Education, democracy and innovation

The innovation union is one of the flagship initials in European Unions 2020 strategy. In this strategy for a smart, sustainable and inclusive growth innovation is really the key. To quote president José Manuel Barrosos words: "We need to build a new economic model based on knowledge, low-carbon economy and high employment levels. This battle requires mobilisation of all actors across Europe."

To tackle with challenges like climate change, energy and food security, health and an ageing population we certainly do need new attitudes, new politics and new ways of thinking. That makes an urgent need for both technological and social innovations.

But innovation is not something that can be just simply ordered. It is a long process of high-quality education, sufficient resources and of atmosphere free of prejudices willing to take risks and willing to accept failure as well as success! The question is how to build this kind of basis?

Education is the ultimate key to innovation. But it has to be approached in widest possible meaning. If we look at the educational system only as an apparatus that provides the supply of professionals to the society, we forget the society itself. One good example is the ongoing discussion of Swedish language teaching where much of the talk is concentrated on the utility of Swedish language in present Finland and Europe.

In this discussion it is forgotten that communication and understanding is more than just a language. It is also a perspective of common good achieved by human co-operation. It is about understanding the value of a society - why it is profitable in both humane and economic sense to guarantee equal basic rights and resources to every individual. With these questions, simple learning turns into education.

Education is more than just means of enhancing individual professional skills. It is the fundamental element of democracy that forms a basis to our communication and understanding our society. Or the other way round, as the ancient Greeks used to put it: Idiotes was a person declining to take part in public life, such as democratic government of the polis.

Freedom of speech and equal opportunities, as ideas and values, are needed to be respected, for both innovations and democracy to flourish. As these are the fundamentals to ensure the free flow of ideas and communication in society, it is the key challenge for educational system how to support this progress.

Democracy needs also certain amount of trust to function properly. And more there is trust that lubricates the society, more there is also social capital and hence stronger sense of co-operation and stronger sense of democracy. Similar pattern can be seen with innovations. It is better to trust researchers and innovative organizations than to control and regulate them endlessly. Yet, what comes to research funding, we have faced increasing regulation and short-term result seeking that has put potential innovators between rock and a hard place. As if the society couldn't trust its best brains!

Paradoxically it may happen that economical thinking is becoming an enemy of our economic prosper. Or to be more specific: Seeking of fast results with high regulation and maximal cost-efficiency from very narrow fields of research can lead to a lesser amount of break-trough innovations.

It takes capital, both fiscal and social, for the innovations and democracy to bloom. Resources for the education and lots of unprejudiced trust for us human beings are always and urgently needed.

Sirpa Pietikäinen
Member of the European Parliament
Member of Kever-Osaaja Editorial Council