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The policymaker's dilemma

Here is an exchange with Robert van Apeldoorn, Journalist with Trends Tendances Magazine in Belgium. (www.trends.be/fr). The exchange took place in early September via e-mail.

Robert: -Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is considered in Europe as a way to push growth, and is a target of national and EU policies (digital growth,etc), but the result seems to be a failure: the European computer industry (hardware) is almost dead (ICL, Siemens computers bought by Fujitsu, Olivetti almost out of computer business, Nixdorf dead) since the 90’, and the telco industry seems to be in crisis. All European companies are out of the handset business (big and fading exception is Nokia, but with  American software), and Alcatel is suffering with telco equipement manufacturing. It seems that at best, Europe can be a good niche player, with companies like ARM (chips). Technology seems to be reduced to localized services (computer services), some software businesses. What do you thing about that point of view? Is it correct or exaggerated ?
What will remain to the European companies ?

The main problem is perphaps the creation of European platform/ecosystems. Almost all are American today: Apple IOS-iTunes, Android, Amazon,…

Why Symbian didn’t succeed as a competitive platform ?

Is it possible to create European platforms? After all, IOS succeed after a short period of time.

What are the European tech companies that could play an important role in the near future ?

My answer: You are correct in this observation. Europe has failed to generate growth on the basis of ICT. The reasons are that the rate of change in ICT is rapid and getting more so. If European businesses require intervention, support or other forms of assistance in terms of policy, the time for that coordination to take effect is longer than the cycle time of disruption.

Almost all growth has come from companies that entered the space. Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook and even Microsoft came into positions of power from outside the industries they entered. Policy tends to offer means of sustaining incumbents or finding “logical” or defensible entrants. I should mention that the problem of industrial policy failing is not unique to Europe. Japan and to a lesser degree Korea are also facing crises of innovation due to policies designed to sustain rather than disrupt.

It’s understandable given the need to justify spending other people’s money. No policy maker wants to spend it recklessly. However, the process of unforeseen growth is, well, unforeseeable. It cannot be predicted and it’s very likely to come from somewhere other than where you expect it.

This quickly becomes a lengthy discussion, but fundamentally the innovation process is chaotic. It’s very similar to the process of artistic creation. The crisis in innovation comes from not having sufficient chaos. If Europe wants to preserve, sustain, nurture, and maintain it will do so at the expense of creative destruction. Nobody likes chaos but everybody wants innovation. Unfortunately they are concurrent things.

thank you very much for these interesting answer. Usually the answer is the lack of venture capital or the compartimented market.

So Nokia was an exception ?

If a lack of venture capital is the problem then what is the cause of a lack of venture capital? There is plenty of capital on the continent. Why should it not be allocated to ventures? Capital markets in Europe are quite free and liquid and capital will find the best opportunities. The problem is that there are few fundable opportunities.

I think Nokia was not an exception in the sense that it was not a “managed” success. The company (and Finland) emerged from a crisis in the early 90s. The crisis forced a re-evaluation of priorities and the success of Nokia could be attributed to a lack of emphasis in what was considered sustaining at the time (consumer electronics, TVs, natural resources, etc.) Entry into mobile phones was not what policy would have suggested was the biggest opportunity at the time. The market for mobile phones was projected to be insignificant in comparison to what was seen as success of the time (Sony, et. al.)

[Addendum: What are policy makers suggesting as the key investment themes? Which projects get funding today and which don’t?]