Towards a smarter globalised research

Written by Gopal Pingali | Updated: Jan 29 2010, 03:56am hrs
If research can be described as an endeavour to understand phenomena, invent new solutions or enhance existing ones to improve our lives, then it is as ancient as human civilisation. We can associate this spirit of research to whoever invented the wheel or discovered the use of fire or made the first weapons for hunting. The universal availability of these inventions also suggests a spirit of collaboration and sharing that fuelled the growth of civilisation.

However, the highly organised and funded research that we see today became prevalent only in recent centuries and was primarily driven by the state through its various agencies, including defence organisations and educational institutions. Later, corporate houses started research initiatives as they strived to secure competitive advantage through new product development, faster go-to-market and reduced cost.

Research, especially in business organisations, became a highly secretive and guarded affair. Most research & development centres were typically based close to corporate headquarters. Companies were extremely cautious and vigilant in disclosing their activities as they did not want leakage of strategic information and thereby incur potential business loss. Competition and the race to capture business or strategic advantage, rather than collaboration, have been the bigger drivers of organised research activity in recent times.

Since the advancement of information technology, especially the invention of the Internet, things have started changing significantly. The Internet has shrunk the world, breaking the geographical boundaries. It has not only created the largest source of easily accessible information but has also dramatically changed our approach to commu- nication, work, business and life at large. More importantly, it has made the world more interconnected and integrated, enabling an unprecedented level of collabo- ration in every sphere of lifebe it finding medical advice, getting reviews while shopping, sharing pictures and videos, or creating the worlds largest encyclopedia. There are also other factors that have led to this integrationissues that are global like security, global warming, water scarcity, and diseases such as the H1N1 flu. These challenges cut across almost all geographical and cultural boundaries.

The global financial meltdown is an unfortunate testimony to this interconnectedness. It impacted the entire world in a short timespan. Fortunately, the signs of recovery are getting brighter and hopefully, the world economy will stabilise soon. This faster recovery has been accelerated by collaborative and synchronised efforts of governments and industries globally.

Today, it is imperative that organised research takes a smarter approach and becomes truly collaborative. Open source products and technologies are perhaps the finest examples of collaborative research. Organisations and individuals from even remote places of this planet come together to design and develop products and technologies that are not proprietary and can be accessed and used by all. The open source movement started in the field of software development and is gradually gaining ground in other industries like biotechnology and healthcare.

The closed approach of corporations to R&D is slowly but surely changing. There is an increased realisation that numerous perspectives are needed to even identify and certainly to attack the complex problems of today in a meaningful way. Companies have started conducting global innovation jams using the Internet to bring together literally hundreds of thousands of minds from various companies, educational institutions and even individuals for a few days for focused collaboration on problems in areas such as transportation, energy, and healthcare. Another big step is the opening up of a portfolio of environmentally beneficial patents by a coalition of international businesses comprising the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, IBM, Nokia, Pitney Bowes and Sony. These patents, available on the web site of the council, are expected to encourage researchers, entrepreneurs, companies and government agencies to create, apply or further develop their products and services.

The scale and complexity of todays challenges make it impossible for a handful of researchers to find solutions to these challenges on their own. It requires collaboration from the entire eco-systemindustry, government, academia, and other organisationsto work together. If we are dealing with massive, global issues, we cannot take a narrow view of research. We have to open our minds, literally, and embrace a collaborative way of working. As the world continues to become smaller, flatter and smarter, and as we are drawn deeper into the age of the globally integrated and intelligent economy and society, it is critical that research becomes multidisciplinary, global, and collaborative. This is the way forward for research and innovation at large.

The writer is programme director, enterprise mobility research & cloud centre of excellence, IBM Research India