The Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale was introduced in Horizon2020 to narrow the scope of the otherwise broader call texts and underline the idea of the innovation chain. Since its introduction, the discussion has been not only whether it is fit for purpose, but also if other concepts of readiness level should be introduced to cover areas falling outside the scope of the TRL scale.
The introduction of the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) in Horizon2020 has been a distinctive feature of the European Union’s 8th Framework programme for research and innovation. Developed by NASA in the 1980’s to assess the readiness of new spacecraft designs TRL was introduced in H2020 for at least 2 reasons.
Firstly, TRL helped narrow down the scope of the otherwise very broad topics that the European Commission has – commendably – used in H2020. In FP7, Work Programme topics were typically narrowed down by naming specific technics, detailed research topics or other things (ohh, those where the days to be a framework lobbyist). In contrast, for H2020 the Commission has used more generic topics, but then introduced measures such as TRL to limit the scope.
Secondly, TRL made it clear that any research or innovation activity has the purpose of bringing an idea to the market. It embodies the idea of the innovation chain. If you can identify at what TRL level your research is, then you can also – in principle – say what the next steps should be, how far you are from the market, etc. etc. TRL sets the direction by making clear how far you are from the final goal: TRL 9 and a product introduced on the market.
Because the TRL scale has been such a distinctive feature of H2020, it has also been much debated.
Can a technology assessment tool developed for the spacecraft industry be used across research areas as different as bio medicine, large scale energy technologies, climate research etc.? And is the linear conception of technology development that is inherent in the idea of a step-wise maturation of technologies compatible with today’s understanding of science and innovation?
Personally, I think there has been both pros and cons to the TRL scale. However, in this post I would like to focus on a different kind of response that have taken the form of proposing alternative or additional types of readiness level.
Below is a – non exhaustive – list of suggested alternative or additional Readiness levels I have come across over the last couple of years in EU R&D fora:
- Scientific readiness level
- Customer readiness level
- Market readiness level
- Social readiness level
- Innovation readiness level
So why introduce new types of readiness levels?
From my discussion with people who have proposed this, the typical argument has been that the TRL is too narrow; it doesn’t capture the unique feature of ‘the social’ or it doesn’t match the non-linear development of research domains. Indeed, when I was myself involved at some point in proposing an alternative readiness level scale, that was the argument. However, I suspect that the underlying reason for introducing alternative readiness levels is one very familiar to the EU framework programmes stakeholder community (and indeed the stakeholder community of any significant funding programme): we might not entirely agree with it, but if that’s the kind of game we play, let’s play. In other words, people start thinking within a designated vocabulary set out by the funding agencies and position their interests within it.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps the idea of a developing a social readiness level will prompt people to think in new ways about what it means to mature a research result and bring it to application within the social sciences? And perhaps a customer readiness level improves people’s ability to look at an innovative idea from the customers perspective. Who knows.
But think about this: If the European Commission adopted the idea of a social readiness level or a scientific readiness level, would it make for better topics and hence better projects?
So what do you think about the use of the TRL in H2020? And should the European Commission introduce other or additional readiness levels?