Innovation in the UK badly needs ‘pull’ as well as ‘push’

Aside

Innovation in the UK has suffered a short-term decline in expenditure. In continuing to attach high priority to innovation CEOs have evidently been distracted by the need for fire-fighting. While Nesta and the TSB seek to chart the paths forward for innovation, CEOs need to provide support, as does the Association of Managers of Innovation in the US in its own valuable way (1), for the embattled members of their staff whose job it is to build innovation into their organisations. (Join our Autumn Seminar for leaders of innovation – see below.)

 

It is widely reported that most CEOs now see Innovation as their top priority, but there are few signs of this. Nesta reports that investment in innovation in the UK has fallen sharply since 2008; and that investment in fixed assets fell and became increasingly dominated by bricks and mortar at the expense of technology. Geoff Mulgan, Nesta’s CEO, has observed that Research & Development has been declining in productivity, (though expenditure on innovation may be ten times that on R&D), and that the innovation spend has been increasingly oriented to social and public services and user innovation.

CEOs have evidently been fire-fighting rather than focusing on innovation; and where corporate responsibility for innovation is delegated to others, those people find themselves ill-supported, with fragile budgets and in constant competition with those running existing parts of the business.

Innovation has been led by the rapid evolution of communications technology, and in the process it would seem to have left the development of applications of those technologies languishing in its wake. In rating Innovation as their top priority, CEOs evidently expect the rate of change they see around them to generate rising demand for innovation. So how do we re-ignite innovation?

The two main instruments of innovation in the UK have been Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board, each working in rather different ways on different aspects of innovation. Nesta, now a charity, is almost exclusively a research organisation, working on policy more than on practice (with some exceptions, especially its leading-edge work on Accelerators), and working mainly in the field of social and public services.

The TSB’s main role, with funds several times those of Nesta (on which it has calculated that there is a handsome return), aims to seed technological innovation in areas of potential economic advantage to the UK, which it does through competitions, grants and the funding of organisations (the Research Councils, KTPs, the KTNs and the Catapults) on specific technologies and initiatives.

Both organisations are essentially about ‘push’ rather than ‘pull’, about identifying the future rather than about encouraging the various elements of the economy to adopt leading-edge practice. Neither seeks to raise the level of innovation practice among individuals and organisations up and down the country.

The Association of Managers of Innovation in the US is at the opposite end of that spectrum. Its objective is to provide a forum in which practitioners can learn from each other’s experience. Its members are leaders of innovation in organisations, whom it supports with e-distributed information and communications, educational programmes, member interactions and personal support; and it brings its members together in twice yearly meetings held throughout the US. As it moves into its fourth decade, Stan Gryskiewicz who founded it when he was at The Centre for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, has been reflecting on its processes.

Two vital principles of the AMI community are:

1. Dialogue of differences – the valuing of and seeking of cross generational, cross disciplinary, and cross industry dialogue; and the unique perspectives this dialogue engenders, and

2. Reciprocity – as a way to facilitate learning, members share with each other their experiences of managing innovation – both their current problems and opportunities and their successes and failures.

A global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, called Ashoka provides a useful model for the AMI learning community’s meeting process: it seeks to build communities of innovators who work collectively to transform society – by bringing people together who are not typically gathered; by breaking down the walls between them; and by engaging ‘applied empathy’ when contemplating change – meaning that the agent of change must comprehend and be guided by how their action will impact everyone around them and into the future.

In the UK, while Nesta and the TSB work to identify and pioneer leading-edge practice, leaders of innovation often function in desperate isolation, when engaging with others – especially with those who are in a similar situation but different context – might be both valuable and stimulating. Turning ideas into innovation and research into practice might benefit from the principles and aspirations of AMI in the US.

 

(1)  http://www.aminnovation.org

 

We are holding a Seminar in the Autumn for leaders of innovation – to provide opportunities for them to exchange experience (under Chatham House Rules) and to learn from each other’s strategies and tactics, and successes and failures – typically about initiatives, budgets and support.

For more information, contact me at john.whatmore@btinternet.com

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Making use of existing IP to start new businesses

Aside

The Future Business Pre-Incubator (‘FBPI’is looking to find ways of leveraging the UK ’s (and Europe’s) technologies into new businesses, and so contribute to economic growth. With YCombinator and Techstars in the US focusing on internet businesses, FBPI is looking to see how to combine UK (and European) entrepreneurialism and support with IP that has been generated by some of the world’s leading scientific academic communities.

          Last Autumn, FBPI held a week-end at Oxford ’s Said Business School whose objective was to see if groups of business people, engineers and scientists could come up with ways of commercialising some of the publicly funded IP that was presented. Out of eleven ideas, one group registered a new company the following day, which quickly found ongoing funding (and is likely to take space in the new European Space Agency (‘ESA’) Incubator at Harwell); one more is in negotiations to license technology and has applied for the ESA Incubator, and two more are awaiting feedback on the technology before continuing their application.

The recent rapid growth of start-ups in the US, especially in internet businesses, has not been matched by anything remotely comparable in the UK . FBPI asks how we can create similar heightened levels of activity in other regions and industries; for example, how to exploit the differential capability that Europe has, by focusing on science and technology and engineering based businesses.

FBPI notes that the traditional software/mobile incubator follows a US model in a segment where Europe does not have a competitive advantage. What this network does is focus on existing patented technologies, to which entrepreneurial talent, expert mentors and seed-funding can be applied. All of these, FBPI notes, are available locally. The Thames Valley area is one of Europe’s largest hi-tech clusters, with a number of outstanding scientific facilities at Harwell alone, and is close to the regional HQs of three large mobile Telcos; at Oxford it has two universities and two Business schools; it has one of the world’s largest science parks and two other significant ones, the European Space Agency incubator and the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Innovations Technology Access Centre.

FBPI sees its process as an open market that connects ‘knowledge pools’. Supporting the development process from its beginning and up the escalator of growth, it will aim to seek entrepreneurs among local institutions and communities; it will seek access especially to ESA’s, CERN’s and other IP portfolios; it will run start-up week-ends designed to identify commercialisable IP and match it with appropriate entrepreneurs; it will enable prospective new businesses to have suitable accommodation in incubators; it will ensure that cohorts of mentors from academic and commercial institutions are available; and it will seek to ensure that development capital is readily available. In addition it will seek to collaborate with or franchise an Accelerator brand, that will help to validate its regime.

Having tested the efficacy of the start-up week-end to produce IP that might have commercial potential, FBPI is now seeking to replicate these, by catalysing 20 such week-ends over the course of the ensuing two years, each one in a different area; for which it has pitched for £300k funding from the Technology Strategy Board and other funders.

John Whatmore                                                                       March 2013

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity

London