Features

Global innovation

18 September 2018

4iP Council talks to Shirin Elahi about how innovation and patent systems might evolve.

Shirin Elahi

Shirin Elahi is a principal at NormannPartners. She started her professional career as an architect now applies her practical understanding of the creative process to explore scenarios as a tool for organisations to manage or control change.

Shirin was previously project leader at the European Patent Office, responsible for the EPO Scenarios on the future of patenting and intellectual property. She also worked as Scenarios Director with Open AIR (Open African Innovation Research and Training Initiative) examining the future of knowledge and innovation and the role of intellectual property in open development.

Shirin has assisted many other public and private organisations explore the future and the role of innovation. She has lectured on the use of foresight as a policy tool at the 2017 High Level Political Forum on Science, technology, innovation: Closing the gender gap to meet the SDGs and The future inventive enterprise at the 2017 LESI conference. A list of Shirin’s publications can be found at the end of this feature.

Here, 4iP Council talks to Shirin about how innovation and patent systems might evolve.



You coordinated a very interesting report for the EPO, “Scenarios for the future” some years ago. Do you think that the reflections made then are still relevant?

The world has changed dramatically over the past decade, yet in many ways the EPO scenarios are as relevant as when they were first written. There were four disparate scenarios that described four different worlds that the IP system may face running up to 2025. Although built by EPO scenario builders, these scenarios drew on the views of over 100 experts from across the world who were interviewed for the project. Recently, I met an ex-colleague who had been responsible for one of the scenarios and we reflected how pertinent the description of the ‘Whose Game?’scenario, where the axis of innovation and IP shifted towards China, had been. However, the EPO scenarios are still very focused on the developed world, whilst the later Open AIR scenarios focus on the developing context in Africa.


Where in the world will innovation be hottest 20, 30, 50 years from now and what is driving this change? Will innovation in certain fields be more prominent?

The answer depends on how you define innovation—is it the generation of new ideas, or are we talking about the monetisation of those ideas? Historically in the post-war era, blue-sky research was undertaken by governments whilst the application of this research was undertaken by industry. As governments become increasingly constrained financially, this model is unlikely to remain feasible. This would change the dynamics within the innovation sphere. A more privatised innovation cycle is likely to favour the big players with financial muscle and distribution networks that can bring innovation to market, and potentially squeeze out opportunities for the small entrepreneurial innovators who bear personal risks.

The question of monetisation in a knowledge-based economy is likely to become an increasingly critical question when you consider growing inequality and the squeeze of the mass middle. This segment of the population provides economic and political stability and pays taxes. It is their contribution that creates the demand for public services and the consumption of goods and services we currently take for granted. If inequality were to continue to rise, the mass middle would shrink. This then opens up questions about ability to pay.

If we look at innovation regarding the generation of new technical ideas, this is nothing new. There has always been innovation. It is just that currently innovation has become a key buzzword of the knowledge-based economy. One of the problems that IP aims to counter is that many of the innovative technical ideas that are successfully monetised have been generated elsewhere. The question is how often the elsewhere refers to those who are unable to access and enforce the IP system.

Finally, if we look at innovation as being the intersection between new and existing technical ideas and the creation of value, financial or otherwise, then what we see is that this form of innovation is becoming increasingly relevant. This is being driven in part by digitalisation, the internet of things and an exponential improvement in access to knowledge and increase in density, in the words of the late Richard Normann, founder of NormannPartners. But it is also being driven by a sense of haste. In an increasing number of sectors, such as finance and insurance, speed of innovation implementation is a key success factor. Equally, there is an urgency in the climate change economy that clever implementation of existing technologies is more desirable than waiting for new ones.

We’ve talked about innovation in a rather linear fashion. I wonder whether we are likely to bump into limits to growth as we move to a world where 10 billion interconnected people on one planet aspire to the 20thcentury consumption style of the west. If this were to happen, a critical question that is likely to emerge is one regarding the nature of valuable innovation: will it be those that meet the immediate needs of consumers or those that resolve the longer-term requirements of humanity?

So, the answer to your question about where innovation will be hottest is that it depends. The world is changing. The geopolitical axis is moving east and the consumers of tomorrow will be non-Western. What will ultimately decide what is hot or valuable will be driven by the future of the globalised world, as we currently know it, the urgent problems we face and whether or how innovation will be monetised in the future.


What does Europe’s future looks like as a centre for global innovation? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the continent in relation to others?

Europe has a stellar history of innovating and being able to monetise with the right legal instruments in place but there is a certain rigidity across its institutions and people. What I mean by this is that there is a widespread perception that tomorrow will look like today.

There is also the question of the nature of innovation and creativity being a non-linear process. It is a non-bureaucratic potentially disruptive process that can challenge the status quo. Input in does not equal input out. Many policy makers are not comfortable with this, which can lead to perverse policymaking.

I think Europe needs an open honest debate on what it wants from innovation. In a globalised world where innovation can take place anywhere, and innovators can move around the globe in search of hospitable regulatory environments, has it become a global race to the bottom? Are we competing in a way that is aligned with our values? Are we accepting innovations that reflect our ethics?

