The world’s most innovative countries in 2016

The Human Brain Project (HBP), a global, ten-year scientific research project aimed at advancing the understanding of neuroscience, brain-inspired computing and brain-related medicine, got underway in 2013.

This European Commission initiative, born from the seminal work of Professor Henry Markram, from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, provides the scientific community with the infrastructure to collaborate and make new inroads into the study of neuroscience and a total funding of ‎€1 billion.

Such -cooperation isn’t unusual in Europe. The EUREKA program, a publicly funded, intergovernmental network involving more than 40 countries was created in 1985 to enhance European competitiveness by ‘promoting innovation across borders’. Government policy, strong R&D spending and coordination characterize groupings such as HBP and EUREKA. These factors also make countries more innovative. Switzerland yet again tops this year’s Global Innovation Index (GII), ahead of seven other European countries in the top ten, Singapore (ranked sixth) and the US (fourth).

Switzerland and its peers got top marks across major pillars of our index, such as the strength of institutions, infrastructure, human capital and research, and market sophistication.

Leveraging global innovation, the index, itself a collaboration between INSEAD, Cornell University and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), finds that investments in R&D and innovation are central to economic growth, helping developed countries reinvent themselves in times of economic decline and emerging countries answer their societies’ growing needs.

While -science and innovation are more internationalized and collaborative than ever before, countries sometimes tend to perceive each other as contenders rather than collaborators. Countries can overcome this by approaching innovation as a global positive effort instead of a zero-sum game.

We also find that sustained investment is critical. It may be tempting to scale back investment during times of low-growth or economic uncertainty, but it pays to keep it up, as “stop-and-go” approaches quickly erase progress made in previous years.

Big achievers 

China still only spends a small share of its research budget on basic R&D in comparison to the leaders, but its expenditures are getting closer to those of rich countries. It makes a symbolic entry into the GII top 25 this year, the first middle income country to do so.

The top 25 typically comprises high-income countries. China’s progress has been remarkable in innovation quality, output and efficiency. Similar improvements have also helped other middle-income countries, such as Bulgaria (38), Costa Rica (45) and Romania (48). Among the lower income countries, Moldova (46), Ukraine (56) and Vietnam (59) all outperform their peers in the same income group by at least ten percent.

Thus, China’s progress can be seen as a harbinger for future advancements, bridging the divide between rich and poor countries, an ongoing and defining feature of the GII.

Governments will be crucial in this endeavor, not just in facilitating an environment conducive to research and development of innovations, but in facilitating international collaboration, and actively supporting a global innovation governance framework. Such a framework would have to be flexible enough to accommodate the dynamic nature of innovation and -facilitate the -mobility of scientists, funding and co-financing schemes.

Britain’s recent decision to leave the European Union (EU) is a case in point. Some “Brexiteers” and other anti-EU activists have claimed that small, nimble economies are more open and better able to weather crises and therefore require less international collaboration.

Indeed, the GII’s research does show that small, open trading nations like Switzerland and Singapore are world leaders in innovation. But the notion that they do it while not part of a major grouping such as the EU is to miss the bigger picture.

Both are truly integrated, global markets that collaborate heavily with bigger neighboring economies and indeed global ones. Switzerland may not be part of the EU, but it is playing a central role in projects such as the Human Brain Project with its European partners and builds pan-European infrastructure, such as the new Gothard tunnel.

Quality is just as important as quantity of innovation. Since 2013, GII has been tracking innovation quality by looking at the level of local universities, internationalization of local inventions and citations of research. In this regard, not only is China is at the top of the middle-income group, it outscores some high-income countries in the quality of universities and research citations. A number of other top-scoring middle-income countries helping to close the gap between rich and poor countries, including South Africa (54), India (66) and Brazil (69), all have scores to rival China’s in terms of universities and citations.

Policy-makers should bear in mind that policies matter and have a key role to play in developing an innovation mindset, while reducing sentiments of nationalism and fragmentation. This starts with education, where creating excitement about science and encouraging risk-taking will spark a curiosity students will carry into their working lives.

Bruno Lanvin is the Executive Director of Global Indices at INSEAD.