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Prof. John Bessant

(Image: FAU/Georg Pöhlein)

(Image: FAU/Georg Pöhlein)

Originally a chemical engineer with a PhD for work on innovation within the chemical industry, Prof. John Bessant has been active in research, teaching and consultancy in technology and innovation management for over 30 years. He currently holds the Chair in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Exeter University and is Adjunct Professor at the University of Stavanger, Norway. In 2003, he was awarded a Fellowship with the Advanced Institute for Management Research and was also elected a Fellow of the British Academy of Management. He served on the Business and Management Panel of both the 2001 and 2008 UK national Research Assessment Exercises.

After a spell in industry, he took up full-time research teaching in the field of technology and innovation management working at Aston’s Technology Policy Unit, the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University and at Brighton University where he directed the Centre for Research in Innovation Management (CENTRIM). His areas of research interest include the management of discontinuous innovation, strategies for developing high involvement innovation and the use of learning networks to facilitate diffusion of innovation. He is the author of 25 books and many articles on the topic and has lectured and consulted widely around the world. His most recent books include ‘Managing innovation’ (now in its 6th edition) and ‘Creativity and innovation management’.

He has also acted as advisor to various national governments and to international bodies including the United Nations, The World Bank and the OECD.

By appointing Professor Bessant as FAU-Ambassador, FAU honours one of the most renown experts on entrepreneurship and innovation management who can vitally foster the internationalisation and profiling of the science location Erlangen with his transnational network.

I have many happy memories of coming to the place and gradually getting to build my networks with so many fascinating and passionate people.

Professor Bessant, what do you see as your main objective as FAU-Ambassador?

I would hope to promote the awareness of FAU on the international stage, as one of the most significant ‘full-spectrum’ universities in Europe.  In particular there is a great story to tell about 275 years of progress and a long track record around the theme of “knowledge in motion”.  This isn’t an empty slogan – it’s what a great university should be doing, not simply creating and preserving knowledge within its walls but actively working with it, weaving it together to create value inside and outside the organization.  And a key part of this KIM activity is around building and amplifying networks, making and strengthening connections around the world.  Attracting great students, drawing in world-class researchers, promoting the wider awareness and understanding of what FAU has to offer.  So plenty to do – but a great institution to represent!

You advise the FAU on the way to its new strategy. What would you like to achieve as an advisor in this context?

I am fascinated by the way stories help us understand who we are as an institution and help communicate those values and beliefs to a wider community.  FAU has a great story to tell – the “knowledge in motion” narrative I suggested above.  What I hope I can bring is some help in articulating, challenging and sharpening it – because the story is still being written.  Strategy isn’t a passive piece of paper gathering dust on someone’s desk – it should be an active framework within which the continuing story gets written and told, shared and retold across the organization and with others in the world beyond.  At its heart, it needs to be based on deep values, beliefs that guide the way the story develops.  The ideas of “innovation”, “passion”, “diversity” – these aren’t simply nice slogans, they are the core on which “the way we do things around here at FAU” are based, and helping to draw these out and ensure that they are embedded in future policies and decisions is something I hope I could help with.   Moreover, as an Ambassador, I hope I can also contribute to the storytelling process in the outside world.

In your opinion, what are the particular strengths of FAU in an international context?

I sometimes use the phrase “the best university you’ve never heard of” when talking about FAU to others.  It is a bit like an Old Master painting, which has been gathering dust in someone’s attic – it is only when you see it properly lit and exhibited well that you realise the masterpiece, which it represents!  For any university it would be pretty impressive to have been around for 275 years but FAU’s strength is not simply survival – it has demonstrated this idea of “knowledge in motion” throughout that history, weaving it in many directions to create value.  Looking back down the road there are plenty of milestones to indicate this– an army of famous names, international prizes, ideas and artefacts emerging from a knowledge community by great alumni. However, this is a continuing process – FAU keeps on delivering impressive achievements.  For example, in my particular field I am delighted to see its reputation as one of Europe’s most innovative universities being recognised.

What I find particularly interesting about FAU is that it does this along a broad knowledge frontier – it is a “full-spectrum” university, working across many different fields and increasingly exploring the potential synergies between them.

I would hope to promote the awareness of FAU on the international stage, as one of the most significant ‘full-spectrum’ universities in Europe.

You started you academic career as a chemical engineer, now you are renowned expert on innovation and entrepreneurship. How did this change of interest come about?

In a word – frustration!  I was working in industry and increasingly realising that the process of innovation is not simply a vending machine in which you insert money, smart people and bright ideas and out come great new products and services.  Instead, there is a mysterious alchemy, something that needs to happen to transmute those inputs into value, whether it is commercial or social.  I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to do my doctoral research while working as a participant observer in a company.  This helped me learn what it meant to take an academic view, to try and understand in systematic and scientific fashion how innovation happens.  The result gave me a taste for academic research, for teaching and sharing the ideas with others – but it also reminded me of the importance of creating that knowledge in a “real world” context.  I am a great believer in this approach, of creating knowledge in the context of its application – and that implies the kind of “knowledge in motion” approach I referred to earlier.

