The EIT board is charged with selecting Europe’s first Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) by early 2010. A total of six KICs are to be created by 2013 in an effort to integrate the EU’s fragmented research infrastructure by bringing together university departments, companies and research institutes to focus on key strategic areas.
The primary focus is expected to be on climate change, renewable energy and the next generation of information and communication technologies. Speaking at the first of six European Policy Centre debates marking the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, Bengt-Åke Lundvall, a professor at the business studies department of Aalborg University in Denmark, compared the Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) to Airbus, saying the lack of competition would lead to less innovation.
“I’m not so happy with KICs. I would like to rename them as ‘competing communities’. I think what you are setting up now are two or three monopolies of knowledge. My experience is that competition is so efficient in stimulating scholars, researchers and entrepreneurs,” Lundvall said. “I always criticise what I call Airbus Syndrome – the idea that if we put all our eggs in one basket, things go better than if we have competition. I completely disagree with this,” he argued.
Schuurmans rejected this stinging criticism, insisting that KICs would lead to more efficient use of existing research activity by bringing together a critical mass of scholars, students and industry. “Competition is essential. You will see this later in how we build the KICs. What I really want to ensure is that we stay away from thinly spread networks,” he said, while stressing the EIT would be a catalyst for step-change in how the EU uses its innovation capacity. “There is enough capacity in Europe. It’s about using this capacity wisely in order to have maximum impact,” he said. According to the EIT chair, the KICs will be “webs of excellence” and will include bringing scientists together onto a single site. Each community will have four to six “major nodes”, where staff could come to work together face-to-face.
For each KIC, one of the participating research institutes could take the lead for a number of years and bring researchers to its campus. All universities involved in the KICs would benefit from more publications, research output and staff development. KICs will have a lifetime of between seven and 15 years, and will spend a total of €50 million to €100 million per year. However, Schuurmans acknowledged that the EIT budget is lower than he would have liked. The institute’s €300 million budget is “obviously not enough,” he said, but this would be enough to get it off the ground. The KICs will have to attract private funds and tap into existing public funding programmes.
In selecting the KICs early next year, the EIT will focus on sustainable energy, climate change and the information society. Schuurmans said the EIT was also under pressure to extend its remit to include healthcare and food.
EU Commissioner for Education and Training Jan Figel’ said competition must be part of the EIT’s thinking and delivery. He said Europe must be outward looking and imaginative in finding solutions to the economic crisis. “We must emerge from this crisis as a leader. Europe needs to bring some solutions to the G20 summit in April. The response of the Commission is to invest more and invest better.” Finnish Socialist MEP Reino Paasilinna said countries were failing to meet targets set by the Lisbon Agenda. “Countries are not investing in innovation, so the scene is very grim. The recovery plans talk about energy and infrastructure, but where is the innovation?” He added that investors are avoiding the risks involved in backing young researchers, preferring instead to fund established companies. “We need more money for innovation or there will be no new ideas.”
Risk-averse schools in Europe
Maria João Rodrigues, an economics professor at the University of Lisbon, said the EIT, the Bologna Process and the adoption of the European Culture Agenda were part of Europe’s efforts to redirect its policies towards a knowledge-based economy. The European Year of Creativity and Innovation is a natural step in a long process that began in Lisbon, she added, and comes at a time when creativity is more important than ever. “We need creativity in science, technology and culture. We need creativity in changing our patterns of production and consumption to adopt our public services,” she declared.
Jan Muehlfeit, European chairman of the Microsoft Corporation, said this is the first time in history that the younger generation understands technology better than older people, while computers are now beating humans at chess. He said future advances depended on “right-brained” creative development. “This is a key element in education. Our education system is based too much on memorising. The root cause of Europe’s risk-averse nature can be found in schools,” Muehlfeit said.