Business, Science, Fashion Meet at Flashy E.U. Innovation Show

Eyes on the future. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn and European Investment Bank President Philippe Maystadt look at "virtual cities" during the Innovation Convention.

European Commission

BRUSSELS—To get into the spirit of innovation at the European Commission's Innovation Convention here this week, one needed look no further than orange-haired punk fashion designer Vivienne Westwood quizzing Chinese business professor Xue Lan and Olivier Oullier, an expert in behavioral and brain sciences who advises the French government, on how best to address the problem of climate change.

Her own approach, Westwood told the audience, was to donate money to charities and call up her friends Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss to get their voices behind the cause. "Governments aren't doing much at all, just promising to do things," Westwood said. Mercurial Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary, meanwhile, advised entrepreneurs that if they want to do innovation, "get the hell out of Brussels!"

Those are exactly the images that Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation, Science, was trying to erase with the convention. Following strategically on the heels of last week's launch of Horizon 2020, a proposed €80 billion investment in science, the convention aimed to highlight the European Commission's ambitions to turn research into valuable goods and services that will salvage Europe's economic future.

The event also sought to make a break with the somewhat stodgy image of E.U. science politics and replace it with a mix of international dynamism, can-do creativity, and success. The speaker list featured top executives from some shining examples of innovation, such as Google, Microsoft, and GlaxoSmithKline; other speakers included writer and atheist hero Richard Dawkins and World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan. There were actual working scientists as well—including physics Nobel laureate Andre Geim—but they almost looked lost amid the networking entrepreneurs.

European Commissioner José Manuel Barroso himself showed up to give an opening address in which he reiterated his support for innovation as a way out of the crisis, praised the controversial European Institute of Innovation and Technology—a pet project he has championed—and announced the appointment of his first science adviser, Anne Glover. Cutting investment in research and education during the current euro crisis, he said, "would be exactly the wrong cut to do. This would be the shortest way to lower growth and fewer jobs in the future."

Geoghegan-Quinn made no bones about the fact that the convention was a political statement; the three priorities for Europe should be "growth, growth, and more growth," she said, and the recipe to achieve that is "invest in research and innovation, invest in research and innovation, invest in research and innovation." That message was directed at the Council of Ministers, which will decide whether Horizon 2020 gets the €80 billion that Geoghegan-Quinn wants.

The innovation exhibition itself overflowed with creative and mediagenic products of international collaborations funded by Framework Programmes 6 and 7, the predecessors to Horizon 2020. Among them were a cute yellow robot that could follow an elderly person around and remind him when he forgot his wallet and a putting green that can help you time your golf swing by listening to a series of beeps. Underneath a helium-filled shark balloon, researchers discussed the endangered bluefin tuna and the efforts by an E.U.-funded collaboration to map out its life cycle and induce the fish to reproduce in captivity.

The options seemed endless. But a sense of gravity underlay the conference. Innovation in Europe is falling far behind countries such as the United States, China, and South Korea. Particularly lacking is youthful enthusiasm: More than half of the innovators in the United States are in their early 30s compared with 20% in Europe, Barroso said in his speech, and Europe lags far behind both the United States and Japan in the percentage of young people with postgraduate degrees. "We are the largest market in the world, but we are still too fragmented and not innovation friendly," he said.

To change that, children should be steeped in technology at an even younger age, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie told a bemused Geoghegan-Quinn as they talked as virtual Microsoft Kinect avatars onscreen. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt squarely blamed the lag on Europe's persistent "pessimism" and its habit of "complaining all the time" rather than fixing things.

Of course, there are other obstacles as well—such as the fact that the E.U. consists of 27 countries with 27 very different economic situations and 27 very different sets of priorities, which makes it hard to come up with a focused strategy. A key issue will be whether Horizon 2020 can make some tough choices, says Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Too often, European politicians have tried to bring research and innovation to poorer parts of the continent in an attempt to draw employment to those areas, he says—a strategy that's not likely to work. "If we don't decide what our priorities are, then €80 billion can be wasted."