University provost and ex-Abu Dhabi resident explores what turns ideas into actions

For innovation to occur and succeed, it needs all parts of its anatomy to work in harmony. So says Kamiel Gabriel in his book The Anatomy of Innovation – What Makes Innovation Succeed in the 21st Century (2015). The Canadian-Egyptian Mr Gabriel is the founding associate provost of research at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, near Toronto. But between 2011 and 2013, he lived in Abu Dhabi, helping the government establish capacity for conducting and funding research. Here he reveals how his time in the UAE helped to inspire him to pen his book.

What inspired you to write the book?

I was part of the team that started up the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in 2002, which was modelled after MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. We researched what makes MIT so successful, and the key ingredient was the strong relationship between the institute and the surrounding business community, the economic development commu­nity and the NGOs. In 2009, I became the assistant deputy minister of research and the science adviser to the minister for the government of Ontario – a great opportunity to look at how policies develop that affect higher education. I visited 24 universities in Ontario over two years to find their areas of strength and weakness and realised certain areas weren’t progressing as fast as they could because of a lack of connectivity. Peter doesn’t talk to Paul in University X, even though they’re working in the same area. The elements needed to turn ideas into an actual tangible innovation in the marketplace didn’t exist. Hence came the idea of the anatomy. I become almost obsessed by what critical pieces were needed to make an innovation ecosystem work.

How do you compare an innovation system with parts of the body?

In the human body, we start our actions in the mind. A typical person has about 17,000 thoughts to entertain a day, but if a thought remains in the mind, it’s just a thought. The creators of innovation who bring forth ideas are like the mind. For the thought to move to the next level, it needs a heart to move it – somebody who is passionate about making that thought become a reality. So I talk in the book about the heart of innovation. Leonardo da Vinci had an overwhelming passion to learn all about nature, flying, machinery and music. He made over 10,000 sketches, but very few of his ideas became marketable items because he did not connect with others to help him to complete the innovation ecosystem. He had the heart, but what he lacked was the hands of an innovation system – the marketers, people involved in technology transfer, bankers, incubators – those actors have to be involved to take the innovation to the next level.

And what about the feet?

The feet of an innovation system are the intermediaries, the investors. Somebody has to sponsor ideas to put them into the marketplace. Thomas Edison failed 1,090 times in his experimentation before he created the light bulb. Investors came and paid for him to have a very defined lab and research assistance to help him to complete the cycle. At the end of his life, Edison said: “I have friends in overalls whose friendship I would not swap for the favour of the kings of the world”. Those were the intermediaries who funded him, encouraged him and created a company to en­able him to create the light bulb.

The government can also be the feet. Two of the biggest obstacles for entrepreneurs are a lack of funding and not connecting well with the actors in an innovation ecosystem. The government can help with both functions.

Did working in the UAE give you insights for the book?

My first task in the UAE was to develop the creation of a research funding agency, to create the category of people who inspire and promote innovative minds. If you don’t fund research, you are cutting the arms of the innovation system. Before that, in the days when I used to teach in the classroom myself, my students always asked me about my research. At the time I was researching the development of the heat transfer system for the international space station and spent 14 years putting experiments on the space shuttle. My students would say “give us your PowerPoint notes and we’ll read them at home. Talk to us instead about things that you do to make our world better”. This is innovation.

How can organisations stimulate innovation?

We need more co-op placements, where companies take students after their second or third year at university to spend six to 18 months training them up, then they come back to finish their education with a far better perspective on what classroom education really means to them. For companies, spending money on the students pays back big dividends. Get employees early, and give them a new way of thinking so they consider all aspects of a business. For example, engineering students can learn how to read and write a business plan or read a company’s financial statement.

What common mistakes do organisations make that suppress innovation?

There’s a tendency that when creative people excel, they’re then promoted into administrative positions. Sometimes we put people in the wrong posi­tion and the success of an innovation ecosystem is that you get the right actors.

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