Despite the many assets and qualities the French have to show in terms of innovation, there is still a wide disconnect between different sectors of industry, and between basic research and product development, which is preventing France from reaching its full potential.
Interview with Alain Bentéjac, Co-Chairman of international multi-specialist engineering firm Artelia and member of the Executive Committee of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers, on the sidelines of a conference –‘Initiatives for New Growth’ – hosted by industry federation Syntec in Paris on 18 October.
L'Atelier: How do you see France’s prospects in the field of innovation?
Alain Bentéjac: France is currently in a sort of mid-way position. It’s clear that we’re not one of the most innovative countries, the leaders in this field, but we still have very sizeable potential. We have some high quality researchers and engineers and a favourable environment, and a good deal of effort has been made in this area. The main issue for France today is to forge better links between research work and practical innovations in industry and the economy in general. In France a very high percentage of research is still carried out in large public sector organisations, and we need to find a better way of spreading an Innovation culture throughout society, in smaller and medium-sized firms.
France has many advantages, but with just 2.2% of GDP invested in research, we’re more of a follower than a leader. Is that a fair observation?
I think France, which a few decades ago was a leader in a number of fields – aeronautics and nuclear, for example – is trailing behind these days, and very few major innovations originate here any more. We’ve probably fallen behind a bit in the rankings, one reason being the rise of new players such as Taiwan and South Korea. But there are still some key factors which favour France. The whole challenge is to put these factors to best use, and make them work together in synergy so we can move forward.
So is the problem one of structure, legislation, or a lack of entrepreneurial vitality?
As always, it’s a combination of factors. I think that at State level we need to create a more propitious environment, with more favourable tax, legislative and financing conditions. There are already a number of instruments helping in this direction – the Research Tax Credit for instance, and the Carnot system, which encourages state-funded research institutes to collaborate with private sector companies. But we perhaps need to go further, to increase the available resources, make an effort to train researchers in entrepreneurial culture and business thinking, create a real link between basic research and product development. But it’s also a matter for company policy. Companies have to act on their desire to innovate and structure their organisations in such a way that innovation can emerge and thrive.
What about the advent of the collaborative economy? Is this a first step in the right direction?
Yes, I think this is what’s happening, and we’re also now seeing a lot of new companies hived off from larger corporations. I think that’s a good approach. We should continue in that direction.
How can we facilitate the shift from invention to innovation? From pure research to practical applications?
Well, the tools are already there. That’s the idea behind our Competitiveness Hubs in France. Personally I believe that France would be better off if there were fewer hubs with more clout. In addition, as I said, initiatives such as the Instituts Carnot approach work very well. Research centres are certified, provided with some funding, and encouraged to focus strongly on collaborating with business sectors. However, the funds made available for this are quite simply insufficient. I also believe that France should be setting up other major programmes.