The UK’s exit from the EU has the potential to transform the entire context of innovation policy, changing the nature of existing relationships and opening up new opportunities. In this shifting landscape, how can Wales build the networks necessary for innovation to thrive? Dr Adrian Healy offers some thoughts
Innovation has fundamentally shaped the world that we see, and experience, today. Its results are all around us; from the smartphone in your pocket, through the mobile banking services it allows, from the vehicles that transport goods and people, to institutions such as the NHS. Whether it is new ideas and ways of doing things or new and improved goods and services, innovation forms the foundation of our economy and society.
Recognising this, public policy has increasingly emphasised the importance of stimulating innovation. We have found news ways to support the generation of novel ideas, to translate these into better products, processes and services and sought to harness the economic growth that successful innovation should unleash. As we have done so, we have gradually come to understand the innovation process better, allowing public policy itself to innovate and develop.
In Wales, we have gradually come to appreciate the importance of promoting an innovation-led economy. This is reaping rewards. Overall, Welsh firms now tend to reflect the UK average in terms of their level of innovation activity, although they tend to do so with fewer qualified employees and lower levels of internal R&D. Welsh companies also tend to be open to cooperating with others in the development of new ideas, working with a range of partners such as universities, suppliers, and customers. Interestingly, data from the UK Innovation Survey published earlier this year suggests that Welsh firms are consistently more likely to be working with international partners, than their UK competitors.
This international outlook raises important questions for the future. One of the potential pitfalls of Brexit is the risk that routes to collaboration with prospective partners in the EU may be cut off. If Welsh firms and Universities lose access to those programmes supporting innovation partnerships, which we are now beginning to realise the potential of, then we need to find alternative means of bringing new knowledge into Wales.
Knowledge travels best through personal contacts, so we must ensure that we continue to build networks between our firms and universities with their counterparts in the EU, as well as looking to other parts of the world. We must guard against the risk of Welsh firms and universities being overlooked and shut out of networks, simply because of a changing political and financial climate.
Equally, we must also take this opportunity to reflect on what ambitions underpin our support for innovation. Despite the success stories that we can see from initiatives supporting innovation, there remains a sense that the benefits of this are failing to reach all in Wales. Economic growth remains slow and is unevenly distributed. Whilst it is tempting to seek to boost growth through initiatives that favour science and technological innovation, it is often more commonplace activities that have the biggest impact on local employment opportunities as a whole. Many of Wales’ fastest growing firms, as measured by the Fast Growth 50 for example, have grown through adopting new business practices and new business models or through continuously improving existing technologies, combining these in novel ways and developing new applications – a form of innovation often described as doing, using and interacting. Supporting collaboration and interaction can strengthen the ecosystem for innovation by encouraging firms to adopt new practices and by bolstering key facilities and expertise that can be used by researchers and businesses alike.
Much of this is already happening, with signs of success emerging. This progress can be driven forward by the establishment of a national innovation body to champion the development of emerging technologies and encourage the transformation of our existing industries. In doing so, it is time to also give more thought to the societal benefits that can be realised through promoting innovation, a move that might sit well with the ambitions set out in the Future Generations Act.
Innovation has always been as much a social as a technological process. Now we need to make sure it is a societal process too.
3 thoughts on “Building Welsh innovation networks that work for all”
The image asigned to this article, an ‘unlit’ light bulb (encased in bubbles of bs), perfectly illustrates the lack of understanding of the ‘well springs’ of innovation. The article makes good sense in an academic sort of way (oh, he is an academic!) giving a positive gloss to apparent ‘innovation’ in Wales but if I am sure of anything, judging by past history, it is that a ‘National Innovation Body’ (the author’s selling point) will not innovate anything nor will it ‘champion’ innovation. It will be yet another interfering grant withholding entity.
Nevertheless, I agree with the author’s thesis that ‘…a form of innovation often described as doing, using and interacting’ is one of the main drivers of ‘innovation’. ie. innovation is incremental to what you are working on and trying to get to work/function. Therefore, some of the best ‘incubators of ‘innovation’ have been and probably still are, are the ‘UK Research Councils’ (MRC, ARC etc) filled with working scientists actually ‘doing things’. Even though they used to be, and probably still are, filled with pipe smoking, tea swilling, argumentative, ‘long haired’ or bald bespectacled boffins with their fleets of younger acolytes this has been ‘the source’ of innovation. Although these ‘types’ have largely been overshadowed in the public imagination by TV crumpet like Brian Cox they still exist at the coal face of ‘doing, using and interacting’.
Nor do I agree that entrepreneurs are the innovators. They may well be the ‘exploiters of innovation’ but I can’t think of anything they have actually invented or done anything new. Serious innovation cannot be done from back bedrooms, virtual offices or ahem..shared office hubs and workspaces. It has to be done in factories, laboratories, institutions which can fund the time, equipment and facilities.
So what I would like to see is more ‘Research Institutes’ attached to Cardiff, Swansea, Aberystwyth campuses filled with working scientists (not students) and improve their industrial links to facilitate techology transfer.
I may be wrong but I am developing the suspicion that use of the word innovation is an obstacle to clear thought and a great stimulus to woolly thinking. Innovation is such a broad notion that it means completely different things in different contexts. When people use it in a context-free manner, that is without getting down to brass tacks, it is impossible to know what exactly they are talking about. Methods to get hairdressers to improve their businesses and means to get high-tech research employed in firms in pharmaceuticals or software engineering have very little in common. Lumping it all together as innovation more or less guarantees you are going to talk in windy generalities. Wales already produces quite enough bovine ordure so a national innovation body is the very last thing we need. Keep it specific please.
Editor’s Note: The choice of image was nothing to do with the author of the piece. Nothing more than the availability of free images for hard-pressed IWA staff. No more should be read into it.
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