On international collaboration

How one plus one can be greater than two.

Globalisation is the evolving background and increasingly becomes the driving factor for many of our considerations and actions; and science, technology, and innovation are no exceptions to this trend. While globalisation certainly poses a number of significant challenges to us, both as individuals and as societies, I’d like to focus on how globalisation actually provides entirely new means and opportunities to solve problems. How does globalisation help us so that 1 + 1 > 2 ? That’s neither black magic nor strange mathematics … Let’s tackle this step by step.

To start with: why do we collaborate with one another?  Most collaborations are established to share resources and spread risks. If I believe that a given problem is too big for me to handle (either because I cannot muster the necessary resources, or because the risk of failure threatens my existance) I’ll seek an ally to collaborate with. That’s a marvellous deal: I get what I want and I trade that in for something I need to get rid of. I get access to additional resources, be it money, facilities, skills, or knowledge. At the same time, I share the risk of failure, so that I hold only a portion of that risk.

That approach will work for any kind of problem as long as you can find an ally sharing your desire to get that problem solved. Together you’ll achieve your shared goal by pooling your resources while keeping your individual risks within acceptable limits. That’s the normal way of collaborating, and it’s a clear case of 1 + 1 = 2; scaling up the effort to scale up the outcome, a straightforward linear relation.

That’s very useful, and it applies to innovation as well. But it’s not really surprising. So why do political leaders promote international collaboration especially in science? And what is the expected benefit of international collaboration in technology and in innovation in general?

The next question then is: What is international collaboration? I have a very broad view of that term, to include any collaboration between individuals or groups that come from different backgrounds. The term background is synonym for experiences and expectations, which are largely defined by the culture and society we grow up in. For me, it boils down to:

International collaboration is the mutually beneficial interaction across cultural and societal boundaries.

It encompasses the collaboration between nations (bi- or multilateral agreements at government level), the interaction of businesses across different countries, the activities of multi-national companies (as they work across cultural boundaries even within their own organisation), the work of international governmental and non-governmental  organisations, or the collaboration between individuals from different backgrounds. Even citizen science is included, given the global reach of on-line collaboration.

Okay, you might say: So what? What difference does international collaboration make in innovation? Is there any? Then I’d say: Yes, there is, and I am convinced that it’s vital. The difference is in novel ideas, in their genesis and the role that they play in innovation.

At TEDGlobal 2010, author Matt Ridley presented his view of mankind’s progress and how it was driven, since the dawn of humanity, by the exchange of ideas, or more preciously, and in his own words:  “the meeting and mating of ideas to make new ideas“. The exchange of ideas, the encounter of different ideas, is what actually creates new ideas. This meeting and mating propelled mankind forward, and keeps doing so until the present day. That’s where ideas go straight to the heart of innovation.

Of course, not every new idea is already an innovation. But every innovation is built upon a novel idea. Therefore, setting the conditions for increasing the number of novel ideas is an essential underpinning to promote innovation. However, the number of novel ideas does not simply depend on the sheer number of ideas that interact, or on the number of their interactions; it is not simply a function of quantity.

Rather, the quality of interactions matters. New ideas spring most easily from unconventional, unexpected interactions; if you wish, that’s the meeting and mating of strangers. This works best with seemingly unrelated ideas, coming from different origins and backgrounds, across cultures, beliefs, experiences, expectations. The number of new ideas depends upon the diversity of the ideas that interact, on the spectrum they cover. International collaboration thus is the prime tool to generate novel ideas that any number of likeminded people from the same background cannot create. That’s what generates non-linear increase in new ideas, and that’s when 1 + 1 > 2.

You’ll find this concept in Brian Arthur’s view of how technology evolves. He points out that technology domains encounter society and co-evolve together with society. That is to say that a technology domain influences society, and at the same time society affects the path that technology domain will take. If you replace society (singular) with societies (plural) you immediately see my argument for international collaboration: going beyond the boundaries of one society, nation, culture directly enlarges the diversity and richness of encounters between the evolving technology domain and its potential users, their needs and expectations.

These encounters accelerate the evolution of the technology domain as they create new ideas for its application to the benefit of societies. Multi-national corporations exploit this diversity of interactions for their technology development, as they combine ideas from multiple sources to service multiple markets. This concept is an important driver for the European Union and its Horizon 2020 Programme for Research and Innovation: developing and maturing technologies through multi-national collaboration, promoting the meeting and mating of ideas from all across Europe, in order to ensure that European businesses stay competitive in globalised markets.

Obviously, there is an important role for politics to set the conditions that encourage the meeting and mating of ideas at all levels that support innovation, including education, business, trade, and not the least science and technology. In all these areas, policies and institutions that support and facilitate international collaboration will effectively promote innovation.

I firmly believe that cultural diversity is a treasure that we must preserve in order to use the wealth of different ideas wisely to our collective benefits. International collaboration is key to encouraging and promoting innovation, and thanks to globalisation it has never been easier to reach beyond the local boundaries of ideas.


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