The Global Innovation Index 2014 was published in July, ranking the innovation performance of 143 economies and attempting to tease apart the factors that make countries more or less innovative.
The Index is published by Cornell University, Insead and the World Intellectual Property Organisation, and as well as providing the rankings, this year’s report has a theme: ‘the Human Factor in Innovation’. What role do innovative people play? Who are they, where are they, and how can countries cultivate and attract them?
Innovation in the ranks
Compared to last year’s rankings, the picture in the top 10 was quite stable. Switzerland was in the top spot once more, with the UK moving up from third to second place, followed by Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, the USA, Singapore, Denmark, Luxembourg and Hong Kong. The UK has gradually improved its ranking in recent years, up from 5th in 2012 and 10th in 2011.
The top of the table is dominated by high-income countries; China, at number 29, is the highest-ranked upper-middle income country. The biggest improvements were seen in Sub-Saharan African countries, but there is still an overall ‘innovation divide’ between nations. Countries at the top of the table continue to benefit from legacy investments in people and institutions, whereas countries lower down the table can’t replicate these factors quickly enough to catch up.
The human factor
In low and middle-income countries, a large, poorly educated population is identified as the primary factor holding back innovation. These countries are often ‘innovation followers’—taking up and developing innovations from overseas—and improving human capital can increase the absorptive capacity of local companies, helping them to adapt and master technologies.
Scientifically and technically trained workers are important, but the human factor in innovation is about more than just STEM graduates. A population that is supportive of innovation and understands its potential role in economic growth is more likely to support policies aimed at fostering it, and a tech savvy population is an ideal set of potential customers for new innovations.
Education for innovation
Countries with more-educated populations tend to rank higher, but the education systems they have in place were not necessarily designed with innovation in mind. Creativity, critical thinking, social skills and even entrepreneurship can be just as important for innovation as deep, subject-specific knowledge. The report expresses some concern that focusing on academic tests and enrolment in STEM subjects can get in the way of providing this broad education. The Royal Society has recently published its own Vision for science and maths education, which echoes some of this.
Excellent higher education institutions are also important, but they are not easy to build from scratch. For example in India, higher education has expanded rapidly in the last 30 years, mostly in teaching of science and engineering at new private institutions. However, the country now has big challenges to tackle in the shape of faculty shortages, quality, and inequality of access.
Migration of scarce talent
Well-educated people are relatively scarce, and they also tend to be more mobile. North America and Western Europe are the most popular destinations, benefitting from a net inflow of skilled people, most commonly from China and India.
The report also looks closely at the small, elite cohort of high-impact innovators who contribute disproportionately to outputs. They tend to cluster geographically, and indeed part of the USA’s success in innovation can be attributed to the very talented foreigners that choose to live there.
For developing countries, this poses a problem. 10.6% of Africa’s highly skilled people emigrate, compared with the world average of 5.4%. In South Africa, only one of their top 15 entrepreneurs still lives there, and none of their five Nobel Prize winners for Chemistry or Medicine do.
Climbing the ranks
The authors use 81 different indicators to produce the Global Innovation Index, and these measures can suggest potential areas for improvement for countries looking to move up the rankings.
Overall, the report’s focus on the human factor in innovation makes it clear that educating and attracting the right people should be a priority, but doing so will be quite a different task depending on the history and economy of the country in question.