Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Learning from the champions : is it that lonely at the top ?

By Bruno Lanvin, Executive Director of INSEAD eLab

and Nina Laven, Director INSEAD eLab, APAC

The ‘S countries’ trio strikes again

Switzerland, Sweden, Singapore: do you need to start with an S to be an innovation champion? And if so, what does it stand for: small size (they all have between 5 and 10 million inhabitants), swiftness, serendipity, skills? … or maybe simplicity?

The podium of the 2012 Global Innovation Index is remarkably similar to last years. This is the kind of situation which may draw a yawn from analysts and observers: Switzerland; Sweden and Singapore are among the world’s top innovators: what else is new?

Well, quite a lot actually. For one, the significant changes brought this year by the INSEAD-WIPO team - the index methodology has not affected ranking at the top, showing remarkable resilience to such analytical choices: whichever way you look at innovation performance, those three insist on coming on top. Secondly, the performance of those three countries is strong across the board: out of the seven pillars, none of those three rank beyond 13th (out of 141 countries).

Switzerland, world champion of outputs

Whether it regards creative outputs or knowledge and technology outputs, Switzerland is clearly ahead of the pack. There are clearly lessons to learn from what happens in Zurich, Basel or Lausanne about how Swiss companies and universities have been able to maximize knowledge creation across the national economy, especially through university-business links. 

Sweden leads the pack for infrastructure

Sweden is the undisputed world champion of infrastructure this year, especially when it comes to eco-sustainable ones (ISO 14001 e.g.). It is also doing much better than the rest of Europe in terms of availability of venture capital, and the creation of ICT business models (remember Skype’s genesis), for which it is number one in the world. 


Singapore’s position as Asia’s most innovative country and a global innovation leader in the 2012 Global Innovation Index was due to strong showings across the board. The city-state ranked number one globally for its innovative inputs, holding the top position in human capital & research and in business sophistication and coming in at number two in market sophistication.

In the infrastructure category, Singapore came out on top for e-Government. The Infocomm Development Authority has partnered with the National University of Singapore to pioneer the leadership of e-Government in the city-state.

In the area of university-industry partnerships and cluster development, Singapore again had a top 5 showing. You only have to walk around the knowledge hub area next to INSEAD to see the strong state of development of clusters such as Biopolis.

Strategic investments by the government in supporting growth in the creative cluster should continue to raise the city-state’s position in the creative outputs category. 

One last ‘S’ .. for Secret Ingredient?

So, what is the ‘S’ for?

Clearly, small size can be an advantage when it comes to adapting regulatory environment and business strategies to a rapidly moving environment and a quick pace of innovation; in this case, agility is another name for swiftness.

Surely, ‘engineered’ serendipity (multiplying opportunities for universities and businesses to interact with each other, and experts of various fields to compare their approaches to complex problems and disciplines is a key success factor.

Undeniably, all of that boils down to skills: attracting, retaining and growing talents is now a critical objective of countries (and cities) around the world, and a major ingredient for innovation.

And of course, simplification (in regulations, business creation, employment and taxes) remains central to attract this innovative companies and talents.

But in the end, maybe the ‘S’ is just for success: once a country sees itself as a successful innovator, a virtuous circle is initiated, by which governments, business and academia become ‘naturally aligned’ around a national objective. This is only a hypothesis at this stage, but it goes quite a long way in explaining this stability at the top. 

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