Innovation is a word that gets bandied about with distressing frequency. Business in trouble? Innovate. Your economy should probably innovate too! And, at the risk of repeating myself, you yourself should innovate! But what the hell does it all mean. Well, nothing really. For the most part it can all be passed off as empty rhetoric. However, when the panel discussion on innovation includes former Finnish PM Esko Aho, and the President of the European Patent Office, you can guess that the innovation talk is going to get serious. And it did. I attended the ‘Creating an Innovative Europe: One Year Assessment’ seminar as part of the European Business Summit here in Brussels. It was moderated by John Defterios, host of World Business on CNBC. The panel discussion highlighted the need for European businesses to, well, innovate. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I definitely heard the phrase “Innovate or Die!” at least once.

The rationale for the alarmism was clearly laid out. Much research and innovation monies, and patents, are coming from the East; Japan, China, Korea and India are all making big strides, while Europe, as a big picture, seems content to try and maintain its privileged position, without making any big moves to compete against the up-and-comers. What’s standing in the way of some serious euro-power moves?

As far as I could tell, two things really: One, a lack of an enforceable European Community patent. Each country still maintains its own patent office, and though some progress has been made (there is a European Patent Office), and some momentum towards an agreement has been built, it was certainly not enough to stop European Patent Office President Alain Pompidou from spluttering with barely contained rage at the glacial pace and lack of cohesion. This also creates duplication of innovation; two or more parties could be working on the same idea simultaneously creating needless inefficiency.

The second problem is that willing innovation doesn’t necessarily make it happen. “Quick… Create something new!!” are not exactly achievable instructions. But creating an environment conducive to creativity and development of new ideas is something that I can wholeheartedly support; I’m glad that opinion leaders in business and politics agree with me on this one. So let’s carry forth.

For those of you who are unclear on the difference between R & D and Innovation let me paraphrase a relationship I learned at the European Business Summits’ Innovation Seminar:

R & D is turning money into knowledge.
Innovation is transferring knowledge into money.

And that is why I’m all about innovation, because a guy needs to pay rent. And he can’t do so with knowledge.