Dan Swinhoe (Global) - Research and Development Centres Around the World

Innovation keeps business going. Dan Swinhoe investigates some the major R&D hubs across the world.

Nestled somewhere in California, Google's secret X labs work feverishly on untold numbers of wondrous projects, birthing such cool gizmos as self-driving cars and Google Glass, and a rumoured elevator to space.

While these kinds of skunkworks projects are rare, there's a growing cornucopia of innovation/R&D centres sprouting up across the world. Some are home-grown government projects, others backed by big companies seeing opportunities not found elsewhere, but they all have one thing in common; the push for new ideas.

Here in the UK, London Tech City is the government's flagship tech project. More a rebranding of what was already there, it has nonetheless brought a host of new companies to East London, some setting up their own R&D centres. Amazon, Virtual Instruments, Vodaphone and Intel have got in on the action, much to Mayor Boris Johnson's delight.

Innovation Africa
It's not just London that has governments dreaming of being major R&D tech hubs. Africa is gaining traction as a future innovation hotspot. Ghana's Hope City aims to be West Africa's IT hub, including a large IT university. Meanwhile, over in the east, Nairobi is creating its own ‘Silicon Savannah'; Nairobi, already home to a host of R&D centres including Nokia, IBM and Techno Brain, construction has begun on Konza city, and aims to put Kenya firmly on the tech map.

Innovation Centres in Africa

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Kenya's blossoming tech scene is just one in a systemic rise of African tech, one that many predict will only grow in time. Afrilabs is a rough coalition of tech innovation hubs scattered around the continent; from Tunisia to Nigeria to Uganda, Senegal and Zambia - this crew proves it's not just multinationals moving in, but local ones branching out.

R&D Asia
Further east, many parts of Asia are now amongst an innovation boom. China and India boast thousands of R&D centres between them. And while once upon a time it was just about cutting costs and localising previous ideas, today it's more about originality. There are more patents coming out of Indian multinational centres than ever, and China is seeing similar growth. Big companies like FireEye, Apple, Intel, IBM and a host of others have set up shop in the east. A recent Economist report provides a detailed landscape of R&D landscape that can be summarised as "Asia's role in R&D can only increase."

Not All Bright Ideas
Questions have been raised over the protection of intellectual property. Innovation in Chinese culture is often subject to shanzhai- copycat innovation. Hoards of cheap imitations flood the market, offering cut-price iPhones & iPads to those who normally couldn't afford them. But despite the fear this concept puts in patent loving multinationals from the US, it might be not as bad as all that.The people who buy these products usually wouldn't be able to afford the authentic originals, and the speed at which these companies work allows for greater flexibility and localised tweaks.

However, the Asian R&D boom is starting to feel a backlash when it comes to staffing. Despite the large talent pool, multinational centres are struggling to find recruits, many former employees are leaving to join smaller smart-ups or start their own companies, while the ones who do stay are often being poached by rivals with offerings of huge salaries. A lack of leaders at these centres is also causing problems, meaning more higher level workers are being drafted in from other countries.

Go West
The power of Asian innovation is starting to spread. Several Chinese and Indian companies, including Tata Technologies, ZTE and Huawei are all investing in innovation in the west - Huawei even going so far as to open a $90 million R&D centre in Nokia's own backyard.

This is obviously just a snapshot. The US is full of innovation centres, as is Israel, Europe and Latin America. Wherever talent develops, R&D centres will inevitably follow. Recently Google has gone on record saying the space elevator was a myth, but that's not to say other R&D centres elsewhere aren't working on one. If not, someone should start one up.

By Dan Swinhoe, Editorial Assistant, IDG Connect