Disruptive innovation and policy making also move at very different speeds and there is a problem around mismatched scales. Policy-making is slow and efficient. Disruptive innovation in today’s market threatens to undermine policy-making, as we know it, and does not necessarily result in a positive outcome. I’m referring here to the rapid growth of ‘permissionless’ innovation. What this means is that companies such as UBER and AirBnB can ‘hyper-scale’ to dominate the market without respecting existing regulatory structures yet their sheer scale ensures that they fast become the de-facto standard. The question is how much control do European policy makers have over this? Many people today are looking to provide an UBER for X, Y and Z purpose of disruptive change. This is one of the most critical things for European policy makers have to deal with.


Who will European innovators be in the future and will the way that innovation occurs change?

I am very interested in the rapid growth of inequality and its political and economic dimensions. The middle has traditionally kept the checks and balances in society, but how this continues remains to be seen. In terms of the economic consequences of inequality, a diminishing number of people with the ability to pay raises the question of who pays for innovation. I believe there is a link between innovation and monetisation. Until you know an invention can be monetised, it is a rhetorical question. For an invention to be monetised it has to cross the valley of death towards profitability. You still need a market.

When we talk about global innovation and we link this to the issue of ability to pay, there might be disruption in the future. Interconnectedness has meant that small innovators from other parts of the world have access to a global playing field in a way that they couldn’t before. Africa has a huge number of innovators, such as the story of the boy who harnessed the wind, but such innovations have not yet moved to mainstream. Necessity is the mother of invention. Solar panelled cash machines in India are a great innovation but they haven’t reached Europe. As people become more cash strapped, or as utilisation of natural resources becomes more critical, there may be a move in a different direction where such frugal innovations are perceived to have greater value than they currently do.


Having built scenarios for the Open African Innovation Research group, how do you see the future of Africa as regards innovation and patents?

The aim of Open AIR has been to build knowledge governance through collaborative research, and the Open Africa platform and network is thriving. Africa is the continent with the most youthful population, and by the middle of this century, it is estimated that nearly one out of four people in the world will come from Africa. Is this a demographic dividend or a time bomb? An advantage that Africa has is that innovation is low cost in the sense that they have nothing to lose by being disruptive. And there is a great deal of grass roots innovation. The Chinese are actively registering their brands in Kenya, in particular with trademarks and patents. Could Africa become the next South East Asia? There are certain ingredients that make this a possibility.


What relationship do you see between IP and innovation in the future?

It depends whether people see the relationship as a virtuous circle or not and also on who benefits. Will it be a few large winners or a broader gain across society? There is a question around the monopoly term too.

The Beijing underground in China was built more than a century after the first underground, the Metropolitan line tube in London. Examples like this illustrate the value of a large time lag between the initial innovation, which offers the potential for countless incremental innovations. Today, this is no longer the case. The latest iPhone, which has a twenty-year patent, was simultaneously launched in Beijing and London. This reduces the opportunities to innovate with any freedom. So, instead of having a ripple effect with incremental innovation, we now have one corporation occupying most of the space.

The ‘one size fits all’ model is very lucrative and we are increasingly seeing it in the digital world. The problem is that this winner-takes-all structure defies the law of nature. A permanent major transfer of wealth from the physical world to the virtual, digital world is not sustainable. No one minds the inventor taking the lion’s share if there is sufficient left for the other creatives. The issue is one of balance—ensuring that there are enough winners. When people perceive something to be unfair, enforcement of the system requires coercion to counter the inevitable piracy.

IP is a monopoly over the granted invention conferred by society for the short-term gain of the innovator in order to support long term gain for society. We need to look at this model in the light of disruptive high-tech innovations. For example, artificial intelligence and nanotech, what are their implications? The question is whether European policy makers have the necessary visionary thinking and power of conviction to put the optimal policies in place. That’s why I do my job. That’s the value of foresight.


What advice would you offer an inventor today?

There is no easy roadmap to invention. What is really valuable in a world where it is hard to ignore global problems? As an inventor, how are you going to deal with people stealing your idea without being monetised? There is no easy answer to this. It is the dilemma of being the textbook that is the most bought versus the one that is most pirated. The inventor today must invent for tomorrow. Look at the big questions and pictures.

Shirin Elahi’s publications include:

  • Elahi, S and De Beer, J, with D Kawooya, C Oguamanam, N Rizk and the Open AIR network (2013) Knowledge & Innovation in Africa: Scenarios for the Future
  • Elahi, S (2010) Here be Dragons…exploring the ‘unknown unknowns’. Futures;
  • Elahi, S (2009) Privacy and Consent in the Digital Era. Information Security Technical Report (ISTR);
  • Karachalios, K and S Elahi (2009) Transparency, trust, and the patent system. Journal of IP Law & Practice;
  • Elahi, S (2008) Conceptions of Fairness and Forming the Common Ground, in Ramirez, R, Selsky, J.W and van der Heijden (eds) Business Planning for Turbulent Times. Earthscan, London & Sterling, VA;
  • Elahi, S et al (2007) Scenarios for the Future of Intellectual Property and Patenting. European Patent Office, Munich.

The views expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and may not reflect the views of 4iP Council or its members. The purpose of this feature area is to reflect thinking on the topic of intellectual property and enable open discussion.