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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 April, 2005, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
The changing nature of innovation
Electronic components, Eyewire
Early developments in electronics came out of big labs
Rampant competition on a global scale means big changes for the way that companies carry out research and produce new products.

So says Lord Broers in the third of this year's Reith lectures.

Companies can no longer rely on dominating their field and dictating the pace of development, he warns.

Firms must also keep close control of their intellectual property and make sure it is resistant to challenges from rivals.

Old school

In his five lectures - broadcast on Radio Four throughout April - Lord Broers, who is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, explores the idea that technology holds the key to the future of the human race.

It is immensely exhilarating to be player but there are no places reserved for amateurs
Lord Broers
This third lecture tackles ideas and how they get to the market place. Looking back over his long career Lord Broers surveys the changing nature of the research and development that goes into new products and the way they are brought to market.

In 1965, when Lord Broers was a newly awarded PhD, it seemed obvious where he would look for work.

"There was no doubt in anybody's mind at that time that the ideal model for technology development was the large, well funded, industrial research laboratory staffed with talented PhD graduates from the world's leading universities."

It was only in such places as AT&T Bell labs, Xerox Parc and HP's research labs that "really important practical advances were made".

Until the 1980s, says Lord Broers, the big industrial labs "acted as the reservoirs from which most successful new products were drawn".

Very high ideals underpinned the operation of these research establishments, says Lord Broers.

"In retrospect it becomes obvious that this support of fundamental science was in effect a philanthropic activity and could be afforded because the companies that practiced it on a significant scale were in fact monopolies."

Global reality

But rampant competition means that no companies dominate the markets they trade in any more, says Lord Broers.

Airbus A380, AP
The Airbus is a prime example of collaboration in action
"The world of technology and science has also expanded so much that it is no longer possible, even for the largest companies, to sustain a research effort that can cover all the disciplines used in their products."

Now fundamental research has passed to the universities and corporate research has become a very different animal.

Now it is much more about bringing together good ideas rather than originating them.

"To be successful the innovators will almost certainly need an intimate knowledge of the science that underlies the technology, but their aim will not be to further the science."

Instead research teams have to work on finding out what is getting in the way of a product getting off the lab bench and on to the shop shelf.

"They will use their knowledge to break down the barriers that stand in the way of practical application," says Lord Broers.

Close collaborators

This is also necessary because the components in almost any modern product are made by such a wide variety of firms.

Lenovo PC production line, Getty Images
China and India are becoming technical hot houses
Lord Broers cites the mobile phone, Airbus A380 and modern cars are all good examples of this bringing together of lots of parts for a common end.

"The innovation is distributed and international and perhaps the most powerful minds of all are those at the centre who have to decide which technologies to select and how they will be brought together," he says.

Key to all this is collaboration, says Lord Broers. It is especially important for smaller companies who do not have the market muscle to take on larger firms.

And, he says, no matter who is developing a product they must keep close control over intellectual property.

Finally, says Lord Broers, any innovator needs to be aware that competition is global. "To be only nationally competitive is to be not competitive."

The pace of change has accelerated and is likely to do so again as nations such as China and India develop.

"Companies ceased to make entire products themselves and became assemblers of the world's best, and to do this they had to know the world - both its technologies and its peoples."

"It is immensely exhilarating to be player but there are no places reserved for amateurs."

The third of this year's Reith Lectures airs on Radio Four at 2000 BST on Wednesday 20 April.

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