in the air”, then it would seek to attract and build strategies and implement policies to increase the number of people carrying out these activities in their country.

France and French President Macron’s appeal and invitation to scientists after US President Trump’s assault on climate change research is an example of a country actively building up its economy. Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban kicking Central European University (CEU) out of the country or shutting down gender studies programs is an example of a country choosing to become less competitive and innovative and choosing to become closed minded and static 🙁 . Underscoring this example is that if CEU moves to Vienna then all the journal publications would be counted in the favor of Vienna and Austria (ranked 66th) which already has a strong identifiable cluster of innovation. Budapest is not even on the global list, while regional peer Warsaw is ranked 98th. (see map below and pages 204-207).

Innovation clusters and public policy and politics go together taking decades and centuries to develop. If a country or city wants to become an innovation hub and foster a more dynamic economy, then it needs to facilitate an innovation focused local environment (it’s not lost here, that the Orban government has also taken funding away from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences – thereby preventing it from excelling like it’s Polish peer)

Figure 2: Map of Innovation Clusters in Europe (Source: Global Innovation Index 2018)[4]

Politics Trumps Innovation?

Warsaw’s 98th place in the cluster ranking and the Polish Academy of Sciences as the top scientific organization (near 20% of publications), as identified in the GII 2018 report, is notable for the only location and organization in Eastern Europe (outside of Russia) to be in the top 100 (ahead of two Chinese cities). Creating the environment for top performance of a city or region requires not just industrial engineering output, but as the report states, input from the creative industries.

As Freeman identifies, “List’s clear recognition of the interdependence of tangible and intangible investment has a decidedly modem ring. He saw too that industry should be linked to the formal institutions of science and of education.”[5] Freeman quotes List:

“There scarcely exists a manufacturing business which has no relation to physics, mechanics, chemistry, mathematics or to the art of design, etc. No progress, no new discoveries and inventions can be made in these sciences by which a hundred industries and processes could not be improved or altered. In the manufacturing State, therefore, sciences and arts must necessarily become popular” (my emphasis).[6]

Clustered innovative regions and cities go together with open mindsets and fostering of relations between universities and industries. A recent conversation with Professor Andreas Goldthau highlighted this Macron initiative to both attract scientists to France and solve the world’s environmental problem.

President Macron’s speech, now labelled as the “Make our Planet Great Again” has put serious money into the initiative. France put up €30 million and Germany €15 million, Professor Andreas Goldthau is benefiting from this Franco-German partnership. He is now developing a research project to examine the impact of the energy transition on the global south. Countries that want to be competitive invest in innovative ideas in areas of education and industry to tackle are most pressing societal and environmental needs. Countries that deny or ignore these issues fail to innovate in meaningful and impactful ways that improve the lives of their own citizens and those around the world.

” Societies that manage to create or attract critical masses of talented people (inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, researchers) and give them the tools and environments to be creative have, in the long run, come out ahead.”

Peter Engelke

The GII 2018 is a great example of how nations compete in the area of innovative energy technologies and solutions. At a deeper level, the leaders in the field demonstrate the impact decades of building up institutions and cooperation between industry and academia. The connections are not always clear, but open societies where arts and free thinking are allowed flourish, in turn they benefit the industrial output of nations. This mindset and public policy make economies grow for the benefit of societies. Conversely, politicians like Trump and Orban that attempt to control academic output and thought push the human drivers of any industrial complex out or away from elevating a nation’s innovative eco-system to a new level. Better design, better social engagement are stamped out by the political machine that only is focused on elusive industrial output.

As Freeman states[7], just because the Soviet Union put greater resources into R&D didn’t guarantee better innovation, qualitative factors affecting the national system of innovation also are at the heart of a countries industrial output. Gas pipelines and nuclear plants feed industry, but it is the social scientist or artist that develop or influence social policy to ensure industry benefits society. It is the job of the politician to create the environment for these two spheres to come together for the benefit of society and the planet.


[1] Freeman, Christopher. “The ‘National System of Innovation’ in Historical Perspective.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 19 (1995): 5–24.

[2] Dutta, Soumitra, Bruno Lanvin, and Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, eds. “Global Innovation Index 2018: Energizing the World with Innovation.” Cornell SC Johnson College of Business; INSEAD; WIPO, 2018.

[3] as cited from Foray 1991; Freeman, “The ‘National System of Innovation’ in Historical Perspective,” 9.

[4] Dutta, Lanvin, and Wunsch-Vincent, “Global Innovation Index 2018: Energizing the World with Innovation,” 202.

[5] Freeman, “The ‘National System of Innovation’ in Historical Perspective,” 6.

[6] List 1841, cited by Freeman, 6.

[7] Freeman, 12.