Institutes of Technology need to be the keystones of Ireland’s national innovation ecosystem

In My views on December 28, 2012 at 8:31 pm

The Keystone question

The following post is based on research I carried out for my recent dissertation  ( http://www.eoincostello.ie/msc_ulster.html ). My post looks at a model I developed for an Irish national innovation ecosystem which I believe may provide the best long term benefit to the Irish public purse.

Early models of innovation ecosystems quoted in Irish policy documents place government policy-makers at the centre as the keystone of the innovation ecosystem. However, while policy makers are an essential component of any innovation ecosystem, often their role is facilitative, and to a degree reactive, in nature. When one looks at biological ecosystems at the heart is typically the keystone species (i.e. the species that has a disproportionately large impact on its environment relative to its footprint) which is a key driver of ecosystem activity. Studies have found similar keystone firms (look at Apple for example) in business ecosystems.

More recent innovation ecosystem models featured in Irish government policy documents place the entrepreneurial firm in the keystone position of the ecosystem. Forfas (Review of supports for exploitation of Intellectual Property from Higher Education Research 2010) uses an ecosystem formulation that features multiple constituents. Venture Capitalists and Entrepreneurs are placed in the keystone role while the Higher Education sector is placed in a facilitating role. This innovation ecosystem is described as a ”web of highly iterative processes involving multiple actors in an innovation network or ecosystem.” .

forfas formulation

Forfas formulation of the innovation ecosystem

The innovation ecosystem envisaged by the Innovation Taskforce (2010) places entrepreneurs and enterprise in the keystone position within the ecosystem again with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) placed in a facilitating role. Similarly IntertradeIreland state that within the ecosystem the intention is that the central component, the firm, “will improve its innovation performance through the promotion of higher and more efficient levels of knowledge flow/sharing in an open system of innovation”.

innov task

Main elements of the Innovation Taskforce National Innovation System

HEIs are attributed key roles in the formulations discussed above but not the keystone role.

I believe that there are a number of arguments as to why placing the business enterprise in the keystone role (while acknowledging that defacto this is typically the case on the ground) is not ideal from a national interest point of view. State resources (in the form of subsidies, grants and other state enterprise policy instruments) are in short supply and need to be allocated in a manner which maximises the long term benefit to our state and its citizens.

The disadvantage to Ireland’s ”public good” of such a enterprise keystone formulation of the innovation ecosystem model include in my opinion:

  • Company ecosystems develop around the objectives of the keystone firm. In Ireland a large proportion of  keystone firms are foreign multinationals. If the  national conditions no longer suit the operations of the keystone firm it will exit the ecosystem in which it was keystone (for example Dell moving assembly to Poland).
  • Diversity is a key feature of a healthy innovation ecosystem. Company ecosystems develop to serve the technology and other needs in a very specific usage in a particular industry. Therefore company keystone driven ecosystems reduce diversity and reduces robustness in the event of a systemic shock (for example the downfall of the integrated Nokia/Symbian ecosystem).
  • Knowledge spillovers are key to the benefits of an efficiently operating innovation ecosystem. However  in commercial ecosystems the control of knowledge (through non-disclosure agreements and contracts) is a key feature and is commonly used to control the behaviour of ecosystem constituents.  Contrast this with the fact that a key role of HEIs is to disperse knowledge as widely as possible.
  • The role of intermediaries in an innovation ecosystem: Intermediaries play a key role in facilitating networks and brokering collaborative relationships thereby contributing to stability and diversity in the ecosystem. A HEI is in a better situation to play the intermediary role given its non-aligned nature. 
  • Public policy cannot induce enterprise to behave in any desired way apart from that which ultimately serves the profit motive and internal objectives. While HEIs are autonomous bodies the majority of their funding comes from public sources and, as such, gives them an agenda to address what is identified as desirable by relevant public policy.

An alternative formulation of a national innovation ecosystem that places the Institute of Technology at the keystone is outlined in the image below. The constituents in this model are those identified in my winning entry in the Festival of Innovative Practice at University of Ulster’s Centre for Higher Education Practice.

This model contains many of the constituents identified in the Hunt Report’s (the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030) model for our institutes of higher education. In recognition of the key role played by entrepreneurship and SME start-ups in innovation, the Incubation Centre constituent is added to this model. Most HEI campuses in Ireland now have an incubation centre embedded within their campus. Also the Alumni constituent is added in this formulation due to their connection to the keystone HEI and potential to be active participants in the inward and outward flows of knowledge, staff, students and ideas.



 Components of a National Innovation Ecosystem for Ireland


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