Ideas are the seeds of inventiveness, sparking the curiosity and the fire to explore solutions and to think outside the box. An inquisitive mind and a selfless spirit is needed to spend countless time testing ideas and theories with little to no direct monetary gain as the immediate end. Which is why many universities are in the forefront of leading many innovations; academic institutions are home to talented young minds eager to express and realize their ideas, with no pre-defined conceptions and limits, working to bring them to life for the betterment of life. What drives innovation amongst students and researchers is their desire to push themselves mentally and to simply find a better way of doing things, and to contribute in some way, to the communities they are part of. Unlike innovation centers in industries, where companies and businesses are often forced to alter or develop new products and services based on the demands of their consumers with the objective of gaining more profit in market share; many students and researchers are following their dreams and passion and often are driven by an altruistic desire.
For instance, when last April the devastating earthquake hit Nepal, Nepalese students from the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) set their minds at work to help connect the earthquake victims with the rest of the world, using Digital Ubiquitous Mobile Broadband OLSR (DUMBO) system that uses mobile wireless network to provide Wi-Fi internet students worked tirelessly setting up a mesh network that could be used instead of the traditional networks. They also searched for e-learning and video content for the system to provide interesting educational content for primary school children as the earthquake had destroyed many important infrastructures including schools. Such efforts are often the first step in creating technologies that have the potential to be beneficial for society.
Though investment of R&D in Asia has been steadily increasing, these efforts are mostly concentrated within a few countries in the region such as Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore and India and these countries consistently are represented in the lists of top investors in innovation and technological advancement. For example China is expected to become the world’s largest R&D investor by 2020 (Asian Development Bank, 2014). But what areas of R&D are the governments and big corporations in Asia investing their time and money in? Is it focused on creating more high tech gadgets and software for profit or does it aim to solve pressing problems for people smaller organizations are facing in these countries and in the region as a whole?
A region as diverse as Asia, requires the establishment of a technological roadmap that has to come from within, one rooted in local context and reflective of the region’s diverse needs. This is obvious from the establishment of special ministries and development of STI (Science, Technology and Innovation) policy and masterplans by almost every country. However, two key factors need to be addressed that will support the creation of a smart R&D regional framework. First as many countries transition to knowledge based economies there is expected to be a shortage of highly skilled people with the right education and skills to support these economies. Second, what this means for emerging economies who are not spending as much resources on R&D is they will be left behind and will be unable to use the benefits of innovative ideas and processes, if they are to do it all on their own. And, more importantly, there seems to be a lack of culture for the academia and the industry to work together in the research and development in many of the countries in the region, a process that has been the hallmark of almost all technologically developed nations.
Collaboration is crucial between the academic institutions, where innovation thrives, and the industry, which has the resources, practical knowledge and infrastructure to make innovation become fruitful. By investing in the educational sector, especially in emerging economies we can increase the availability of developed human resources, and fuel innovation at the same time. Consequently, this allows us to steer the direction of R&D within universities, providing an incentive and encouragement to students and researchers to focus on finding strategies and creating technologies that address the region’s most. Academic institutions have and will continue to play a crucial role in generating groundbreaking research by pushing the frontiers of knowledge. Thus, partnering and investing in such institutions is an important step in our coordinated effort to progress our knowledge, skills and tools. We need to nurture this entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit and integrate this as a goal within the regional R&D framework.
This May an initiative focused on fostering partnerships is the upcoming Collaboration for Innovation where commercial industries, academic institutions, government and international development agencies are invited to identify areas where they can support each other’s work in the future, harnessing their unique strengths, technologies and expertise to contribute in a positive manner to their communities. Such initiatives can be a part of a larger scheme to encourage the engagement of key stakeholders who are essential for driving a more conscientious innovative and collaborative R&D spirit within the region.
A regional R&D and innovation network, that includes the active collaboration between the academic institutions, the industry, the development sector and the public sector can help to shift the focus on generating ideas and innovations relevant to the needs of the Asian region, in its own context, as it has done for the western world and the developed nations.