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Innovation - The Necessity of Failure and the Necessity of the Welfare State

06/08/2015 11:39 BST | Updated 05/08/2016 10:59 BST

Maximising innovation is one of the cornerstones of the European Union's plan to revive the European economy. The recently adopted Horizon 2020 programme aims to boost research and innovation in the EU by investing €80 billion in this area over seven years. In 2013 the European Commission published the 'Innovation Union' report which stated; "the main economic driver of economic growth in the EU is innovation", and that innovation will "create job opportunities for all". While Jerzy Buzek, chair of the European Parliamentary committee for Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) said "we must ensure that EU's legal and economic framework enables the European industrial sector to become more innovative." However, all these strenuous efforts will have only a limited impact if Europeans do not have the ability to fail as part of the innovation process.

A key part of the process of innovation is failure. Great inventors, entrepreneurs and original thinkers, of all varieties, will often get it wrong during the process of discovering revolutionary new ideas, processes or designs. Many people who we consider to be successful innovators, failed many times before fully developing a successful idea. James Dyson infamously made 5,127 unsuccessful prototypes before eventually successful creating his revolutionary vacuum cleaner. Bill Gates made many prototype versions of his first computer, which did not work or were not commercially viable, before finally creating a full working, affordable windows PC.

The process of innovation can often come while individuals are attempting to do something completely unrelated and are therefore complete accidents and failures in the context of the original plan. The non-stick coating on pots and pans, Teflon, was discovered by accident by a scientist, Dr. Roy Plunkett, working to improve refrigerators. Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the lifesaving drug penicillin, while studying the influenza virus. "Innovation is serendipity, so you don't know what people will make" according to Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web.

Many innovators know this as fact and this can play heavily on their decision making. When deciding whether or not to attempt to innovate they will consider what the ramifications will be should they fail. Will they have financial means to survive? Will they have adequate access to health care? Will they have realistic and affordable access to education; should they need to develop skills for their new initiative? All of these questions will be made more complex should any want-to-be innovator have dependents, such as children. Should a risk be considered too heavy, a person will not take a chance, they will not innovate and society as a whole and the economy will lose out.

Therefore, for a society to maximise its innovation potential, there must be a safety net in place to provide individuals with reassurance that should their ideas not become reality, take longer than expect or morph into something totally different they (and those who depend on them), will not become destitute or pay too high a price. The existence of a welfare state should not be seen as a hindrance to innovation, it should be consider an advantage which encourages innovation. This does not mean we simply provide citizens with a life of luxury, it rather, implies that we provide a minimal level of decent existence from which people can build and improve.

In Europe, the countries with the strongest welfare systems, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, repeatedly top the EU's innovation scoreboard and while there are many contributing factors to this success, the existence of a safety net for innovators is critical.

Related to this we must also offer a system of regulation which accommodates failure, making it easier to legally recover from early mistakes and promote the social acceptance of failure. In Member States today, there are considerable legal barriers to individuals establishing themselves after the failure of an initial idea. These rules must be simplified to ensure people can re-establish themselves quickly and again innovate or commercialise an innovation. We also must educate other citizens to understand failure and the key role that failure plays in the development and commercialisation of new ideas. By doing so we can minimise social stigma towards failed innovators, making it easier to start again. Ultimately this is how we will develop an innovative society.

To encourage European citizens to innovate we need to minimise individual risk, reduce unfair or unnecessary legal barriers and remove unnecessary social stigma. Funding of high level research is of course a vital factor in the drive to make Europe a more innovative place, as is the involvement of worker (who often make small, but vital, innovations every day in the workplace). However, the existence of a welfare system to provide the safety net that innovators need, the creation of a legal system which accepts failure as part of innovation and the need for the social acceptance of failure, are equally as important. Accepting that failure is part of innovation, and creating a society which can accommodate failure, will be critical if Europe is serious about becoming the global leader in innovation. As the writer C.S Lewis noted "Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement".