Friday, December 25, 2009

Thinking Innovation: Innovating an innovative culture.

The PM just announced that the year 2010 is the innovation year for Malaysia, and we should all try to innovate as and when we can, since this will ensure that we achieve a nation with a developed status and are at par with other advanced countries in the world. In the following paragraphs I will write some of my thoughts on innovation.

Innovation is not just about a breakthrough discovery. It does not have to be science related at all. Innovation is about a new way of doing things. Innovation is also about a novel solution to an old problem. Innovation can also be about a revolutionized thinking style. No more “old school” line of thoughts if it no longer applies in the now.

Whilst a raft of thoughts has been shared by various experts on the relevance of innovation in Science and Tech, not many have spoken about innovative economy…innovative policies…innovative management and innovative leaderships. These other forms of innovations, which I shall refer herein as primary innovations, are much more pertinent than scientific innovation alone. Don't get me wrong, scientific innovation is critical, but looking at the way we are right now, the innovation culture is not yet deeply ingrained within us, the laymen and the scientists and researchers alike.

The concept on innovation in this country is very university-centric and is largely driven academically. We expect universities, researchers, scientists and academics to be innovative in their research cultures and drive the nation forward by commercializing their products. But a lot of the time, there is a huge gap between academic research and industrial applications or consumer demands. Academic research can be very academic, very idealistic and sometimes very much in the exploratory stages. This is good for fundamental science understanding and there is nothing wrong with that given that they are knowledge centres. But it does not necessarily lead to commercialization as it is still very far away from the developmental and realization stages. For commercialization to take place, there have to be a stronger linkage between industries and universities. Industries will have to drive and help shape university researches so that academics are more aware of the niche areas that still need scientific and technological attention. Industrial needs, which are derived from consumer demands, will dictate the kind of technological breakthroughs that are required!

Ideally, industries should conduct researches themselves so that intellectual properties can be secured and protected. But industries in Malaysia are not yet equipped to conduct independent researches simply because the focus here is still very short term and profit driven. Starting a research centre can be very expensive as for the equipments that you need are costly, sometimes in the range of millions and billions of ringgit. Such investments are not seen as having good returns. However, there are multinational companies that are willing to invest in a research centre. But unfortunately, these centres are being offshored to countries like India where the local talents have good education, are relatively cheap, and speak good technical English (see where we are going with the teaching of Science and Math in Malay?). So what we need is a stronger collaboration between industries and universities. Universities have the expensive equipments and all that industries have to do is fund the research programs. It's a win-win situation. Industries would get to tap into the university talents whilst the universities get funding for research. This is not something that could happen naturally. The government will have to create opportunities for this to happen. And this is where an innovative policy to drive an innovation based economy will help.

The primary forms of innovation are necessary to create a more innovative culture. Having innovative leaders, managing the country in an innovative way would send the message across to the entire nation that we are serious when we talk about making 2010 an innovation year for Malaysia. I don't want to see programs being devised to help Malaysians be more innovative. I don't just want financial packages to help stimulate innovation in the country. I also want our leaders to show us the way. Lead by example. The old way of doing things are not necessarily the best way of doing it. Find innovative solutions to solve an old problem. Find an innovative way to stop our neighbors from profiteering from our subsidized fuel. Find an innovative way to put a stop to corruption. Find an innovative way to solve our racial divide and lack of integration. Find an innovative way to improve our quality of education. Find an innovative solution to our everlasting problem of public transport. And the list could go on and on forever. In short, find an innovative way to innovate!

There is a real need to innovate innovation itself. We talk about innovation and how we should make it part of our life. I am very sure that in the not too distant future we will hear about an elegant and complex plan to inculcate innovation into us. But that is not sufficient. If we have policies that would curb innovation, then there is no point talking about an “innovation culture”. We are not open to new ideas. We are not open to new ways of doing things. We are not ready to face the modernized way of thinking. We come up with outrageous reasons to curb innovation and creativity. The arrest of Dr Asri is an obvious example that we are not prepared for innovative thinking. And most of these on the pretext of religiosity. I know not of any religion that would restrict innovation!

Innovation is not something that you can plan. There is no such thing as “thou shall practice innovation” and everyone innovates. Innovative culture stems from an innovative mind. A mind that is free to question and challenge. A mind that explores every other possibilities without fear of repercussions. An innovative culture would only thrive in an environment that is conducive. Any policies or laws that restrict innovation must be amended. To bring about innovation into our culture, there must be a revolutionary change. Gradual improvements will not be sufficient. We need the change to be impactful so that the people would know that we mean business and we are serious to bring about change. That is what I call an innovative way to towards bettering innovation.

And to all the leaders out there, I hope to see some innovation in creating innovation itself. A lack of such would be taken as a sign that this is just another subtle political campaign with a catchy slogan, which I hope this is not the case here.


  1. Sir,

    An excellent post.

    Will highlight your post in our website and link back to your blog.

    All the best and keep on sharing your experience.