Thinking Differently About Innovation

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Knowledge of customer expectations is a key factor in design” Over the last fifteen years, innovation support schemes have doubled, as have the allocated resources, today estimated at 10 billion Euros. And while innovation is one of France’s public policy priorities, the desired effects (improving company competitiveness, meeting the challenges of the modern world, etc.), have been late in coming. How can such a situation be explained?

Some talk of inflation and the instability of support schemes; from around thirty in the 2000s, today there are 62. Others mention the lack of cooperation between the public and private sectors, or capital investment in France that remains too timid. What if there was another reason for this mixed record? We believe that it is the consequence of an innovation policy in France that is too closely tied to the linear and hierarchical model of the economist Joseph Schumpeter (see La Recherche no. 527, p. 36).

Underlining the importance given to research in France, the Pisani- Ferry report in 2014 revealed that 70.2% of State aid for innovation aimed at increasing private research and development capacities (1). In doing so, he concurs with the criticisms of Philippe Larédo, director of research at the French Institute for Research and Innovation in Society (2). Six years ago, he lamented the lack of progress in the ambitions of the Lisbon strategy focused on a Europe of Innovation, while European policies led to a genuine Europe of higher education and research. This is all the more surprising as many reports have pointed it out: there is no simple causal relation between the number of scientists, or the amounts invested in R&D, and the level of innovation or competitiveness of a company. This is not a new observation. At the end of the 1980s, it led the Americans Stephen J. Kline and Nathan Rosenberg to propose an alternative model of innovation to that of Joseph Schumpeter - the chain-linked model.

What is special about it? It underlines that the central process of innovation is not research, but design, i.e. the process by which a client value-creating product emerges. The creation of an autonomy bracelet with a geolocation service can be used by patients with Alzheimer’s disease to leave home safely, for example. Inversely, the development of a technology without creating client value leads to the production of “white elephants”. Lack of ergonomics, no user-friendliness and low data transmission speed are some of the reasons why the WAP protocol, launched to great enthusiasm in 1999, was considered at the start of the 2000s as a commercial flop.

Thinking of innovation through the prism of design is not just a theoretical challenge, it is a practical one too. It raises the awareness of the risk of confusing research policy with innovation policy. If much new knowledge or many new inventions created in France (such as the personal computer), were exploited economically in countries like the United States and not France, could this not be precisely due to the fact that in France we have historically preferred to develop a scientific culture rather than a culture of innovation? On the industrial level, new leverages for action are also developing. Knowledge of client usages and expectations, as well as the quality of cooperation between stakeholders are key factors in the design process, and hence in innovation.

Ultimately, today France appears more as a country of inventors than of innovators. If we really want to overcome this situation and give ourselves the effective means to innovate, we need to innovate in our way of thinking about innovation.


(1) J. Pisani-Ferry, “Fifteen Years of Innovation Policy in France”, France Stratégie, 2016.

(2) P. Larédo, in La Recherche et l’innovation en France, J. Lesourne et D. Randet (dir.), Odile Jacob, 2011.




Joëlle Forest

Doctor in Production Economics

Joëlle Forest is a university lecturer at INSA Lyon, where she teaches innovation. She is scientific head of the Gaston Berger Institute’s “Ingenious Engineers Chair” program, funded by Saint-Gobain.

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November 11, 2018

November 11, 2018

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