You have acted as advisor to international bodies including the United Nations, The World Bank and the OECD. What experiences or insights did you take from this time?

Perhaps the biggest lesson was that the innovation problem is the same whether you are a small start-up or a giant corporation.  Or whether you are a factory manager or a Minister for Industry trying to enable economic development through the application of new ideas – innovation.  It is all about creating value from ideas – and this process does not happen magically, it is one, which can be organised, managed and shaped.  So using the lessons I originally learned in my doctoral research as a frustrated engineer and drawing on the rich academic knowledge base around the subject it becomes possible to help think about innovation and to take actions – develop policies, strategies – which can improve our chances of succeeding and creating value.

Why should international students or researchers come to FAU?

For the reasons I outlined earlier – it is a great university!  Specifically it can claim deep research expertise and track record in a number of key fields – and, as far as I have seen, it offers a context which supports a knowledge career.  It is a place where I meet passionate individuals who care about, are excited about their research and want to work on it here and with other like minds.

However, I also like the way FAU is framing the big issues facing society not just in narrow disciplinary terms but rather as “grand challenges” which require cross-disciplinary thinking.  Being a “full-spectrum” university means you can try out exciting new and surprising combinations of people working together on common research questions from widely different perspectives.  Knowledge in motion once again!

From the standpoint of students, I see FAU as not only a respected destination from which to graduate but also an increasingly diverse community where knowledge is something fluid and in motion.  It is not simply a place to fill up your personal knowledge tanks and then drive off again – it is somewhere to explore and work with knowledge, be challenged and stretched, find new ways to use it and connect with it.  One of the powerful symbols of this for me was going to my first “Lange Nacht der Wissenschaft” event many years ago.  I was amazed at the way in which a town was transformed into a “knowledge party”, a celebration involving the wider community in the knowledge activities of its university.

What is special about FAU for you personally?

I have many happy memories of coming to the place and gradually getting to build my networks with so many fascinating and passionate people.  I love the way the wider community works alongside the place, a partnership between different players (major companies like Siemens and Adidas, major research institutions like Fraunhofer) which is all about “co-creation”.  There is a real sense of a university embedded deeply within the knowledge and economic fabric of the region – this is emphatically not an “ivory tower” university!  Anyone gets lucky once in their lives – but to be successful in the way that FAU has done over 275 years takes a bit more than that – it requires real commitment to core values around continuous innovation.

What were your first and subsequent impressions of the Erlangen-Nuremberg region?

It is a beautiful area – the steady stream of tourists are not here by accident!  I love the sense of history – but I have come to see that behind those old stones there is a vibrant region, driven forward by innovation.  It is not a place, which is living in the past – instead it has the feel of a quiet powerhouse, a knowledge fuelled innovation hub.  There are some pretty famous companies working here across the spectrum of products and services and it soon became clear to me that it was more than the scenery which was drawing them in!

Do you have a favourite place at FAU and Erlangen or Nuremberg?

I have many – the Altstadt in Nürnberg, the Christmas Market, the Schloss in Erlangen with its wonderful gardens.  But I guess my favourite place would be JOSEPHS in Nürnberg – not least because it epitomises so much of why I enjoy coming to FAU.  It is a knowledge space, a place designed to enable conversations and creative collisions of ideas, to stimulate, to inform, to engage people in co-creating ideas.  It is a physical reminder of the knowledge in motion philosophy – as well as being an innovation in terms of the way in which universities can connect with their wider context.

Aside from these places, was there any event or personal encounter that really impressed you?

Two events stick particularly in my mind – the first was being awarded my “ice cream fellowship”!  I was enormously proud to be one of the first Fellows of the Schoeller Foundation, to have the chance to meet Frau Schoeller herself and to join what has become a large and diverse community of scholars and practitioners around the themes of leadership and innovation.  It gave me an insight into the kind of community FAU worked within, where major industrialists would care enough about knowledge and the future to create an institution to enable its continued promotion, building a community across a wide international stage and enabling the flow of knowledge. I still have an ice cream dish with the Schoeller logo on it which helps remind me of this.

And my other particular event would be JOSEPHS first birthday party.  It was a great celebration of an idea, which symbolises much of what I have been talking about around knowledge in motion and co-creation.  I found it so inspiring that my friends and I wrote some songs to perform at the event – and we managed to get everyone singing about the virtues of co-creation! And it was a great party!

Anyone gets lucky once in their lives – but to be successful in the way that FAU has done over 275 years takes a bit more than that – it requires real commitment to core values around continuous innovation.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Only to say that I am very proud to have been appointed as an Ambassador and glad to be associated with such an impressive university.  Innovation has been my life – trying to understand how we can crate value from ideas – and I think FAU is one of those places which has a lot to teach me about this.