Journalists become stakeholders in innovation systems

Innovation is a hot topic in the European Union. That 2009 happens to be the official Year of Creativity and Innovation (EYCI) coincides with a financial and economic crisis very much begging for creative remedies. Against that backdrop, the EJC organised a journalist’s conference in Brussels from 19-22 April to provide the media with opportunities to cover the subject area.

The event was teeming with high-level protagonists of the European innovation community, among them several members of the board of the fledgling European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), three EYCI ambassadors, academic innovation researchers, the director general for Education, Training, Culture and Youth, Odile Quintin. The four-day event even boasted appearances by Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Commissioner Ján Figel.

EJC editor Howard Hudson’s recent article provides details.

I was invited to participate in a panel exploring Innovation Journalism (InJo), a concept masterminded by Stanford-based researcher David Nordfors in collaboration with journalistic and innovation organisations in Sweden, Finland, Slovenia, Germany and the Netherlands. I took the opportunity to point out a few reasons why the EJC is interested in InJo and actively promotes it.

Notably, InJo contains the notion of journalists as stakeholders. Innovation journalists in any area are supposed to step out of the role of a strictly neutral observer. Rather, their role is to proactively investigate the matter at hand for possible future developments, alternative solutions and its wider implications. Thus they would become drivers of innovation in their own right. This does not mean, however, that journalists should assume the role of advocates of particular interests.

It is, of course, perfectly fine to go into the field and report about what is happening and what the actors or stakeholders have to say. Yet it would provide quite an added value if the journalists were more deeply analysing the situation and systematically exploring alternative scenarios. In such a way, they could provide immediate benefit to both the general public and to any involved organisations. This is because journalists’ independence puts them in a unique position to provide honest and well-informed feedback. They are in a position to help form a common language between all stakeholders and to better educate the public about the complexities and intricacies of the topic.

Look, for example, at the coverage of mobile TV. For a long time, German media simply reiterated interest-driven PR statements of companies who hoped to earn money with mobile TV. Almost no journalist ever looked at the big picture. A wider view that would have presented aspects of spectrum allocation, end devices, provision and use of content, copyrights, audience demand, business models, practical usability, financing, media regulation, lessons learned from foreign markets, and so on. Information about these factors was quite clear – if not obvious – and readily available through a bit of research. Only when mobile TV failed before it even started in earnest did the media finally began to examine the reasons.

Real InJo would have asked the right questions early on and thus would have prevented public opinion from expecting mobile TV to be the next big thing. Such coverage could have actually made the companies and regulatory authorities involved reconsider their propositions on a more realistic basis. The same goes for basically any other topic.

This would be, as a German researcher has put it, not a fixed model of innovation architecture any more, with different pillars and separate building stones firmly in their respective place in hierarchy. But it is one of flexible, multi-perspective relatecture – of actively channelling and shaping the interactions between the stakeholders for the common good, and in order to create a fertile soil for innovation.

Since the Brussels conference was also about the EIT, which has very recently launched its first call for proposals to establish three Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), just imagine what InJo could achieve if it was actively embedded in the upcoming KICs from the very beginning. Yet for this to work, all parties involved must be aware that Innovation Journalists might (and most probably will) also publish criticism and opinions that does not necessarily conform with how the other stakeholders want to control their respective messages. It is not easy, but is necessary, to accept this kind of independence as a productive factor in the KIC ecosystem and to use it as a resource for quality management and further development.