But an "innovation divide" persists because overall innovation levels still lag well behind those of richer nations, according to 'The Global Innovation Index 2013', launched this week (1 July) at the High Level Segment of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), in Geneva, Switzerland.
The annual report, published by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Cornell University in the US and global business school INSEAD. It analyses the inputs — elements of the national economy that enable innovative activities — and innovation outputs of 142 national innovation systems based on seven indicators.
These are: institutional frameworks for fostering business and growth; human capital and research; infrastructure, including information and communications technologies and environmental sustainability; market sophistication; business sophistication; knowledge and technology outputs; and creative outputs.
By measuring the ratio between innovation inputs and outputs on these indicators, the index found that eight developing nations — Mali, Guinea, Swaziland, Indonesia, Nigeria, Kuwait, Costa Rica and Venezuela — are among the top ten most efficient innovators. This is up from four developing nations last year.
The results show that despite weaknesses — above all for the indicators related to institutional frameworks and market sophistication — poor nations were capable of achieving remarkable innovation outputs, says Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, a senior economist at WIPO and an author of the report.
"This is testament to the strong adaptability of innovators in developing countries," he tells SciDev.Net.
But a high efficiency score can still be achieved with low levels of innovation, so this does not necessarily signify a productive and healthy innovation environment, he warns.
Although numerous developing countries, including two of the least developed — Cambodia and Uganda — are making significant strides forward, overall innovation levels remain strongly linked to national income, the report notes.
As such, developed nations remain firmly ahead in terms of the productivity of their innovation systems, it says.
The fact that the list of the top 25 innovators remains unchanged from last year and solely comprises high-income countries shows that developing nations still face serious obstacles to progress, the report says.
“Metrics to assess performance and policy changes are key to improving the overall innovation situation.”
One of the biggest brakes on progress in low- and middle-income countries is a lack of collaboration between the research community and the private sector, says Wunsch-Vincent.
"The science system is often not connected to any actors in the private sector able to transform science or R&D into tangible innovations," he says.
Hugo Hollanders, a senior researcher at UNU-MERIT, a research and training centre of the UN University and Maastricht University, based in the Netherlands, says that, while the index's scope is "impressive", some of the conclusions drawn from it are questionable.
The fact that innovation inputs rarely predict outputs in the real world makes the index's efforts to link the two directly through an efficiency ratio potentially unreliable, he tells SciDev.Net.
Furthermore, he adds, indicators that reliably measure the outcomes of innovation are hard to come by.
Despite their differences, Hollanders and Wunsch-Vincent agree that the index highlights serious gaps in innovation data in many developing countries, a failing that must be resolved to maximise progress.
"Metrics to assess performance and policy changes are key to improving the overall innovation situation and should be complementary to a well-designed innovation policy strategy," says Wunsch-Vincent.
To obtain better innovation data, developing nations must increase direct surveys of companies — a common procedure in most developed countries, Hollanders adds.
Link to the index