New ideas are, ultimately, a key source for growth. And societies that want to promote innovative ideas have to support the human capital needed to obtain them. Based on these notions Finnish researchers Otto Toivanen and Lotta Väänänen recently set out to study the link between engineering education and invention. The authors found that investments in engineering universities in the post-war era have indeed significantly raised the number of Finnish-origin patents.
These results should not surprise us. Innovators tend to be highly educated. Another study from 2007 found that almost eight out of ten European inventors have a university degree whilst over a quarter have a doctorate. Not only innovation, but also the entrepreneurship needed to bring innovations to the marketplace so that society can benefit from them, is a knowledge-intensive activity.
Take Silicon Valley in California as an example. This innovative cluster not only produces great amounts of wealth but also furthers technological progress around the globe. The success stems in no small part from the knowledge produced in nearby Stanford University – not least in engineering and science fields – being coupled with entrepreneurship and venture capital. The same goes for Route 128 in Boston, the second most important entrepreneurial cluster in the United States which is strongly tied to MIT and Harvard.
Also in Sweden, entrepreneurial success has for long been closely likned to leading engineering schools such as Chalmers and KTH*. Ivar Kreuger (who controlled the majority of worldwide match production before his business crashed during the Great Depression), Hans Werthén (credited with developing Electrolux into a globally leading firm) and Martin Lorentzon (who founded Spotify with KTH drop-out Daniel Ek) are just a few examples of the entrepreneurs and business leaders in Sweden who have their backgrounds in these universities
Countries on the rise such as India and China are currently investing heavily in science and engineering education. The number of graduates from such programmes increased almost four-fold between 1998 and 2006 in China. In a time when other nations are investing massively in science and engineering education and research, we in Sweden have good reason to follow suit. Efforts are also sorely needed to raise knowledge in schools, in key topics such as mathematics and natural sciences. It should be emphasized that quality rather than quantity seems to be the key for promoting excellence in education and research.
As a result of Sweden’s third-way socialist policies and crippling taxes on private business owners, the country experienced very low levels of entrepreneurship between 1970 and the start of the new millennium. But this period is now over. The path to success for new growth-oriented ventures has again been opened up. Besides reforming legislation and taxes, the Swedish government could also boost entrepreneurship by investing in education and research in fields such as computer science, applied physics, biotechnology, and medicine. Sweden would also reap benefits by strengthening the country’s business education.
Each year Sweden’s public sector spends some 1.8 trillion kronor ($276 billion). Why do so few politicians suggest that we cut down on government bureaucracy, aid to special interests or public support of opera-tickets and other cultural activities so we can better fund top education and research initiatives? Sweden’s pro-work policies (arbetslinjen) deserve to be followed up with a pro-innovation policy (Innovationslinjen).
* Note: I admit to being biased, since I have studied at both Chalmers and KTH. Good engineering programs also exist in for example Lund, Jönköping, and Uppsala.
Nima Sanandaji, a Swedish writer of Kurdish origin with a PhD in polymer technology, has written numerous books and reports about subjects such as integration, entrepreneurship, and women’s career opportunities. He is a regular contributor to The Local.