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R&D - the longer-term view

Paradoxically, today's R&D is both increasingly specialised and yet far wider in its search for fundamentals that will make life on our planet bearable for most of the population

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R&D has a wider function today than ever before. Being aware of likely technological changes is no longer enough. The pace of change is such that the life of any technological advance is defined by the likely improvements and new technologies following it.

R&D conjures up a mental picture of laboratories, white coats and EUREKA! moments. That is a narrow and outdated version of today's R&D, though there is still some element of it.

However, R&D today starts with data analytics. We can learn so much from the mountain of facts we have. Moreover, we can learn it relatively quickly. We are held up by only two stumbling blocks. First, there is a sad lack of awareness of what data analytics can yield for us. This is because the subject is delegated to DA specialists instead of being taught widely throughout the organisation. Specialists there must be, but those seeking professional help always need to know enough to specify it, at least in outline.

Second, there is still hankering for the inventive mind as the source of all creation. But good creation has always been as fact based as genius based.

The importance of Creative Perception

What is still very much needed in R&D is Creative Perception. Even in countries where creativity is well-established, R&D thinking tends to become more lineal as it involves greater specialised skills. The ability to perceive relationships is still very much needed, however. This is especially true in parts of Asia where the lineal, logical approach has traditionally constrained random "what if" styles. China has not suffered from this particular constraint because its more recent entrepreneurial, competitive environment allows risk, failure and learning. All R&D needs this to flourish.

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R&D lead times are increasingly scrutinised as both a real risk to the investment portfolio and a considerable drain on cash flow. Many startup investors are interested only in when they can IPO and sell. R&D often presents them with a picture of delay, compliance and prolonged market testing. All companies that are, however slightly, involved in or affected by technology soon learn that to ignore or attempt to short-cut R&D is to put business value growth at risk of being overtaken by competitors and made redundant as soon as it has started.

How can you best plan your R&D?

The first question R&D planning must ask is, "When is the market likely to be ready for what we are thinking of researching?" Leave the answer to this to the marketing department at your peril. They are good judges of the progress of their own products, generally poor judges of when the public will look for or accept a new product.

Electric vehicles (EV) are an example. The most banal reasons against them were advanced by the western marketers for years. Batteries were a matter of investment in R&D, filling stations, of capital. Resources for both were well available. The real barrier was oil industry investment.

Even today there are EV sceptics. The one place everyone agreed would never develop EVs was China. Well, China is now way ahead of the rest of the world in EV development. Why? Because the market saw two urgent needs - a) to cut pollution, b) to make everyone mobile.

It is admittedly easier to see after the event. All successes are. However, R&D waits for nobody and the exercise of deciding what to develop next must always be a combination of "market data", analytics, technological resources and a canny understanding of what is likely to be acceptable, when. This last element exists in most businesses. You need a good CEO to sniff it out.

R&D's evolving role

R&D has a wider function today than ever before. Being aware of likely technological changes is no longer enough. The pace of change is such that the life of any technological advance is defined by the likely improvements and new technologies following it.

Batteries are a good example of this. The current raw material requirements for batteries are rare. Much work is therefore being done to replace them. In the process, a great deal of new technology is likely to be learnt, possibly making redundant current battery knowledge altogether. We have yet much to learn about what a battery really is beyond its obvious job of energy storage. Energy creation is already a major part of battery technology development.

Energy, its creation, harbouring, accessing, conserving and recycling, is the source of all R&D needs today. Climate modification is now widely accepted as an urgent survival need. Sustainable sources of energy are recognised as able to supply the planet's population's needs if damaging emissions are halted soon enough.

There are many more energy sources as yet untapped. From photosynthesis to animal cell growth, our knowledge is expanding fast enough for us to assume that we will have conquered the sustainable energy problem within a generation.

Unlimited, cheap, clean energy will change the nature of life on earth as much as, and probably well before, artificial intelligence. Modifications being made now to our basic requirements - for example, oxygenating water - will enhance our health prospects in ways we can yet hardly imagine.

The health industry is facing two massive opportunities and challenges - prevention and longevity. Who would have believed it possible that within two generations we have outlawed smoking and restricted sitting? The R&D needs posed by these developments are not unlike the challenge of solving drug addiction and depression.

A new breadth and width for R&D

Paradoxically, today's R&D is both increasingly specialised and yet far wider in its search for fundamentals that will make life on our planet bearable for most of the population. The threat of some massive illness like Ebola spreading widely cannot be ignored. A crowded planet is more prone to disease spreading than a sparsely populated one. Staying ahead of our environmental threats is a prime requirement for today's R&D.

It demands a longer-term view than the human race currently seems willing to give it.

  • The writer is Founder & Chair, Terrific Mentors International

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