In spite of all efforts, the French education system still seems to be lagging behind when it comes to encouraging innovation to flourish. We take a look at what is standing in the way, what is helping progress, and what is likely to change.

Innovation and Education: France “has built up a culture of risk-aversion”

Interview with Renaud Gaultier, head of the IDEA (Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship & Arts) programme, following his workshop entitled ‘Former les innovateurs pour concevoir le futur’ (Training innovators to design the future) at the LIFT 2014 innovation and technology conference held in Geneva in early February. IDEA is a two-year double-diploma programme offered by the Science and Business Alliance of the prestigious higher education institution Centrale Lyon and the EMLYON Business School , both in Lyon, France.

What do young people lack today to help them innovate?

They lack time. When I hear a Minister of Education say that a child’s free time should be spent at school, that worries me. Kids need time to themselves, to think about things and wonder about things. I also think that we live in a society of fear – fear of a drop in social status, of being outside the system, of being different. Today you have to join a firm and make money, all or nothing. But we’re now starting to receive lots of signals from young people who say: “Companies – pah, a waste of time, they’re so clogged up. That’s just so boring. We’d prefer to get involved in something more to our liking.” So they try to recreate society by being an entrepreneur, or at any rate this is the goal of most of today’s innovators, particularly those starting up web companies. This sort of entrepreneurial project is never without an underlying social aspect. But innovating is also about doing your own thing and not always having someone ask you to do it. When we innovate, we move out of the demand economy, we invent the demand for ourselves. And this leads us to the question of how we can encourage people to invent. Invention has never been so tightly restricted. What time does a child get to develop his/her own imagination? Today people find themselves held back by self-censorship. The French model of success has very little appetite for risk.

Do you think the French education system is holding innovation back?

Our schools, from the infant classes through to university, penalise failure. We’re often surprised at the difficulty of generating innovation but we’ve never done anything to reward being different and risk-taking, which are two fundamental aspects of innovation. In our education system today we find a ‘one size fits all’ culture where people’s ambitions are crimped, where we try to cut students down to size and bring them into line with all the others so that everyone is on the same median, everyone is average. This creates a kind of rivalry and competition where everybody has to learn the same things and imbibe the same knowledge and yet at the end of the day find a way to differentiate him/herself. Now what we need from innovation and entrepreneurship is a culture of difference, of risk-taking, but we live in a country which, because of its history, has built up a culture of risk-aversion, or even of zero risk. You can clearly see that in the incredible number of insurance organisations we have here in France, plus our social security system and the Association for Employment in Industry and Trade [which manages unemployment insurance contributions], now part of the Employment Centres structure. This concern about risk, about life’s difficulties, is not something you will find in an emerging country for example, where they’re just catching up with prosperity.

How do you think one can teach the spirit of innovation?

I believe that a cross-disciplinary approach is essential. With the Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, Arts (IDEA) programme I’ve developed a real-life experience which is set up in such a way that students share an intellectual problem with others, go back and look at it again, develop it and express it using a ‘Design Thinking’ methodology. The programme does not purport to provide THE truth, but a proposal. What I suggest is to target the inhibiting factors, breaking them down into small pieces, and at the same time to develop the accelerating factors that free up creativity. I think we have to re-equip young people, support them, give them a hand and tell them that they’ll succeed because they’re not alone. We need to free them from the fear that our society instils in them. This approach is only possible in a collective structure, because in a group no-one dominates. Our students come from a variety of disciplines and this encourages them to learn from each other. After all we’re not there to select the best person who will dominate the world but to create a spirit of cooperation. It’s a life experience, a human experience. I create my own life and I need to innovate if I want to maintain the spice of life. This adventure appeals to people who are not afraid of risk. In fact our basic aim is one day to create globalisation with human features.

Do French students seem more cautious about innovation than foreign students?

I can’t generalise. We would have to look at studies that could help us analyse that. There are a number of factors, drivers which foster an entrepreneurial spirit, but there are also background factors. For example, if there are entrepreneurs in your family, you have a model, you have adventures that you can identify with. This holds true for all countries. In France, we have cultural values which people sometimes look askance at, but they can still promote entrepreneurial values as much as anywhere else. Of course the spirit of adventure which is still celebrated in a continent-sized country such as the United States or an emerging country like Brazil is not really to be found in France. But that doesn’t mean to say that there are no values in our society or our culture that can revive the flame.