The Friday interview: Prof Simon Jones, MediaLab Europe

13 Aug 2004

Ten months into his tenure as managing director of MediaLab Europe, Professor Simon Jones (pictured) is on a mission to bring the tenets of innovation and research and development (R&D) beyond corporate technology players to the heart of European SMEs. It’s a challenging task for the Welsh academic, but one he’s certain to deliver on.

The office at Dublin’s MediaLab resembles more of a university common room than that of a major multimillion euro R&D hub belonging to the well-known Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Couches and coffee tables dominate the centre of the office that Jones shares with his colleagues. A further investigation of the building formerly used by Guinness to store hops reveals a labyrinthine collection of Santa’s workshops full of all manner of gizmos and gadgets that Jones believes will feature in our lives in the decades ahead.

Unlike most people in his position, Jones resisted talking with journalists for 10 months, preferring to get to the core of the issues facing the now five-year-old MediaLab Europe, established with the help of a €35m investment from the Irish Government. Now comfortable with his objectives going forward, a relaxed and enthusiastic Jones sets out his objectives matter-of-factly.

“Put simply, this place is about innovation. I think there is a distinction between R&D and innovation. One is not going to innovate without an element of R&D, but that doesn’t mean that all R&D is innovative. Some R&D is low risk and some is at the very edge of innovation, and really that’s where we are. It’s our job to come up with things that have not been considered before. Our partners want ideas that delight, surprise and astound. It’s brilliant that we can do this. It’s a challenging task but at its best this lab does deliver,” he says.

Jones’ youthfulness and cheeriness belie 20 years of achievement and accomplishment. In the mid-Eighties he was one of the first to emerge from UK universities with research skills in Microelectronics Systems Design. Five years after his PhD he was awarded a full professorship at the UK’s largest Engineering Research Institution – Loughborough University, where he held the ARM/Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Embedded Microelectronic Systems. He was also awarded at the age of 31 the British Association for the Advancement of Science ‘Brunel Prize’, awarded to ‘an outstanding academic in engineering under the age of 40’.

Jones is a fluent German speaker with a degree-level qualification in German language and business. In 1998 he was awarded The Siemens/German Research Ministry Research Chair at the Technical University of Dresden, working that year with Siemens to advance new computer systems for the consumer electronic market. He continues to be well connected with European industry. A period as Dean of Engineering and Design at the University of Bath, one of the top five universities in the UK, gave him valuable experience in the leadership of complex organisations.

This latter experience sets Jones up nicely for the pertinent question of MediaLab’s funding going forward. The recent tech downturn meant that companies were unwilling to invest in innovation and research or other non-core activities, but Jones believes that the tide has turned in MediaLab’s favour.

“There is an issue of defining the scientific direction of the lab. The first stage of any innovation lab is to get stuck in and innovate. We’ve been doing that for a couple of years. Once you’ve built that innovation, the task is to connect that innovation with partners, demonstrating value, using that stock of innovation as an attraction to bring in other partners. Our existing partners include Ericsson, AIB, Intel, BT, AOL and Orange. We need to add more, but were held back by a fierce recession in the industry. However, since Christmas we’ve seen market sentiment turn around. The lab is now in a healthy state – innovation is taking place on a significant level. It is a great mechanism for an ICT industry that is once again looking into the future.”

He elaborates further: “We are essentially a copy of the MIT model. People pay a subscription and when you’re a member of the club anything you see in here is yours to exploit. The problem with the high-tech sector is: ‘How do you stay on top of disruptive technologies without committing a large amount of money?’ The answer is to pool money with similar players and take the core of an invention and exploit it in a specific or unique way. A subscription here for a corporate partner is €300k a year. They actually get access to €48m worth of research a year that is going on in both labs.”

Yet between the US and Europe there is a cultural difference in terms of the climate for investing in R&D and innovation. “Historically, our lab in Boston benefited largely through private funding – 97pc at its peak. Europe is different. There is a rich set of interconnections between public and private organisations. We see a much higher proportion of support from the public sector in Europe. In MediaLab Europe you could say that our support is 50-50 public and private.”

There is also a substantial difference between the make-up of US and European businesses. While the US is dominated by the globe-straddling giant corporates, Europe is essentially made up of small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) led economies. This is a reality that Jones is quick to grasp.

“I think you will begin to see greater involvement between MLE and the public sector. We have started working with the Highlands and Islands Development Agency to show them how to boost innovation. Businesses within their area are entirely SME so we have fostered a partnership with them whereby SMEs in the region can have access to innovation here. This is a model you will see more and more of.”

He explained that MLE will host an event on 23 September on the future of innovation in a regional context, which will be attended by regional development agencies from across Europe, including the new accession states.

Jones elaborated: “Scottish R&D policy has to be different to the north of France, which has a large former mining community, for example. However, the development of a culture of innovation is something we believe we have a role to play. We have taken the MLE principle of innovation to show it would work in multilingual, multicultural Europe.”

Ireland’s geographical position on the periphery of Europe, Jones believes, does not detract from the country’s importance as a centre of the global ICT industry. “I don’t think geography matters these days. Technology has done a lot. Ireland, even on the periphery of Europe, is clearly a centre for ICT. Eastern Europe looks to Ireland as a model for future prosperity. If you’re looking for an example of a small country transformed its economy, you won’t find a better example than Ireland. What makes Ireland different, though, is that it’s not just about the technology – it’s about the content, the art and the form of storytelling. There is no better example of a culture where music and storytelling is appreciated than that of Ireland.”

As an academic, however, Jones is an enthusiast for greater computing, but in the ensuing debate believes that too many parties have become concerned with the tools such as laptops for every student rather than the emphasis on ensuring that good quality content and connectivity exist for schools. “I think learning is a personal journey. Unfortunately most people are caught up in the tools and not the destination. It’s an issue. Undoubtedly, the internet provides a large amount of information. Most of the internet is free because most of the information is not of any value. But what you’re really looking at is the creation of a framework in which people can develop skills. The internet is like the Wild West: lots of it is unexplored.

“Schools need structure, management and access. In terms of Ireland’s economic development, the Government should look at providing completely free wireless access for the whole country – this would develop the Irish economy at warp speed,” Jones concludes.

By John Kennedy

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