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.
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