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European innovation – lost in translation

The European innovation system seems to be suffering from a “Tower of Babel” syndrome: all funding schemes use their own innovation terminology – which confuses the target groups.

by Bård Krogshus
Innovation consultant and founder/CEO of Infosector, Norway

October 20th, 2011

Too many “innovation languages"

The European SMEs are encouraged to utilise national and international funding schemes, R&D results and partner opportunities, but get lost on their way because the “innovation industry” (e.g., national and international funding agencies, businesses, R&D institutions, innovation service providers) uses different keywords and thematic structures when describing and categorising calls, funding schemes, innovation themes and projects. For example, there are about 2000 funding schemes for businesses in Norway. Many of them are using proprietary terms and categories for their innovation themes, projects and activities. Similarly, at the European level, programmes such as EU/IST or Eureka are using different and incompatible keywords and categories which cause confusion and de-motivation for innovative SMEs looking for relevant projects, partners and support schemes across borders.

We can use the Tower of Babel as a picture of the situation: to stop the building of the tower, they confound the languages of the partners so they could not understand each other. The European innovation system seems to be suffering from the same problem. In fact, the innovation language barrier poses a problem for all actors in the innovation industry. For Europe's innovative businesses, it becomes a very time and resource consuming task to find suitable partners and applicable funding schemes. In addition, they must spend considerable time familiarising themselves with the innovation language used in each funding scheme in order to assess its relevance. Different innovation languages also inhibit innovation agencies in coordinating their efforts and services. The result is decreased quality and quantity of European innovation projects. Finally, when a company in one country attempts to approach networks and companies with their keyword project description, the potential partners have to spend much time to align the technology keywords into a mutual understanding.

The benefits of a common innovation language

Europe needs to develop tools which can search for relevant information across databases which use different categorisation systems for innovation themes. The first step to accomplish this will be to develop a common way to categorise innovation themes and projects. In other words, Europe needs a common innovation language and a set of semantic mapping tools for technical keywords. With such a concept and standard in place, organisations can either choose to adapt their own standard or allow information flows between the systems by semantically linking their internal languages and vocabularies.

Such tools would be of high value to companies. The time and resources spent searching for financing and partnership opportunities could be significantly reduced. The long term consequence will be an increase both in the quantity of inter-European collaboration and an improvement in the quality of partnerships, as it becomes easier to find the most suitable partners. Also, by lowering the workload associated with finding and getting familiarised with funding schemes, more European companies will enter the competition for public funding. Hence, the effect of public innovation funding will increase as a result of better projects being financed. The new standard can also be linked to other types of databases such as the proprietary EEN network, EU project repositories and national project archives. This will be in line with the European Commission's Open Access pilots.

The way forward

So far, there have been hardly any serious initiatives to address this “Tower of Babel” syndrome. Resource consuming standardisation initiatives such as CEN TC 389 (Innovation Management) have not addressed the challenge of incompatible structures in their objectives and tasks. There is some hope that the European Commission has recognised the problem and will address it through the Europe 2020 flagship initiative “Innovation Union" (COM 2010 546). It contains two relevant commitments: Commitment No. 12 says that the Commission will “strengthen cross-border matching of innovative firms with suitable investors”, and Commitment No. 16 is that “in early 2011, as a first step, the Commission will present a Communication accompanied by a legislative proposal on standardisation, which will inter alia cover the ICT sector, in order to speed up and modernise standard-setting to enable interoperability and foster innovation in fast-moving global markets”.

However, the establishment of a standard which innovation actors either can adapt or semantically link their own categorisation systems to, will probably require additional political will, leadership and financing from national governments. Among other things, the national political leaderships need to put more pressure on their innovation agencies to either adopt or semantically link their current innovation language to the standard. However, as a common standard disseminates over Europe, the innovation agencies will probably increasingly adapt, it in order to attract more companies and projects.

There are also some technical challenges. Linking different categorisation systems does not represent a perfect translation, as a particular concept in one system (for instance a technological theme) may be partly overlapping with several concepts in other categorisation systems. However, this challenge applies to all semantic projects, and it is has some irony that national and international funding schemes are pouring out millions of euros every year to projects related to semantic technology, while their own systems, much to the frustration of their users, are not semantically linked. It is high time for both – innovation policy and industry – to tackle the problem of innovation opportunities being “lost in translation” and to strengthen the European innovation capacity through a common innovation language.