Fostering innovation as a matter of policy

A lesson in technical innovation from an unlikely locale -- the Rhone Alps region of France

Exploring green technologies at Pollutec this week in Lyon, France, I was struck by an odd thought: The United States could learn a lot about fostering technical innovation from this antique area of the Rhone Alps.

I admit that this is much like comparing a 747 airbus with a sparrow, then telling the plane it could learn a thing or two from the little bird. After all, the United States is home to Intel, HP, Google, Microsoft, and dozens of other technical innovation behomoths. But while muddling along in Monty Python-esque French, learning about biofuels and electric Renault trucks, I couldn't help but be inspired by the region's emphasis on innovation as a means for economic development.

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As part of the region's effort to foster innovation, several consortiums are bringing together research and resources from academia, the government, and business to solve meaningful problems. This strikes me as a good idea, similar to how Silicon Valley itself grew to prominence.

For example, the hybrid trucks I saw today from Renault were born of a Lyon-based consortium called Lyon Urban Truck and Bus, which gathers for-profit industries and local government together to identify urban planning issues around transportation, roll up their sleeves, and come up with solutions. Because Renault and other automakers work with urban planners, the group can come up with complete solutions -- cars, trucks, trains, and the road, track, and infrastructure they need to run on. Projects that get a green light win government funding, and when new technologies require an infrastructure to match, city government has been involved from the design stage -- smart.

A bit further away, at the Plateau de Saclay is another think tank designed to address the high-tech industry's need for talented personnel and to foster innovation. It brings together universities and high-tech companies with a focus on sustainable technologies and gives them the infrastructure they need (budgeted at €35 billion) to get to work.

Why isn't this kind of teamwork more prevalent? One would think that getting academia, the government, and big business to work together on solving problems in health care, resource management, and the like would make perfect sense.

I asked Bruno Armand, spokesperson for Lyon Urban Truck and Bus, who owned the intellectual property rights developed by the consortium. He said that was something that was negotiated at the start of each project.

"This association is about innovation and problem solving," Armand added. "If a company is interested only in profit, this is not the best place for it to be."

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