Innovation Needs the Building of Trusted Networks

31 May 2011

A passionate talk by Péter Csermely at the informal meeting of the ministers of EU Member States responsible for innovation.

eu_flagPeter Csermely got the opportunity to deliver a 12-minutes lunch talk on the developments of European joint action in supporting talents at the meeting on EU Competitiveness Council in mid-April. You can find the shortened version of the speech here:

‘Europe is recovering from a crisis. In the course of this recovery we don’t gain enough competitiveness over the other continents. Talent is listed in the EU 2020 Strategy as a competitive value of Europe. We often think that talent – just happens. Talent is something – which just grows.

This is not true. Talent is often hidden, which needs discovery, needs support and needs networks. Many of our hidden talents remain undiscovered.

Thus, Europe has a huge talent deficit. The modern concept of talent states that any European citizen may hide a form a talent. Thus, Europe has a huge talent reserve. Proper networking helps to find, develop and keep our talents in Europe. I will illustrate this by 3 examples of biological networks.

You may be surprised now. How are biological networks related to talent support? Networks have a number of general properties applicable from molecules to society. Small-worldness (meaning short connection routes in networks), the appearance of hubs and network communities are all examples of these general properties.

Network generality also appears at the behaviour. One and a half years ago an important paper appeared in Nature listing 3 early warning signals for critical transitions. The authors found the SAME warning signals before the crisis of ecosystems, economy and climate.

The 3 most typical features of pre-crisis behaviour were:

  • first, slow recovery after a disturbing event
  • second, increased self-similarity of behaviour
  • and third, increased variation of fluctuations.

These 3 features instantly reminded me on aging. An aging person has

  • a slower return to everyday life after a disturbing event
  • an increased appearance of fixed routines
  • and an increased number of highly unexpected events, whenever this routine breaks.

Thus, aging can be regarded as an early warning signal for a critical transition, where the critical transition itself is called – death.

I know it is not very polite to talk about death in the middle of your lunch. Therefore, I would like to point out the positive side of this message.

Critical transitions may be prevented or at least postponed by network nodes having an unpredictable, creative behaviour. Such nodes are top predators in ecosystems, market gurus in economy and stem cells in human bodies. Our own work also showed that creativity is needed for prolonged cooperation in complex networks.

These examples show that creativity has a double face:

  • On one hand, creativity is a disturbing event of unreliability at the microscopic level.
  • On the other hand, an appropriate amount of creativity preserves cooperation and stability at the systems, at the network level.

Europe is recovering from crisis. How does creativity help this recovery – at the network level? I will illustrate the answer by the example of yeast cells.
(By the way: This example is much closer to our lunch, since we have yeast in our bread, in our beer, and in many of the other dishes served today.)

My network group compared the group structure of the protein-protein interaction network of yeast cells before and after a crisis. This analysis shows the changes in the interaction between large protein complexes. These protein complexes are responsible for the synthesis of proteins, or for their destruction, as two examples. A crisis for yeast can be more heat – or less heat, more sugar – or less sugar, more nitrogen – or less nitrogen. All these sudden changes are felt by the yeast as stress. The network of non-stressed yeast has highly overlapping protein complexes. There are many contacts between these complexes of the resting yeast cells. At the beginning of crisis, the complexes partially dissociate. There will be much less contacts between them as before. But the MOST important point comes just after this. After the first shock, the yeast complexes start to re-associate again. They build up a similar structure as they had before. BUT. This structure is not quite the same. It also contains novel contacts. These contacts encode the adaptation of the yeast cell to the novel situation.

How does this whole story come to unpredictability, creativity and talent? The prototypes of the novel contacts are built by creative proteins, which have a rather unpredictable behaviour. These proteins jump all over the yeast complexes, and allow the establishment of creative, novel contacts between the complexes encoding their adaptation.

My 3rd and last story of biological networks shows that creativity and talent also need a proper environment. I will illustrate this first by the example of protein structures.
In the middle of enzymes we have a few amino acids, which form the catalytic center. These few amino acids do the whole job of the protein.

BUT. There is a trick here.

Without the supporting neighborhood of ALL the other few hundred amino acids, the 2 or 3 central amino acids could NEVER do their job.

We have the very same situation in our brain.
    Active neurons are surrounded by other active neurons making them special.
But there is a BIG difference here.
    The brain is much more dynamic than a protein.
    Each second different and different active neurons are at the centre of other active neurons.
    In such a way ALL of our neurons may get the special, central position to be really creative.

A good society works like our brain. In Andy Warhol’s style: a good society supports each of you to have your “15 minutes of fame”. (By the way my 15 minutes of fame is getting slowly over, so let me turn back to talent support again.)

We are not only talking about supporting networks – we are also making them.

  • The Hungarian Talent Support Council – which I serve as its chair – was established 5 years ago. This is an NGO-umbrella organization helped by the national budget and by the Structural Funds of the EU. In 4 years we organized a talent support network involving now several hundred thousands of people in Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia. So far 460 Talent Points (in nurseries, schools, universities, but also in sport-clubs or carpentry shops) were established, where young people can get help to develop their talents. This is a grass-roots movement. Each week at least a dozen more new Talent Points ask for their registration. Talent Points form a network and help each other. These Talent Points discovered more than 20 thousand talents in the last 4 years. Talent support needs stability. The Hungarian Parliament gave this stability, by accepting and funding a 20-year-long National Talent Support Program.
  • Last week the first EU Presidential Conference on talent support took place here in Hungary. Experts of 24 European countries listed the best practices of talent support and accepted the Budapest Declaration on Talent. This calls EU member states to establish an EU network of Talent Points and to celebrate the European Talent Day. Ireland was the first to declare last Saturday a National Talent Awareness Day, but governments of Danemark, Finland and Poland, as well as experts of Germany and the UK are all building talent support networks. So far 10 European countries joined to this movement as you may see in the brochure on the Hungarian Genius Programme in your conference package. Many more countries are coming.

Talent support networks not only help the discovery and development of talent, but also teach networking skills. Innovations often need the combination of ideas from vastly different fields. For this combination people knowing these ideas should meet, and should trust each other. This needs the building of trusted networks. Networking is not a textbook matter. It can only be learned from practice. And this practice should start at a very young age, around 16 to 18 the latest.

The early development of a network of talented people has an unexpected benefit. It helps brain re-gain. The effect of networking on brain re-gain will be shown using the example of the talent support network I established 15 years ago. This nationwide network offers top research opportunities at universities or research institutions in Hungary for secondary school students in the age of 16 to 18. In the 15 years, more than ten thousand students participated in this program. By now the first generations are established researchers. They became mentors of the current secondary school students, 5 years ago they took over the organization of this program from me – and they come back more often to Europe than their peers. Why? Because they have their friends here, and they have their trusted network here.

Ladies and Gentlemen!
What are the take-home messages of my talk?

  • First, competitiveness needs talents. Europe has a huge undiscovered and undeveloped talent reserve. Talent support networks both at national and at the EU level explore this hidden treasure of European talent, and provide a highly efficient help to increase the talent-pool of Europe.
  • Second, the billion-year success of biological networking strategies shows that innovation and creativity need a highly dynamic central network position. This strategy emphasizes the need of support. However, the supported, central position should not remain a privilege of a few, but should be accessible for many.
  • Third, and last, networking is not a textbook matter. It has to be learned by practice. Early networking (starting in the age of 16 to 18 or much before) helps brain re-gain and develops trustful openness in talents, which is a pre-requisite for later innovations and their use in the industry.

Thank you very much for your attention!”

Read more about the event.