recent Global Innovation 1000 study by the strategy consultants Booz and Company into corporate research and development (R&D) spending is a critical indicator as to how the world economy is emerging from the worst recession since the First World War.
And contrary to the doom and gloom peddled by some on the future prospects for the global economy, the encouraging news from this report is that the world’s most innovative businesses are again beginning to invest in research that will lead to new products and services.
According to the study, R&D spending by the Global Innovation 1000 increased 9.6 percent to £380 billion in 2011. Whilst this may have been expected after the slowdown in spending that occurred during the global recession, this recovery is, contrary to expectations, actually stronger than that following the last major economic downturn after the dot.com crash back in 2000.
For example, expenditure on R&D in the first three years after that global shock increased by an average of 3.5 per cent as compared to 9.5 per cent between 2009 and 2011.
In fact, three quarters of the companies surveyed actually increased their R&D spending in 2011, with only 19 per cent spending less.
It is worth noting that R&D is increasingly focused within a small number of companies globally, with 10 per cent of the Global Innovation 1000 accounting for two thirds of the total expenditure of R&D in 2011 and half of the increase in R&D spending.
There is also a concentration in terms of R&D intensive sectors, with computing and electronics, automotive and healthcare being responsible for two thirds of all spending in 2011.
Of these three key sectors, computing and electronics continues to dominate innovation, spending £105 billion on R&D in 2011 (or 28 per cent of the global total).
Interestingly, it was not an American firm that led the way in this expenditure. Instead, it was Samsung, driven by its mission to overtake Apple within the smartphone industry sector, that increased its spending by almost 14 percent to £5.7 billion.
And with advances such as cloud computing changing the way that consumers will be accessing and using their electronic devices in the future, it is not surprising that even traditional players such as Hewlett Packard, Sony and Texas Instruments have increased their R&D intensity over the last year in order to keep up with newer companies on the block.
However, it is not only emerging technologies which are R&D intensive and many analysts remain surprised by the Lazarean recovery of the automotive sector during the last four years and its renewed enthusiasm for innovation.
Indeed, the increase of 15 per cent in R&D expenditure contrasts with the 14 per cent decrease experienced in 2009, and has been led by companies such as Volkswagen, Daimler, General Motors and Honda, with Toyota becoming the largest corporate R&D spender in the World in 2011.
In contrast, the healthcare sector seems to be treading water in terms of research investment, with major companies instead choosing to return money to shareholders.
And whilst companies such as Roche, Pfizer and Merck remain in the top ten R&D companies in the World, they have all reduced spending in the last 12 months as regulatory uncertainty means that they are reluctant to invest in R&D without a clearer path to market
In terms of expenditure by region, the data continues to have some bad news for Europe, especially relative to other parts of the World.
For example, the largest overall increase in absolute spending continues to be experienced in North America, where R&D spending grew by ten per cent in 2011, thanks to companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Merck, Pfizer and General Motors which, between them, spent £27 billion on R&D.
In contrast, R&D spending in Europe increased by only five per cent in 2011, well below the average seven per cent increase experienced during the previous five years. This is despite having two companies – Novartis and Roche – in the top three corporate R&D spenders in the World.
And given that the European Union has targeted increased research and innovation as a key part of its growth strategy over the next few years, much remains to be done in terms of ensuring that we keep up with the rest of the World, never mind overtake it.
In fact, the emerging economies of China and India posted an impressive 27 per cent growth in 2011, although this was from a low base and their overall contribution to global R&D remains low at less than three per cent of the total.
And worryingly for the West, this does indicate that those developing countries previously seen as sources for cheap manufacturing are now beginning to move the value chain by investing in innovation.
Therefore, the report shows that the overall global picture for innovation seems to be one of recovery and renewal, which would have been the last thing anyone would have expected four years ago.
However, the question for European policymakers and corporate leaders is whether they will be able to close the growing gap in R&D spending with the rest of the World and, more importantly, develop new innovations that will have a real impact in the marketplace?